By Carolyn Myers
The rain keeps coming down in bucketsful, the soil is soggy and the temperature keeps going from chilly to warm and back again. Pollen is so thick it drifts in clouds across an open meadow. But it’s April and really, here in Southwest Arkansas, it must be time to plant a garden. It’s not so much a feeling of the earth responding to the warmth of the sun’s rays as it is the calendar’s call. April = time to start planting a garden.
Joe Mack Crews, out Arden way, has already started planting, but warily. Crews, his son, Shannon, and daughter-in-law, Jennifer, have planted sweet corn, knowing that it will take a week to 10 days for the seedlings to appear, just enough time, they hope, that maybe Old Man Winter’s killing frosts will have ended for the season. They will just have to “wait and see,”- the mantra of all serious gardeners. Crews’ daughter, DeAnn Hays and her husband, Eddie, garden also on their farm that lies south of the Crews Farm.
While the Crews family has almost always had a large garden, there’s one crop they have not grown seriously – strawberries. Last fall, however, Joe Mack decided to try an experiment. He built a couple of raised strawberry beds.
“I have always wanted to do some strawberries in raised beds, experimenting with different mixes and organic material and trying to keep them as organic as I can,” he said.
A former agriculture teacher, Crews’ interest in gardening has kept him looking into whatever information he could find on the subject – books, magazines, journals, etc. Now he has found a treasure-trove of information online.
“You can find out how to do anything you want to do online – just Google it. Google “strawberries” and you’ll find more than you can read,” he said, matter-of-factly. “That’s what I do now; I download whatever I want to learn about.”
Another reason Crews decided to make raised beds has to do with aging.
“Nature is going to take its course,” he said with a grin. “As you get older, you need to get a little bit farther up off the ground instead of closer to it!”
The raised beds Crews built last fall were ready when the strawberry “plugs” he ordered online from different nurseries arrived in September. The plants already had some roots but he knew that by planting in the fall, with good watering and good soil, the small plants would spend the winter simply establishing a root system. When the cold temperatures set in, he covered them up with pine straw to provide warmth, protect them from the hard freezes and help with weed control. Then in the early spring, with the first few warm days, he pulled back the straw some and let the plants start growing. They began making leaves and have small berries on them now that will quickly grow larger and ripen as the weather allows. He explained that when the plants start to produce “runners,” they should be pinched off to allow the plant to put all its resources into making berries, rather than focusing on the runners.
The raised beds are works of agricultural art. They are made of wood and chicken wire, crafted into a V-shape. Each segment of the raised beds is hinged to lift up and stand out of the way of picking the berries. The wire keeps out birds that would decimate the crop. A covering Crews designed himself provides protection against frost and hail or excessive rain, anathema to ripe berries. The curtains on each side, made of chicken house curtain material, can be easily raised or lowered by one person.
Crews said that he and his family love gardening and with their help he will raise several food crops but not to the extent he has in the past. They will be planting mostly for their own consumption, except for watermelons. He plans to have a sizable crop of them to sell.
“I’ve really cut back,” he said. “I got rid of all my peach trees, uprooted them with my tractor.
Dealing with the coons and the squirrels and the bugs and the birds, it just wasn’t a profitable proposition. Besides that, I would have to spray about every 10 days with chemicals I just didn’t want to use or put into the environment. I want to grow things as organically as I can. But it’s harder than it used to be. I can’t do things I used to could do, can’t jump as high, I guess you’d say,” he added with a grin.
He still stays busy working in his shop on lawnmowers and other machinery. Also, last week, an antique tractor was delivered to him, one he intends to strip down and bring back to mint condition. He had wanted to acquire the tractor last fall and be able to work through the winter on it and have it ready to use this spring but that didn’t happen. Crews does have it stripped down to the bare skeleton and has some parts ordered. He plans to have it ready for use next year.
He explained, “The tractor, a 1948 Model G Allis Chalmers, is a small tractor used mostly for gardening but actually designed for tobacco farms. It was only made for about 7-8 years; they didn’t make too many of them. It’s a little one-row tractor designed for when they row-cropped tobacco and they’d plant it in checked squares. They’d plow it both ways, one row at a time. The cultivators are up front where you can see where you’re plowing. It’s a real handy little garden tractor.”
When asked if he had any advice to give to young gardeners, Crews said, “I don’t know much about gardening except that I’ve done it all my life and I like to watch things grow. But I do know this – Gardening is like life. You have to keep it weeded and tended because if you don’t, it will get out of control.”