straw in the berries

strawberry heart

Yesterday, I bought a bale of straw at the feed store on Johnson Creek Boulevard on the way to work. When I went up to the counter and said, "I was told you have straw," I was imagining a bale about half the size it turned out to be. I paid for it sight unseen, and then after the older man said he'd bring it out to the car, I went outside to open the trunk.

Before I even noticed he'd come up behind me, the man had swung the bale into the trunk as I watched pieces of straw scatter over the carpet. Then he slammed the hatch down while I was still mesmerized by the mess, making my careful placement of paper bags over the floor of the trunk laughable. I managed a "Thank you," and then he was gone. Fortunately, the car was unlocked because my keys somehow had ended up under the straw bale. Driving the rest of the way to work, my car began to smell like a mowed hayfield. With any luck, I didn't just give my car fleas. (And I still have a trunk of loose straw to vacuum up.)

straw bale in car trunk

A neighbor happened to be borrowing the lawn mower from our garage right when I was pulling out the bale in the driveway. He asked if I were having a hoedown.

"No, it's straw for the strawberries."
"Really? Huh. Why?"
"Oh, there are slugs. . . ."
"Does straw help with that?"
"I don't know. Maybe."

He looked at me as if I were crazy but offered to help carry the bale to the backyard before proceeding with his grass mowing. Meanwhile, his wife came out into the yard. She's a gardener. She, too, indicated I was misguided, stating more bluntly: "Professional growers don't do this. They just keep their beds very clean. Make sure this straw comes out before the rains come in fall, or it'll kill them." She also informed me there are urban-homesteading stores around town selling smaller bales (though probably for the same price as this huge one).

straw-mulched strawberry bed

Now, mind you, I hadn't actually Googled beforehand the rationale for mulching strawberry beds with straw. I normally research such actions before taking them. But I hadn't this time, and I wasn't sure why. So as I was pulling straw off the giant bale and stuffing it between the crowded plants, I kept wondering if I were crazy, wasting an hour of my life on a useless act, maybe even harming my already productive strawberries by encasing them in dead stalks. You see, I was operating linguistically, semantically. If the name for this early-summer berry contains the word 'straw,' then the two morphemes must be conjoined for good reason, no? Language is purposeful. Farmers, who work from dawn to dusk, wouldn't just make words up because they sound nice.

strawberries, dangling

So when an eighth of my bale was tucked among the berry plants, and after I'd hacked back the oregano in another bed, filling three paper bags (the ones the straw was sitting on in the car) with herbs in need of tying up and drying, and after trying to rake up the stray straw off the lawn with my fingers and failing, lacking a proper rake, and after dragging the now-loose bale into the old detached garage, I finally got around to looking up whether in fact there's any solid basis for mulching strawberries with straw. And there is. Straw helps keep dirt and fungus off the berries and helps the soil retain moisture. However, the increased moisture might make the slug problem worse, though I might not have to worry about watering as often later in the summer when the rain halts. Also, the folk 'straw' etymology is false. Words, alas, can't be trusted.

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