This morning I had my first strawberry. I picked it freshly washed by the rain and savored its amazing flavor. Eat a fresh picked strawberry and you’ll never be happy with the chemically laden, yellow sided ones you find stacked in your grocery store. Around here strawberry season has officially begun. Look for local strawberries wherever you shop, but if you really want to experience strawberries, find a pick-your-own patch. Nothing like setting your kid down in the strawberry patch and letting them have at it, while you pick bucketfuls yourself. Sure, they might ingest a little dirt and maybe a few bugs, but I’ve never had one get sick and all three have stuffed their bellies every summer since they were born. Even strawberries grown on a non-organic farm are going to be better for you than the ones you buy at the grocery store. Most likely the rain has washed off any of the fruit sprays that were applied and since they haven’t been washed, preserved, and packaged for the market, they are still relatively “organic”. Strawberries don’t keep well. You probably already know this from finding the moldy ones in your fruit drawer. Imagine what has been done to them to enable them to remain ‘strawberry like’ since a few weeks ago when they were picked in California. No, opt for local and pick-your-own if possible if you really love strawberries.
We are blessed with an abundance of strawberry farms around here and an article in this morning’s paper had plenty to choose from. They also listed some tips for picking your own from the site www.pickyourown.org. It’s a great site where you can find pick-your-own farms near you. It also has directions for canning and freezing the produce you pick. Here’s what they said about strawberries:
Tips on How to Pick Strawberries
1. Grasp the stem just above the berry between the forefinger and the thumbnail and pull with a slight twisting motion.
2. With the stem broken about one-half inch from the berry, allow it to roll into the palm of your hand.
3. Repeat these operations using both hands until each holds 3 or 4 berries.
4. Carefully place - don't throw - the fruit into your containers. Repeat the picking process with both hands.
5. Don't overfill your containers or try to pack the berries down.
General Picking Tips
Whether you pick strawberries from your garden or at a Pick-Your-Own farm, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
1. Be careful that your feet and knees do not damage plants or fruit in or along the edge of the row.
2. Pick only the berries that are fully red. Part the leaves with your hands to look for hidden berries ready for harvest.
3. To help the farmers, also remove from the plants berries showing rot, sunburn, insect injury or other defects and place them between the rows behind you. If they are left in the plants, the rot will quickly spread to other berries.
4. Berries to be used immediately may be picked any time, but if you plan to hold the fruit for a few days, try to pick in the early morning or on cool, cloudy days. Berries picked during the heat of the day become soft, are easily bruised and will not keep well.
5. Avoid placing the picked berries in the sunshine any longer than necessary. It is better to put them in the shade of a tree or shed than in the car trunk or on the car seat. Cool them as soon as possible after picking. Strawberries may be kept fresh in the refrigerator for two or three, depending upon the initial quality of the berry. After a few days in storage, however, the fruit loses its bright color and fresh flavor and tends to shrivel.
And then what do you do with the strawberries once you get your haul home? Well, if you can’t eat them all fresh, you can freeze them. There are two ways I like to freeze them, but they both start off the same way.
First, wash the strawberries and hull them. Hulling means popping off the green top and the “hull” (the white tasteless center stalk that connects the green top to the berry). You can just cut off the tops, as lots of people do. This sometimes leaves part of the hull in the strawberry but, like I said, it’s tasteless and very small. You can also use a strawberry huller which is a small tool with a round, jagged edge end that pulls the hull out of a strawberry. I prefer to use a strawberry huller because you waste less strawberry and I love strawberries too much to waste any.
After you’ve washed and hulled them if you want to freeze them as whole berries you need to remove as much water as possible. I have a salad spinner that has a berry basket in it and it works great as long as it isn’t overloaded. I think a standard salad spinner might also do the trick. Another option is to just leave your berries in a colander to strain for 10 minutes.
Once they are as dry as possible, spread them out on a cookie sheet or tray and put them in the freezer overnight. In the morning you can fill freezer bags with them, being sure to remove as much air as possible.
The other way to freeze strawberries is to prepare them as a topping for ice cream or a starter for strawberry pie or jam. To do this, cut them in to quarters, toss them with a little sugar and freeze them. When they are thawed out later they are delicious over ice cream or turned in to a strawberry pie or strawberry jam.
Whatever you decide to do with your berries, pick your own strawberries make a delicious childhood memory.
And what about growing your own? I’m sure you’ve seen the newspaper glossy ad that shows berries spilling out of a tall urn-like planter full of holes. Great concept, but not very realistic. You won’t get many berries from one pot, but it’s a nice thought and probably looks nice on your porch. If you want to really grow your own strawberries, it’s very simple. But I will caution you that weeds can easily take over a strawberry patch and get out of hand. I lost the battle to the weeds in my first strawberry patch years ago and had to till the whole thing under.
Pick a site that gets full sun. Strawberries love sun. I would advise that you make a raised bed if possible. Strawberries spread much like mint does, by sending out runners. A raised bed keeps them contained and hopefully gives you a head start on the weeds.
Strawberry plants are relatively inexpensive. I would start with about 25 plants, knowing that they will multiply on their own. Plant them in early spring after any danger of a hard frost. I think you can also plant them in the fall, but you’ll want to look it up for your area. Now comes the hard part. The first year you will get lots of beautiful little white strawberry flowers and you will think yes! Those flowers will become my strawberries! Sorry to be the one to tell you, but if you want a good strong perennial crop of strawberries for years to come, you will have to sacrifice this year’s crop by pinching off all those flowers. Yes, you have to. I promise it will be worth it. Next year you will have twice as many flowers and twice as many strawberries and you’ll forget about this year’s pain.
It is highly recommended that you mulch your strawberries with straw to help keep down the weeds (thistle especially like to grow with strawberries) and to keep your strawberries off the ground where they can easily rot before ripening. We haven’t managed to mulch our strawberries yet. There just seems to be too many other things on our priority list that time of year. Someday I hope to though. The wet ground and the mice get too many of my berries.
Strawberries are very rewarding to grow. If you’ve got the space and the sun – go for it. Your kids will be thrilled. I tried to keep our strawberries a secret from my kids so that I could have a few myself, but they’ve all discovered them. Luckily I get up before they do!