It’s that time of year again…finally. Summer’s sweet offerings of fresh fruits are coming into season.
This time of year always seems to separate the city folks from the country folks. No matter where you hail from, when fresh produce is ripe, we are all anxious to taste it, especially after the long winters here in the north. But, growing up here in southwest Michigan where my family not only farmed, had a huge family garden and also a truck patch where we sold fresh produce along the road side, we learned that there is fresh and then there is FRESH.
Sure, it always tingles my taste buds when the first stalks of asparagus, rhubarb and strawberries appear on supermarket shelves. Even though they look appetizing, I resist the urge to put them in my cart because I know that, being shipped in from other parts of the country, they just won’t have the same flavor as fresh from your own garden.
I was taught this lesson at an early age. There was never much thought into meal planning when summer months arrived. We ate what was ripe at the time. When it was strawberry season, we ate strawberries over pancakes and waffles for breakfast, as a dish of side sauce for lunch and strawberry shortcake for supper.
So it was with raspberries, peaches, cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet corn and all other seasonal produce. Eating off the land was just a way of life; we knew no other way. In so doing, my sister, brother and I learned the means to always get the freshest and best, after all, that is the name of the game.
Strawberries, above all other fruits, hold special memories for me. One of the first patches that we had on our farm, our parents told us that we three kids could keep all the proceeds if we did all the work. At that time, 10-speed bikes were the newest and best on the market and I had my eye on one at the local hardware. Mind you, back in the 1960’s paying $60 for a bike was an expensive expenditure, for a 12-year old kid. All three of us kids had our eye on something.
Selling the berries at thirty cents a quart, meant I had to sell roughly 200 quarts to get enough money for the bike. It also meant that we needed to sell at least 600 quarts since we were splitting the money three ways. The only way to do that was to make sure we had the biggest, best, most productive strawberry patch ever. We learned how to fertilize, how to pick and how to make sure the berries stayed off the ground and did not mold.
Well, we made our 600 quarts, I got my bike (still have it!) and my parents found a unique way to teach us how to raise a crop. By letting us kids keep the produce money, they knew we would work extra hard while still learning valuable lessons and they built a good clientele that would return year after year for fresh strawberries.
Even more so, we learned life lessons, not only with strawberries, but all other crops. I now go to a local grower, Harvey Farms of Tekonsha, MI, to pick every year. Strawberries take up too much space to have them in my garden. Not bragging, but I can usually pick two quarts to anyone else’s one. Most folks only reach for those in plain sight, at the edge of the row. Get in the middle of the row and there are plenty of juicy, plump berries that have been protected from the sun and that have been overlooked.
Because of the weather this year, black raspberries are ripe, right on the tails of strawberry picking. Usually we have a one or two-week break between the two. Four years ago, I started some black raspberry bushes in my garden. This is the first year that they are really producing. However, I really love picking the wild ones. You have to know where to look and, if not on your own land, have permission to pick.
They are fairly prolific at various spots down here in Indiana and they are usually fairly large sized, sweet and juicy. This year is no exception. Many folks will go for the blackberries as opposed to black raspberries because they are larger and you don’t have to deal with the thorns. They choose these because of the looks and ease of picking and forego the taste because of it. Blackberries just can’t rival black raspberries for flavor.
These little gems are persnickety little fruits though. They need plenty of rain to make them grow and then the sun to ripen. However, too hot and too much sun will make them shrivel up so there has to be the right balance. When I hit the patches, the bigger and better berries are usually in the shadier spots where they don’t get sun all day straight.
Wearing long sleeves helps protect against the thorns and bugs. Granddaddy long legged spiders like the berries too and mosquitoes and ticks dictate the need for bug repellent. This is especially true because, again, the best berries are down low and in the center of the patches.
Growing up on the farm, I just assumed that everyone knew these little tricks. There are learned little tricks when selecting all fruits and vegetables. I forget that folks from different walks of life don’t always have the same knowledge. A friend who had always lived in town once came out and was going to take some carrots home. We went to the garden and she saw the tops of the carrots and asked where the orange carrots were. She had no clue that they grew underground. By the same token, I would have no idea how to ride a city bus and actually get where I wanted to go.
Another thing us country folks learn is you get the bounty while it is here. Last year was a bumper year for black raspberries so we froze all we could. Last year apples and peaches were plentiful. This year in Michigan, all tree fruit blossoms froze in the spring. You freeze and can when the produce is plentiful because the next year it may not be.
We are all different but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn new and better ways. Now, more than ever, it is so important to know where your food comes from, how it is sourced and where to get the freshest. If nothing else, just the fresher taste will make it all the more worth it. Anyone can learn the “tricks of the trade.” After all, a 12-year old kid learned how to raise strawberries and has learned some of the best secrets of gardening…all because she wanted a bike.