Jul 12, 2012

Best U-Pick Strawberries

I'm a better man when I pick my own strawberries.

A favourite childhood memory is the annual trip way out to the country (Langley, when it was country) to the U-Pick strawberry fields. We'd put on our special old clothes, search around to find some old buckets, and starve ourselves to make room for the feast to come. Once there we'd have eating contests, and one notorious strawberry fight that included squashing juicy berries in each other's blond hair. We'd jump into the off-limits rows to get the larger commercial berries, and mercilessly pick just the biggest berries, leaving the smaller stuff and under/over-ripe berries on the bush or strewn on the ground. Only slightly embarrassed at their "boys-will-be-boys" boys, our parents would pay for the few buckets we managed to actually collect, and we'd be off home for an afternoon of jam-making and freezing.

This morning I wake up at 5:30 and wander a full 20 yards back to our three rows of strawberries. I'm wearing the same clothes I'd taken off last night (my closet has three sections: Farmer Ricky, Consultant Ricky, and - the most colourful - Ricky Ricky). I hose down one of the many buckets we use for almost everything and start in on row one. No hopping rows, I work methodically and slowly and peacefully along each plant, knowing I'll be out here until every plant was cared for.

I pick every berry that's ready, regardless of size (the small ones are often better anyways). Some look so tantalizingly close to perfect, but I observe a bit of lightness at the tip and leave them, knowing that when I come back in a day or two they'll be even better. The ones that the slugs have taken a chunk out of get picked too - when I go back in to sort, they'll go into the jam pot, while the "perfect" ones will be flash frozen on pizza trays. Not a berry is wasted.

I also care for the plants as I go. Rogue weeds are removed. I observe the health of the soil, and rearrange the drip-irrigation tubes. A few full strawberry plants are removed where they've become too dense to allow enough sun in. And an entire planting pot is filled with slugs (it's a bad year for those little friends) to dump into a big garbage can of water at the end. Slugs are much more agile than you'd expect - every minute I have to push back down the ones that have ambitiously crawled up to the lip of the planter looking for freedom.

As we'd drive away from our childhood U-Pick adventure, in our haste to gather a year's worth of berries in one morning we'd leave behind a path of destruction that some poor Langley farmer would have to remedy. Here on my own farm I've improved the health of my plants, making space for more berries to grow and ripen.

The slow ritual, repeated every few days throughout the season, gives room for contemplation. I remember the woman in Saanich who sold us the starter plants, and how patiently Sarah has been dividing the runners and growing our plot each year. I reminisce about the hundreds of hours we spent with Joe and Nathalie creating these garden beds, and the dreams we had of Someday having enough strawberries and blueberries and other perennials to get us through a full year. Three years later, I'm living that Someday every day.

As the sun rises above the treeline, I reverently drown the slugs and carry a full bucket of organic, zero-mile berries back to the kitchen. I realize that I've picked over 500 berries and eaten exactly two. There was no need to gorge on someone else's free berries. These are ours, and eating will happen all year - frozen, jam, syrup - and later today in a fresh pie or shortcake or homemade icecream for my Farmer Wife's birthday.

I was blessed to grow up knowing where strawberries come from, but never really appreciating or respecting where they come from. Now that I'm even more blessed to know who they come from and how they grow, I don't pillage anymore. I'm part of a symbiotic, give-and-take relationship with my strawberry plants, and the berries taste that much sweeter from the exchange.

1 comment:

  1. Go Disco Inferno! Glad to see that farmer ricky could still huck a disc if the situation called for it... :)