Picking berries is one of my favorite parts of summer. Kris and I grow much of our own fruit, and we’re snacking from June to September. Our garden includes strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, gooseberries, marionberries, boysenberries, lingonberries, elderberries, currants, apples, prunes, pears, and a whole slew of vegetables. It’s a summertime cornucopia!

Not everyone has the time, space, and energy to grow their own food. Even if you don’t have a garden, it’s easy and fun to pick fresh produce from local growers. It can save you money, too. PickYourOwn.org is a site devoted to helping people find U-pick fruit and vegetable farms. The site features:

Readers in the Portland area should check out the Tri-County Farm Fresh Produce Guide. Most major metropolitan areas probably offer a similar resource.

Kris and I have been picking fruit together for almost twenty years. In the summer of 1989, when we were first dating, we made a couple trips to pick strawberries and peaches. We still make trips to berry farms from time-to-time, but mostly we harvest the fruit we raise ourselves. Here are some berry-picking tips we’ve gleaned over the years.

  1. Decide when to pick. I like to pick in the morning when the air is cool. For jams (or berries to be dried), Kris likes to pick in the afternoon because the sun intensifies their flavor.
  2. Dress appropriately. Wear work shoes because you will step on berries and stain them. A lot of berries have thorns, so you might want to wear long sleeves. Some people like to wear fingerless gloves. For those of you who are apiphobic like me, there might be bees.
  3. If possible, choose a place that doesn’t spray their berries. This is safer, and means you can get away with less washing. Less washing means less work for you, and means fewer broken berries.
  4. Strike up a conversation with the farmer who owns the land. It’s a great way to learn about other berry farms in the area. He might also give you advice on the best spot in the berry patch.
  5. Take a friend (or a spouse) so that you have somebody to chat with while you work. If you’re serious about picking, you might want to leave young children at home. If you’re doing it just for fun, bring them along. They’ll love it!
  6. Bring plenty of containers. It’s better to have too many containers than not enough. Our favorite berry-picking container is a plastic milk jug with the top corner cut off. We string a length of soft nylon cord through the handle so that we can hang the jugs from our necks. This keeps both hands free for picking.
  7. Be sure to look under leaves. Our raspberries are sneaky little devils, often trying to hide behind leaves and vines. Blueberries and strawberries do this, too. Be thorough.
  8. Work methodically. Start at one side of the plant and work around, picking all of the ripe fruit. With blueberries, for example, I start at the base of each branch and work out-and-back, recursively. (You geeks know what I’m talking about.) Haphazard picking takes longer!
  9. When you’ve filled a bucket or two, pour the berries into a flat container of some sort, otherwise the fruit at the bottom will get squished.
  10. After you’ve finished, use the rest of the day (or, at the very latest, the following day) to process your berries, to do whatever it is you’re going to do with them: dry them, freeze them, turn them into jam; bake scones or muffins, take them to friends.

GRS-reader Serena wrote recently to rave about her trip to the berry patch.

Thanks for the post on strawberries — it inspired a family outing today to a local farm and it was a blast. Picking berries is nice for those of us who live in apartments/condos — we don’t have a garden, or even a yard, so taking the time to go out to a real farm and get to play in the dirt and eat fruit right off the plants is amazing and important. I even made strawberry freezer jam (with my son’s help) and it was great!

Picking berries can be a zen-like experience. The past few weeks have been stressful for me, but last night as I was harvesting our blueberries, I was able to lose myself in the quiet, methodical repetitiveness of it all. It was relaxing. (The peace was only disturbed by a rowdy murder of crows that gathered for a debate in the branches of a nearby locust.) Best of all, when I was finished I had six cups of blueberries for fresh eating!

Make no mistake: picking berries is work — but it’s fun work. There’s always the farmer’s market if you like the idea of farm fresh local produce, but you don’t have the time or inclination to pick it yourself. It’s usually not a bargain, but it’s certainly better quality than the fruit than you’ll find in most stores. Happy snacking!

[Photos courtesy of GRS-readers Jen and Serena]