Pick Your Own: A Brief Guide to the Berry Patch

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.

 

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!
  5. 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.
  6. 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]
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Shaz
Shaz
13 years ago

Thanks for the tip! I’m particularly interested in picking raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries because they are so expensive in the stores. I’ve never done anything like this before, so I have no idea how pricing works. I live in Illinois, and I know each farm is different. How much do folks typically pay to pick their own fruits, etc.?

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

Shaz, cost varies widely be farm, fruit, and location. In the Portland area, I figure about $1.00/pound for most fruit. Some places (and fruit) cost less — some cost more. For example, at the farm we like, blueberries cost $1.20/pound and other berries cost $1.00/pound. How much this saves over store prices will again depend on your location and the fruit. It cracks us up that the stores around here charge up to $4.00/pound for blackberries, a fruit that grows like a weed in the Willamette Valley. These can be had for free from nearly any backyard or any country… Read more »

Lynnae
Lynnae
12 years ago

Thanks for the link on finding a u-pick farm! I used to pick strawberries, rasberries, and blueberries every summer. We moved a few years ago, and I haven’t picked since, because I didn’t know where the farms were. Now I do!

The Happy Rock
The Happy Rock
12 years ago

My wife, son, and I picked strawberries and cherries at the local family farm. They provide the container, hay ride, and directions. It was quite fun, and they were the best strawberries I ever had. The cherries were not so good.

Johnson’s Farm in Southern New Jersey. Great place for those who are nearby, and fruit to pick from May through October. They also have something going on almost every weekend.

http://www.johnsonsfarm.com/pages/familyactivities.html

JerichoHill
JerichoHill
12 years ago

A Blackberry Bush (or 4) makes a very good natural fence. We planted ours 2 and a half years ago and now its really growing! It’s a nice way to have a fence without having one, so to speak.

plonkee
plonkee
12 years ago

What is making me most envious is that you’ve been doing this for 20 years. I should probably take comfort in the fact that you are older than me.

The berries in the picture also look delicious. Its a shame I live in the city and don’t have a car to get to any farms. I think they do have a farmer’s market nearby though, so I may have to get some at a more inflated price.

Wesley
Wesley
12 years ago

Yeah, I’ve taken your tips on growing your own garden and now I have blueberries, blackberries, apple trees, peaches, pears, strawberries, tomatos, etc.

The problem is that every freakin creature, bug and fungus on the green earth loves to eat my plants. Any suggestions on some southeastern weather-proof fungus/bug repellent? It seems like I’ve got a different fungus for each plant, and the insects like them all 🙁

shortcutter
shortcutter
12 years ago

what about tips for planting your own berries? from seed? small pots?

Barbara
Barbara
12 years ago

Nice posting. One of the best days I ever had was spent picking cherries with my sister at a local farm market. We sat on little ladders, talked and picked fabulous bing cherries. We picked until our buckets were full and being college students, we were quite embarassed that we didn’t have enough money to pay for all we had picked. The farmer’s didn’t mind. Then we went home and sat on the porch and spit cherry pits as far as we could. Two trees sprouted. Thanks for the link to Johnson’s Farm, Happy Rock. I’m not too far from… Read more »

Andrew C
Andrew C
12 years ago

We found another hidden gem when I was a child. My family would go up to the local mountains/ski hills in Vancouver BC, and pick wild blueberries off of the blueberry bushes that grew right alongside the ski runs. The blueberries were rich in flavour (and colour) and the best part was that it was FREE! We were usually the only ones doing it, and we picked bucket loads. The only challenge was that the blueberries were smaller, so you had to pick alot more to fill a bucket.

Joshua Jackson
Joshua Jackson
12 years ago

Shortcutter:

Strawberries you can do quite easily in fairly small containers..however I’d recommend doing 4 or 5 bushs at least to get enough strawberries to be a small side dish for one person. As is nature, you have at any given time probably 1-2 strawberries on a bush in various states of ripening. So if you’re going to do it, don’t think one bush will cut it, You’ll get a strawberry or two at most at a time (good for a snack though)

Gwyn
Gwyn
12 years ago

The good thing about strawberries is that they propagate themselves easily. So this year you have 4 or 5 plants, next year you could have 15 or 20.

Randy Peterman
Randy Peterman
12 years ago

If you’re in the Denver area I recommend the Berry Patch Farms ‘pick-your-own’ up in Brighton. I found the people that work ther very, very friendly.

Rose
Rose
12 years ago

Reminds me of when I had strawberries growing in my own garden. But the guy that painted the garage trampled all over them so now I have to re-plant them! Used to pick them in the morning, add sugar to them and have them for dessert for lunch. I think part of the fun of gardening is the gardening itself. Of course you have to do a lot of weeding but you get to do a lot of fun stuff too like harvesting your crops and watching them grow. I would recommend having a garden to everyone – no matter… Read more »

bobby
bobby
12 years ago

you don’t plant snozberries? there the best berry

KMull
KMull
12 years ago

Thanks for the info with the state by state guide… solid! Sounds like a fun weekend trip.

MoneyChangesThings
MoneyChangesThings
12 years ago

Here’s a parenting tip. Check out the classic Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey (I think it was a Newberry winner) and read it BEFORE you go berry picking. It wouldn’t hurt to track down a tin pail instead of a plastic one, because part of the story is the sound of each berry going “PING!” into the pail. Then you can actually take your kids to pick berries themselves. I seem to recall a bear – you could skip that experience. But kids love to read about and then experience the same event. It frames the experience. (Another book… Read more »

susan
susan
12 years ago

Bummer. A late frost killed all the blueberries here.

Tanya
Tanya
12 years ago

Any tips on how to start a berry patch? I’ll have space at a community garden next year, and I long for berries, but I’m intimidated.

Charles
Charles
12 years ago

It’s about blackberries rather than strawberries, but I thought you might appreciate Seamus Heaney’s take on berry picking (below). And add another vote for Blueberries for Sal. Cheers! Blackberry-picking Late August, given heavy rain and sun For a full week, the blackberries would ripen. At first, just one, a glossy purple clot Among others, red, green, hard as a knot. You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger Sent us out with milk… Read more »

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