Take Your Pick of Summer's First Berries

Head to the strawberry fields and hand pick a sensory experience with one of the season's best-tasting fruits.

We just took a glorious juicy bite out of a berry ripe late spring.

Wearing sweatshirts, old tennis shoes and carrying cash, my daughter and I headed out for our inaugural picking adventure of the season this past weekend.

This may seem obvious to many of you, but never go picking with only a debit card. You’re likely to come home empty handed since there are very few ATMs in the country. As someone who relies on plastic for nearly every purchase, I found myself in a U-Pick line sans cash and left sans apples last year. Can anyone say City Mouse? It was a good lesson, but no fun.

Determined to cultivate my inner Country Mouse and raise myself a well-rounded, rural-leaning mouse, we ignored the cool temps and overcast skies Sunday and embarked on the 20-mile trek to Red Wagon Farm in Columbia Station. We had to leave Lakewood — and really Cuyahoga County — in order to pick lots of Ohio strawberries – the sweetest, most melt-in-your mouth berries I’ve ever tasted.

We had blueberries, raspberries and apples under our belt from 2010 – and I mean that literally in the case of picking blueberries where we belted buckets to our midriffs to free our hands for double-duty harvesting. We knew strawberries were going to mean bending but we weren’t worried. I was properly loosened up from a morning vinyasa flow at Puma Yoga and Emma, well, she’s 12, limber and height-wise, already closer to the ground.

Threatening weather aside, I was thrilled to pick as many of these fiber-rich, Vitamin-C packed berries as I could carry. Also rich in vitamin A and calcium, one cup of strawberries is only 55 calories.

Whatever we couldn’t eat right away, I planned to freeze to use throughout the year in smoothies, baking and sauces. I did this with blueberries and raspberries and loved being able to have a smoothie with hand-picked, locally grown berries in the dead of winter. It tasted like summer in a cup. Plus, fruits retain more nutritional value and flavor by freezing than by any other method of preservation.

Store-bought, shipping strawberries – picked and packed in Florida or California pale in flavor against our Buckeye beauties. And I have to say, there is nothing like picking something off the vine or bush – at the peak of ripeness – and putting it in your mouth. Divine.

The best part about picking? You can eat as many as you want in the field. Really. To us city folk this seems worse than bad manners; it’s borderline stealing…like when you are standing in front of the bulk candy and you want to taste one gummy worm.

In the country, this type of taste-testing, quality control is encouraged. You’ve got to know what you’re buying. And we were in the market to buy three four-quart buckets. Each four-quart bucket costs $7.95 to pick. You can buy the bucket too for about $.80 or transfer your berries to another container to tote home.

“Strawberries taste the absolute best when eaten freshly picked off the vine as you kneel in the middle of our strawberry patch on a bright, sunny morning,” reads Red Wagon’s website. See! I told you it was OK to eat while U-Pick.

In one slightly muddy, slightly sprinkling hour, Emma and I tenderly picked all 12 quarts along our single row and within earshot of generations of pickers – toddlers to elderly – all intent on finding the best berries to fill their buckets.

The best time to pick strawberries is early in the morning when the fruit is still cool. We didn’t have to worry about that since it was only 62 degrees when we started picking at 2 p.m. We were told, after we asked – be sure to ask for tips if you’re picking a fruit or veggies for the first time or refer to pickyourown.org for advice – that we should use our thumb to gently pluck the berry off the stem leaving the green on the berry. We also knew to look for bright red, well-shaped fruit without hard green or white spots.

I have to say, I loved every second of it. Maybe I was a pioneer woman in a former life? I felt rooted in the soft ground and I didn’t want to leave.

Emma, not one to get too excited about anything she thinks I care a lot picked her own four-quart bucket and took on the job of photographer. “It’s addicting,” she said bobbing along other rows to gather any overlooked red, unblemished berries as we made our way out of the field that is has more than 10 acres of strawberries growing happily thanks to our hot June.

Red Wagon’s U-Pick fields opened Friday, about 10 days late, and are expected to yield berries until the July 4 holiday. Plenty of time to visit once or twice and sample the farm’s five varieties of strawberries: Darselect, Clancy, Eros, Valley Sunset and Ovation – all excellent for eating, jam and pies, desserts and salads. 

You don’t have to leave Lakewood to enjoy locally grown already picked strawberries as they are sure to make an appearance at both of the farmer’s markets in the city – 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays behind Drug Mart plaza and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays in the Marc’s plaza.

But if you’re looking for a local adventure for the family, the kids or just yourself, head to Red Wagon or one of several other farms in Lorain County which offer U-Pick strawberries such as Fitch’s Farm Market in Avon or Aufdenkampe Family Farm in Vermilion. Be sure to call before heading out and check pickyourown.org for other picking opportunities throughout the growing season.

Til next time, enjoy the flavors of spring and summer!

Chrissy Kadleck June 15, 2011 at 04:01 AM
Great, Mara! Aren't the berries delish? Enjoy!
Chrissy Kadleck June 15, 2011 at 04:02 AM
We missed you, too. Can't wait to pick blueberries again ...not too much longer :)
Chrissy Kadleck June 15, 2011 at 04:05 AM
Julie, that is HILARIOUS! I, too, had to keep pulling up my low-rise jeans but I didn't have to worry about over-exposure that day :) So glad you had a fun day at Red Wagon with the kids. We just ate the last of our unfrozen berries tonight on angel food cake. YUM!!!
Kelly Flamos June 15, 2011 at 05:08 PM
thank you for sharing your strawberry adventure, chrissy. we went this morning and it was perfect. i love the red wagons they provide and the strawberries are so sweet!
Chrissy Kadleck June 15, 2011 at 07:46 PM
very happy to hear that you & Miss Ruby enjoyed your outing :) yes, the red wagons are super cute and helpful with little ones in tow, I'm sure. enjoy the berries!


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