Celebrating the strawberry patch

By Rick Houser – 

As we entered into the month of May and edged nearer to Memorial Day weekend I stop and think back to that time of year that made us think about the same thing. Even though it was possibly our busiest time of the year being planting season for the big crops and setting time for tobacco, it was also a time we had to stop and check out the garden. In almost every garden I saw there was an area designated for one crop and one alone, and that was the strawberry patch.
The strawberry patch and its crop seemed to be the sign that spring was advancing and summer wasn’t too far around the corner. I see that now, but as a boy what I saw was that the first fresh fruit of a new year was arriving and man did I love them strawberries! To get thenm to the house they had to be picked. For strawberries to be picked a person had to bend over and unfortunately stay bent over for much longer than a person ever wanted to.
We had a berry patch approximately 250 feet long by 12 feet wide. If a patch was cared for, kept weeded, and side dressed with a little ammonium nitrate, most years one could look for a good yield. My Dad was vigilant in the care of his berry patch. He would keep the plants weed free and healthy and almost always was repaid with a bounty of fruit. Now I’m not sure if ours was considered a large patch or not, but it seemed endless when picking those strawberries and several people would come and pick some berries after we had gathered what Mom would decide was sufficient for our needs. (Or she was tired of working on just strawberries.) Maybe our neighbors had bigger or smaller patches but I’m pretty certain they had a patch.
When they begin to ripen, the picking of the strawberries comes in three different times of harvesting. The first picking involved more time spent on gathering the very first berries that would turn red. Just an FYI, but when a fruit becomes ripe it turns ripe for what seems forever. So the first fruits to ripen are few. This meant that we would maybe get a gallon or two, more than enough to have fresh berries over a piece of cake and maybe a scoop of ice cream, or maybe just a bowl of berries with sugar and cream. If there were enough, Mom would make a pie that would be devoured before it ever cooled off. The taste of the first fresh fruit of the season is one that is memorable for sure. A good strawberry will totally cover your taste buds!
The second picking came when the bulk of the crop was ripe and Mom would load us up with all of the containers we owned along with a pair of two gallon enamel buckets to put the berries in. I don’t recall ever picking in the heat of the day. We might pick in the morning but the berries would need taken care of quickly as the heavy dews could cause them to spoil. We would eat supper around four o’clock and we would pick the rest of the evening as that time of year was reaching its longest days. We could pick until nearly ten o’clock.
This was also when you would get your first real test of the year at bending and stretching your back and legs. It was safe to say we all would walk away with a lot of sore backs and other parts. We would bring the truck along to haul all the full containers back to the house.
Of course,we all found places to lie down and stretch our backs, all of us except Mom. She immediately began the next steps, what she called “working up the berries”. Next came the stemming and removing of any bad spots and then cooking up strawberry preserves. This would be done in large roasters and after cooling, placed in quart and pint mason jars and sealed with paraffin. The entire process was time-consuming and had a lot of steps to it but when you spread it on a slice of toast all the steps became so worthwhile. Most years Mom would make about 125 quarts of preserves and out of that picking she would prepare several quart freezer bags of just strawberries that could be used all year round. (And we did.)
The third picking was in volume, more like the first picking, but again there would be pies and maybe some more preserves made up. After this I know we were all becoming a little tired of eating berries with our meals morning, noon, and night. But as we were told “you gotta hit while the iron is hot!”
This was when Mom would open the patch to folks who might have lived in town and didn’t have patches to come and pick some berries. I know she had a close friend named Lucille who didn’t have berries, but had a very nice apple orchard and they would trade so Mom could pick apples and Lucille got strawberries on the same terms. All I know is it always seemed to work out for them and strawberries and apples never went to waste. These two ladies knew and practiced frugality all their lives.
By early June the berry crop had had made its run and we had shelves full of preserves and a big section of the freezer stocked with frozen berries. All of us had our fill and really for a couple of weeks or so, didn’t want to say the word “strawberry” much less eat one, but as we moved on to new crops ready for picking we would begin looking for a jar of preserves and a loaf of bread. The thing now is now that the farm is gone and so is Mom and her strawberry preserves, I would give just about anything to have a jar now. Of course that can’t happen but I can think about them and in my mind’s eye I can see it all once again.

Rick Houser grew up on a farm near Moscow in Clermont County and loves to share stories about his youth and other topics. If interested in more of his stories he has two book “There are Places I remember” and Memories ARE From the Heart. He can be reached at houser734@yahoo.com.