I went 23 years without ever visiting any kind of orchard…
I grew up on coastal Florida and my father has a degree in horticulture, so I grew up with orange and grapefruit trees in my backyard, freshly-picked flowers from the garden in vases, and a perfectly manicured lawn. But, Florida did not offer the same enthusiasm for apple-picking and visiting orchards that one can find further North.
When I moved to Boston in 2015, I visited an apple orchard for the first time in the fall. I. Was. In. Love. I must have been a gatherer in a past life because I find so much joy in strolling through the orchards and seeking out the most perfect apples.
Apple-picking in New England is like a professional sport - people show up in packs with special tools for reaching the bounty on the highest branches. It’s no joke. While I’m not that fanatical about apple-picking (not that there’s anything wrong with being a professional apple-picker!), I think Pick-Your-Own-Produce is the perfect day activity for couples, girls days out, and the kiddos.
But, apples are only harvested in the Fall…And this pick-your-own enthusiast isn’t going to limit herself to just one apple-picking trip a year!
Alex and I decided to check out the berry patches at a local farm, Cullipher Farm. It did not let us down! We went early in the season (early May in Virginia) so the berries were freshly ripened, not picked through (see below about going later in the season), and discounted. It was a great way to spend an hour or two. There were plenty of families picking - and mowed centers between so you can move easily. Strawberry-picking was far easier than apple-picking since you’re bending to pick as opposed to reaching and jumping (maybe the people with the apple-picking tools are the smart ones).
Picking was not only seriously fun and a great way to spend an hour, it was economically. We spent $8 for 2 quarts of strawberries (or $15 for gallon). The average cost of a single quart of organic strawberries at a local store is $6.50 and $3.59 for a quart of Driscolls strawberries at your local store.
Some thoughts on finding the right orchard and the best time to visit…
Mowed centers between the rows of strawberries allowed us to move easily and without issue. I wore Birkenstocks and wasn’t worried about tripping or hurting my feet.
The strawberries are grown on plastic. This is a method commonly used on the East coast, where plastic is placed over the sprouts. The strawberry plants peek up through the plastic and this allows them to be easily distinguished from weeds and for a cleaner picking process because of separation from the soil.
Highly recommend mowed centers and grown-on-plastic if you plan on bringing little ones with you. There was far less trekking to the open orchards involved than with apple-picking (and the orchards are also smaller), which makes berry-picking ideal for little ones.
Look at the time the orchard opens - often during peak season, lines be crazy (this applies to apple-picking too). I recommend trying to go in the morning as it will be cooler temperature-wise, parking will be easier, and the orchards won’t be over-run and over-picked.
Typically farms will open single orchards until they’re picked through before moving on to the next section of orchard. I recommend going early in the picking season for optimal choice of berries or calling ahead to see when the opened the latest section of orchard. If it’s 10-14 days in, there’s probably slim-pickings (literally).
So, what should you do with gallons of berries…
First things first, wash your bounty:
Prepare cleaning mixture by combining 1 cup of apple cider vinegar with 2 cups of water (I ended up having to double this to clean our 2 quarts)
Submerge all berries in the mixture and gently scrub with your fingers.
Drain and allow to dry
We divided the berries that we picked into three piles: over-ripened berries (particularly soft and squishy between fingers), ripened, and unripened (not fully red - it can be hard to tell unless you bite into them so this is the rule I use).
With the over-ripened berries, we made a Chia Seed Jam:
Add 3 cups of sliced berries + 1/2 cup of water to a pot and bring to a boil
Turn heat to low and mash the berries (I usually just use a potato masher to do this)
Gradually stir in 2 tbsp of chia seeds (less or more for desired texture)
I find this sweet enough - but you can sweeten with honey, monk fruit powder, or your desired sweetener.
Transfer to mason jars and allow to cool.
We saved the ripened berries for eating raw and adding to salads and oatmeal.
We sliced and popped the unripened berries into a Stasher Bag and threw them into the freezer to use in smoothies. You want to be sure the berries are completely dry otherwise, they will clump together.