Strawberry Season

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Strawberries in abundance. They’re not always so visible.

It’s been a good summer for strawberries in the garden. Actually, it’s almost always a good summer for the strawberries, but this has been one of those years when we’ve not only had a steady stream of fresh berries for eating with cereal or yogurt, but enough to give away, cook with, and stash by the quart in the freezer.

That alpine strawberries grow happily here, at almost 9000 feet in elevation, shouldn’t be a surprise, I suppose, but I remain somewhat in awe of their consistent runaway success. My other gardening endeavors tend to be much more hit-and-miss, with crops I usually do pretty well with—snow peas, kale, potatoes, beets—faltering or outright failing periodically.

The strawberries, though, have been doing their thing ever since I transplanted a single plant from our old house outside of Boulder back around 2002 (if memory serves, I got that plant from Shepherd Garden Seeds, a precursor company to Renee’s Garden). I don’t know the name of the variety of white alpine strawberry I have, but I do know that it sends out runners as well as reproducing easily from seed. My solitary strawberry plant soon had company, and then the company had company. It wasn’t long before strawberries overflowed the planting bed I’d allotted them and colonized the northwest corner of the walled garden, where they’ve been engaged in a turf war with creeping thyme for almost a decade.

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Volunteer strawberry patch in the garden’s corner, with runners infiltrating the planting bed at bottom right.

To keep them from taking over the entire garden, I now heartlessly pluck out seedlings and rip runners up by the handful, lest they strangle the chives or take over the walking paths. I tolerate the strawberries’ aggressiveness within the confines of the garden because I’m a sucker for the easy success. About all I do to nurture them is rake the beds hard in the spring to thin the plants and sprinkle on some compost now and again.

In return, the strawberries fruit reliably and dodge the attention of birds with their unusual color. They’re also delectable. When I offer one to someone for the first time, their eyes move back and forth between my face and the pale little orb a few times, as they try to figure out if they’re about to be the victim of a weird prank. The fruit is dinky. It looks unripe. Then they catch a whiff: unmistakably the aroma of ripe strawberry, but with a punch of floweriness. Won over, they pop it in their mouth and discover that the fruit is soft yet concentrated. It’s a strawberry, to be sure, but with an edge of tartness and a whisper of tropical fruit. Familiar, and yet unexpected. A good thing in a small package.

If you’re wondering why such charming fruit isn’t more commercially available, I offer a few reasons. One is that the berries are so delicate that they make raspberries seem like road warriors. Once picked, they degrade to mush in a day or two, and if piled too deep in a container they soon begin to dissolve into a puree.

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Nice-sized berries plumped by monsoon rains; many are much smaller.

Another reason alpine strawberries aren’t more common is that they’re so danged small. By volume, both beds on a given day at the peak of the season might yield four or five cups. By number, though, we’re talking hundreds of berries. In a compulsive fit last week, I did a rough count of how many strawberries made up the one-cup measure I was getting ready to stir into a batch of muffins: about one hundred.

The berries’ small size makes picking an outsized chore. Sure, gleaning a handful for cereal can be a breeze: skim the beds to pluck the berries hovering in plain sight above the leaves. The gentlest of tugs identifies the ripe ones; if the fruit parts from the hull, it’s ready to eat. If not, move on to the next morsel.

A thorough job of picking, however, demands effort. To find the most succulent of the diminutive pearls, the ones that have plumped enough to bow the stems down below the canopy of leaves, requires that I riffle of the dense foliage with both hands, looking for pale fruits and feeling under leaves for the delicate rounds. Since there’s no room to kneel, my hands execute their gentle repetitive motions parallel to a full-body workout of stooping, hunkering, leaning, bending, squatting, and hunching.

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An hour’s work.

Hand-combing both strawberry beds takes about an hour. Add another fifteen minutes to begin to straighten my kinked body. Multiply that by two or three times a week at the peak of the season. Consider that this variety in this place starts fruiting in June and peters out in late August, and the result is a sizable chunk of my summer gardening time.

So, yes, the alpine strawberries are easy to grow. Harvesting them, though, is not for the faint of heart—or weak of thigh.

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2 Responses to Strawberry Season

  1. edbrummel says:

    I’ve seen alpine strawberry plants in the wild, but to the best of my recollection, I’ve never seen their fruit. But, since they’re white, not strawberry-red, perhaps I have seen the fruit, but didn’t recognize it as such.
    A few days ago, I bought a box of Hotchkiss peaches—do y’all have peach trees? (I tied growing tomatoes, last year, but they didn’t take.)

    • jonesbusch says:

      As I understand it, alpine strawberries like the ones I grow are cultivars of European varieties. Like you, Ed, I see wild strawberry plants fairly often but rarely see the fruit (and when I have seen it, it makes my garden strawberries look huge). I’ve always assumed this is because weather/moisture conditions aren’t always right and that there are lots of critters much lower to the ground and with better noses than me who find the berries first. As for peaches, no, although I added a second dwarf sour cherry tree last fall. This year it put out one single cherry.

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