Strawberry picking season is upon us. Within mere days, orchards will throw open their doors and invite families to make some memories together picking those luscious berries. Many local farms and orchards grow blueberries, raspberries, black raspberries and blackberries as well. Blueberries and raspberries begin ripening in mid-July, and blackberries follow along about a week later.
“When it comes to health benefits, the biggie is antioxidants, and we pretty much think of blueberries,” said Richard Hentschel, horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension Service, St. Charles branch. “A new up-and-coming berry, which has more antioxidants than blueberries, is the Aronia, or chokeberry.”
The abnormally snowy winter helped the plants by providing cover from the frigid temperatures. “The snow does a very good job of insulating plants,” he said. “The snow also was beneficial to the crown of those plants. If we didn’t have snow, and the raspberry plants and strawberry plants at the soil line were exposed to the winter sun and the winter winds, [that] would be a lot more damaging than being covered in snow.”
However, blueberries might see more damage from the cold, as they grow higher than raspberries or strawberries and didn’t enjoy the comfort of being protected by snow all winter.
The cold spring hasn’t hampered the growth, either. Strawberries and other berries should be right on schedule.
“Plants grow based on something called degree days, which is an accumulation of temperatures above 55 degrees,” Hentschel said. “So while it might have been colder earlier, as long as we have warmer than normal temperatures later, they catch up. Things are developing normally.”
Strawberries remain the most popular berries to pick, he said.
“If you are going to go out and have that family event, a pick your own … bring them home and store them as you harvested them. Don’t clean the fruit until you are ready to use them. Water is your enemy. If you put fruit away wet, even in a refrigerator, there are molds and other things that can grow.”
You can freeze berries, but be prepared to use them in another way — in baked goods or smoothies — because freezing berries causes them to break down, Hentschel said.
Area berry orchards offer pre-picked supplies or pick-your-own, but it’s a good idea to call ahead or visit the farm’s website to check its rules and ensure supply.
Some things to consider before you head out: Do you need to bring your own container or does the farm provide them? What are the rules on wagons, strollers and pets? Do they take credit/debit cards or cash only? Do they charge a fee to pick? Should you bring extra money in case there’s a gift shop or farm stand? Is the orchard or farm organic, and if not, when was it last sprayed?
Please note: If you’re cycling along a forest preserve trail, it is strictly prohibited to pick any wild berries or plants.