One of my mother’s best friends comes from a dairy farming family, who also grew a lot of their own food, so I can always count on her for agricultural advice (I have yet to take advantage of her depth of dairy farming knowledge). She’s come through on everything from troubleshooting issues in my small backyard garden to sharing advice on activities like berry picking.
When she was younger, she and her friends would go blueberry picking with buckets strapped to their belts (see #3 below). They would belly up to the blueberry bushes, grab clusters of blueberries and gently roll ripe blueberries off with their thumbs down into their buckets. This method is faster than plucking off individual blueberries, and unripe berries won’t come loose from gentle rolling, so they’re left on the bush to continue ripening. (Plus it also naturally lent itself to calling themselves members of the Blueberry Rolling Association, complete with giggle-inducing acronym.)
Depending on where you are, strawberry season might be nearly over (or even long-gone), but there is still a full summer of other berries to be had, and likely a u-pick farm not too far from you. So here are 9 more of our best berry-picking tips (ideas for other clever group names are up to you):
What’s that? You checked their website/Facebook page/Twitter feed; they’re definitely open, and you hate talking on the phone, so you’re all set? Yeah, me too. Call anyway. Most farmers don’t have time to update social media every day, and the picking conditions can change drastically day-to-day, especially if there’s been rain or a dramatic change in temperatures. Calling ahead could save you the potential for a disappointing trip if they’ve had to close early.
Especially on the weekends, going right when the farm opens (or shortly thereafter) means you’ve got the best shot at the berries, and less-congested fields. Waiting until mid-day means you might be fighting crowds and the berries could be picked over.
That’s Bringing Your Own Basket, of course. Some farms will have containers ready for you free of charge, but others will charge you for them. If you don’t want to pay an additional fee, find out ahead of time, or just come prepared. Shallower containers are generally better: blueberries can handle being stacked fairly deep in buckets, but other berries, like strawberries and raspberries, are more delicate and shouldn’t be, so a large shallow container will give you more room to work with. Additionally, if you’re picking blueberries, considering bringing not only a bucket but also planning to wear a belt or bring rope so that you can strap the bucket to you—it will get heavy before you know it.
Berry picking is fun, but especially if you are planning on getting a lot of berries, you could be busy for hours, you’ll want to be prepared. Bring a wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen (those are self-explanatory, right?) and possibly bug spray if you’ll be near a more wooded area. Pack snacks: Yes, you’ll be eating berries, but you can only eat so many at a time; eventually you might want something with a little more substance. And don’t forget cash, while many farms will take credit cards or other forms of payment, don’t count on it (unless you already asked when you called).
It can be tempting to stay in constant motion, only taking the biggest berries that catch your eye. If you’re wise, though, you’ll stay in one spot, taking the time to really look under leaves or at the tops and bottoms of bushes before moving on—you’ll conserve energy and be able to pick for longer. This doesn’t mean you have to pick an area entirely clean; for instance, only selecting the biggest and fully ripe blueberries in a cluster provides more space for the smaller unripe berries to ripen for later picking.
Wear clothing you don't mind getting stained and consider long-sleeved shirts and pants, especially if you’ll be picking berries on thorny canes. Choose footwear that is comfortable for standing and walking and ones that you don’t mind getting dirty (think old tennis shoes over flip-flops).
Berry picking is a great activity for kids, as long as you think of it as just that—a fun activity. This is not the trip for you to plan on picking multiple flats of strawberries or all of the blueberries you want to can this season; save that for another time and keep your expectations in check. Consider your child’s age and temperament, and if you’d think they’ll have fun, go for it! Give them a run-down of what to expect ahead of time, like how to tell the difference between ripe and unripe berries and how to gently pick and place the berries in a container. Oh, and pack wet wipes.
You already know to ask about seconds at the farmers market—that’s the produce that might not look as good (or that needs to be used more quickly) that farmers might give you at a discounted price. Try asking about them at u-pick farms, too. They might have already picked berries that are a little too ripe, perfect for a batch of jam.
It goes against everything you always hear, but washing berries right away in a vinegar and water bath will eliminate mold and bacteria and significantly extend their lifespan.
Once you’ve picked buckets and baskets worth of berries, we’ve got a dozen ideas for putting them to berry good use:
What are your best berry picking tips? Tell us in the comments!