Growing & preserving strawberries

Late May is strawberry season, and ours are producing wonderfully. We’re picking these every day to get them at peak ripeness, with a top yield so far of ~10 lb on Sunday afternoon. We preserve a significant percentage of these for our year-round larder, and finished the last of the 2010 berries just as the first ones of 2011 ripened. Here’s a quick look at how we grow, handle, and preserve strawberries on the farm.
Before we started growing our own, we would spend a day or two each spring down at Pick & Pick, a U-pick farm east of Columbia, harvesting a year’s worth of strawberries, then do marathon sessions of preserving. These were far from organic, but were the best quality & freshness available in the area and our preserves are far preferable to us than buying tasteless, shipped-in commercial berries out of season. We buy and preserve virtually all our fruit from fresh local sources year-round, using a significant amount of our total food budget, so establishing our own plantings has been a significant achievement.
We have two 20′ beds, established in the lower part of our orchard area, which we’ve spent the last few years clearing from a thick stand of cedars (we have blueberries, brambles, asparagus, and fruit trees started here as well). We built up raised beds, leaving the cut-off stumps in place, and established the first berry plants in spring 2009. We chose a variety called Sparkle, described a non-commercial home variety with exceptional flavor but short shelf life. That’s exactly right; they are amazingly sweet fresh off the plant, but are tender and don’t hold well. Not something you’d stick in a bin for market 3 days later. They’re very vibrant plants, runnering so persistently that we all but gave up trying to control them. In the photo above, there are supposed to be two clear beds with a nice aisle; can you tell? They transplant wonderfully as well; we’ve given out several rounds of dug-up plants to our workers, which have flowered and fruited this year despite being dug up only a few weeks beforehand. We expect to do some serious thinning and management later in the year to keep these vibrant, but are impressed with how resilient and healthy the plants are even in their crowded conditions.
These berries are included in our organic certification, despite us having no intention of selling them, because our management methods easily fit within organic standards and it’s easier to have everything under one system. We have been distributing some to our workers, with rave reviews; these are something 2012 CSA customers could expect to receive in small quantities. In good soil, with raised beds to help with drainage, they’ve done very well. We definitely get some insect/slug/pest damage on the berries, but for home use who cares about a few nibbles, and they aren’t being stored for market so there’s never time for any damage to get worse. The yield is lovely; we pick them every day and generally process or eat them the same day. Here are our favorite methods:
TRAY FREEZING
 The easiest method. We simply gently wash the berries, dump them on a cloth towel to dry slightly, cut off the greens & a small bit of the shoulder (which the chickens love), and arrange the whole berries cut side down on a baking sheet. This goes into the freezer, and 12 to 24 hours later we scrape the berries up into freezer bags. Simple, and very easy in the winter to grab a bag and quickly thaw whenever we want berries. Sparkles are so sweet that even after 11 months in the freezer they taste excellent right out of the bag. These are great in winter for topping simple desserts and just straight snacks.
SUGAR PACK
A bit more space-efficient, this method takes just a bit more work. Start as above, but cut the berries into smaller chunks and put into a bowl. Sprinkle a little sugar onto the berries as you go, and mix until you get a light coating on all pieces. Some recipes call for up to 3/4 cup sugar per quart berries, but we generally use less, maybe 1/4 cup per quart. Leave these to sit in the fridge for maybe an hour, to give the sugar time to draw some juice from the berries; you should end up with a dense berry/juice slurry. This can be packed into freezer containers (we use quarts) and freezes as a solid block. These are great in winter for making sauces, fruit yogurt, and desserts.
JAMS/PRESERVES
This is pretty obvious, and takes a lot of berries & work but doesn’t take up freezer space. During the peak of harvest we’ll hope to make and can at least one batch of jam.
STRAWBERRY ICE
A favorite recipe passed down through Joanna’s family, this sweet sauce is an especially nice & useful treat in winter. It’s incredibly easy to mix with yogurt or use as a fruit sauce in all sorts of ways. It’s also very space-efficient in the freezer; we preserve this in small, used Goatsbeard cheese containers.
Ingredients:

2 quarts (8 cups) strawberries
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 medium lemon, juiced

Directions:
– Boil sugar and water together for 5 minutes. Cool.
– Wash & hull berries, then puree in a blender.
– Combine berries with sugar water & lemon juice.
– Freeze.
– Before serving, allow strawberry ice to thaw overnight in the refrigerator or at least a few hours at room temperature; it should be partially frozen.
DRYING
Dried strawberries are very good and another way to preserve berries without taking up freezer space. We wash berries, slice in cross sections to a thickness of about 1/4 inch, place on dehydrator trays, and dry for 12 to 18 hours. We used a temperature of 125ºF last year. These are delicious with intense strawberry flavor, though the volume reduction during drying is always a little depressing.

FRESH EATING
Of course, a significant fraction simply get eaten fresh. Sliced onto pancakes, incorporated into farm-made yogurt with honey, topping fresh custards, simply eaten hot off the plant, there are infinite ways to enjoy fresh strawberries.

4 thoughts on “Growing & preserving strawberries

  1. We are loving our strawberries, too! I think we were up to around 14 lb a couple days ago from a 4×6' plot. They do spread like crazy. They were originally in nice rows, and now they're just a huge patch. I make freezer jam with them, and on the weekend I made strawberry lemon jam (using the juice and zest). It is definitely the best jam ever.

  2. Anon, thanks!Annette, are you harvesting every day or is that total from a few days accumulation? We've been picking daily and getting 10-12lb each time, though they're starting to get smaller and slow down in production.

  3. We're picking about every other day. They are starting to slow down, and the excessive rain seemed to produce a batch of smaller, lower quality seedy berries. The batch I picked yesterday was much better.