To make organic gardening manageable my husband and I divide the work based on individual knowledge, combined with our affinity for specific types of plants, trees and bushes around our home. My favorite of these tasks is the maintenance and harvest of the berries; blueberries, black raspberries, fall raspberries, and an exotic heirloom variety of a white strawberry called White Soul Alpine occupy the harvest season from spring to fall. Each berry ripens in different phases, and from the blueberries to the strawberries my morning routine consists of a staple cup of coffee, then a visit to the berry bush du jour with my faithful rotty, Izzi, to keep me company.
The black raspberries are ready from early to mid-July, while the fall raspberries begin ripening at the end of summer and continue on until the first hard frost in the Adirondacks. My relationship with both plant varieties is a thorny and reverent one. Pruning and cutting back the growth from a previous season, I begin the spring with blood kisses from my precocious garden child. It is a sacrifice I make willingly. Once satiated, the black raspberries require full-sun, spring rain and morning dew to usher in the summer with their purple/black hue. These berries hide in the shadows, under broad leaves, guarded by a thorny fence of woody branches. The price of my harvest is another mild bloodletting in which the tiniest scrape leaves the flesh to burn for days. No amount of training can teach this garden child not to bite, but his thorny kisses are worth the struggle for discipline.
The fall raspberries thrive under the same conditions as the black raspberries, but need to be cut back in the spring to thrive in the fall. The lime-green branches stretch out with the long summer days and large leaves guard her delicate, spiked limbs. After many of the summer garden flowers have faded, the fall raspberry blossoms inconspicuously appear. The clumsy bumblebee’s size and happy whirr gives the flower clusters away. As the seasons shift to fall, the berries mature from green to pink, and then deepen to crimson red. The deeper the red, the sweeter the taste; patience is key. The shyest of my garden children, the raspberries hide in a clutch on the most delicate of branches, guarded by her broad leaves. Self-mutilation becomes evident in the tears and holes that the wind imposes. Sensitive leaves scrape across prickly branches. Picking the fruit is another delicate matter. Move a branch too quickly, it breaks, withers and dies. Harvesting desensitizes fingertips with the dense, protective thorns gingerly held with a thumb and index finger; the other hand carefully plucks the ripest berries with practiced quickness. Her abundance makes the delicate gathering worthwhile. The imperfect ones are handed off to Izzi, who is more than happy to relieve me of them.
The blueberries ripen first, announcing the spring gardening season, while the strawberries stagger in from mid-summer to late in the fall. These two berries I hold closest to my heart, not for the berries they provide, but for the gentle relationship of collecting their ripened jewels. The blueberries are the oldest of my garden children, having planted them after purchasing our home fifteen years ago. Butterflies and bees welcome the bell-shaped white flowers, then white berries announce that spring has begun. When the first berry turns purple with a milky blue overlay, the rest follow suit quickly. Each morning thereafter is a race to gather the ripest ones first. My competition includes the ornery blue jay that seeks out the berry of its own hue. With no thorns to be wary of, I sit on the ground with my basket to spend some quality time with each bush. This time is important because his berries don’t turn blue all at once. A careful game of seek-and-find begins, and a thorough inspection of each limb is required. Picking too early yields bitter fruit. During peek harvest my visits can last considerably longer, with Izzi warming himself nearby in the morning sun. I approach each branch from above where the sun kisses them most, then below where the shy ones hide, and every possible angle to be sure not to leave any for my competitors. This is our first garden produce after a bleak Adirondack winter, making me cherish our bonding time for that month each spring.
The longest harvest season that requires the most dedication is that of the White Soul Alpine strawberries. She begins to ripen in mid-July, and continuously fruits until winter’s first whisper. Perhaps it is this long commitment that makes her my favorite. More likely, it’s the tactile nature of our relationship. I approach each bush in virtually the same pattern every two days. Crouching down as if to pet each one, I brush my hand across the flush, green leaves in a circular motion to catch a glimpse of the fruits. Sometimes I can see the yellowish/white strawberries, and sometimes I feel them when my fingertips swoosh through the foliage. My hands and eyes search slowly, occasionally encountering a daddy long-leg with a mutual slight pause of agreement to coexist. “How can you tell when a white strawberry is ripe?” one might ask. The seeds of a young berry are green and the berry feels firm in my fingertips. Berries appear in some of the most unexpected places amongst the plant. Deeper into the fall season, I see the first signs of cold mornings in the browning of some of her leaves. Yet she persists in spectacular fashion, offering the largest and best fruit as if she knows she’s my favorite and this is her last chance to shine.
The gardening season ends when the last strawberry is picked. The trick to my gardening plan is patience, persistence, and understanding. Each plant wants only a fraction of my busy summer days, in exchange for a freezer full of remembrances of our time together. My connection with each of them reminds me of God’s miracles, provides me with a Thoreauesque appreciation for my environment, and gives me the strength to face civilization with the same compassion and understanding I’ve learned from my garden children. In reality, my special garden makes me more human than I’ve made them.
A sure sign that summer is in full swing, the blueberries have begun to ripen. Going around the yard and picking the newly matured berries is an annual part of my morning routine. The rocky terrain of Diamond Point, NY is perfect for these bountiful bushes. A win-win for the gardener, considering the pleasure of the peaceful seek-and-find process and that smug feeling of pride that arises from your triumph over the bluejay’s quest for the fruit of its same hue.