Last weekend our family took a trip to Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport, CA where you can pick your own strawberries. I had always wanted to make it down there on our way to the Boardwalk, but we ended up staying far longer than expected at the berry farm. Whenever I go to the farmers market, my favorite are the small, sweet strawberries that are tender and still have a thin green stem attached. I wanted to prove to my daughter that strawberries are sweet and delicious, not lime green seedy and sour, like she’s used to from the grocery store. I had envisioned fields and fields of romantic rolling hills filled with deep, ruby red berries as my daughter frolicked around with her straw basket full to the brim.
When we arrived, there were two rectangles of berry patches separated by a dirt path, with elevated neat rows of strawberries growing on black plastic berms. They were located on a flat open patch, surrounded by dirt on all sides and exposed to the wind coming off the Pacific. It wasn’t exactly the wild and wandering experience I had imagined as I watched so many people packed into these two square plots. How could there be enough small sweet strawberries for everyone?
As we braved the cold winds coming from the ocean, zipped up our jackets and got our pigtails in order, we started looking. Even though we chose rows that had other people ahead of us, there were still red little gems hiding in the leaves. Instead of a cursory look from above, we squatted down in front of a plant and spent time gently looking in between and below the green leaves. We couldn’t stop picking! There was one, and then another, and then we had to taste test of course! My daughter was so excited about her new discoveries at every turn that two hours passed quickly. We left with a cardboard flat of $20 in strawberries, enough to share with three families for a week. Our shoes were muddy, faces and hands stained red, and our bellies full. The idea of going on a ferris wheel made us queasy. We opted for the beach instead, where my daughter ate even more strawberries.
When we got back, I read more about the farming techniques Swanton uses and understood why it wasn’t the expansive wild experience I had imagined. Strawberries can be fussy. Especially organic farming methods, like those used at Swanton, where they have to battle snails, gophers, wild pigs, birds, and deer in humane and non-poisonous ways. Weeds are not treated with chemicals, but manually eradicated, several times before the strawberry plants are even in the ground. The soil for strawberries is prepared for two years before the plants go in, with several rounds of cover crops and compost tilled in. The strawberries are more susceptible to disease and rot if they are left to grow on the ground, so the elevated black plastic rows are vital for survival. Swanton aims for flavor over quantity so they are careful about the amount of water they give to the strawberries and the varieties they grow. The more water, the less flavor the berry will have. You can read more about the organic farming methods at Swanton here, http://www.swantonberryfarm.com/pages/farming_practices2.html
This trip has made me reflect more about my tendency to dream without follow through. I always had visions of making my entire garden dedicated to edibles. After being in my house for six years, I admit, my brother in law does most of the work with the edibles and I am grateful for the ornamental sages, bamboos, and daphnes that don’t require my constant attention. We planted a cell pack of strawberries three years ago in our raised veggie boxes, and I’m surprised they are still alive. We get a few berries, here and there, which are a good teaching tool for the kids, but they are nothing like the prolific berries at Swanton that are cared for endlessly and planted fresh each year. It has made me reflect on the sad state of our blueberry bushes that I failed to amend with peat moss this year, thus yielding very little berries and spindly, less than impressive growth. I appreciate all the work farmers do to create tasty, beautiful fruits and vegetables at the farmers market even more now. And I applaud my clients that have an interest in incorporating edibles in their gardens. If they are new to growing edibles, I might suggest they start with one veggie box and expand from there.