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Thursday, May 27, 2004 02:52 pm

Strawberry picking time

art1103

When I was a child, my grandmother would take the family to pick strawberries every Memorial Day weekend. We would pick at least 20 quarts of berries, enough for dessert and jelly. Grandma always somehow managed to pick more berries than the rest of us combined. She would serve sliced, sweetened berries over shortcake with real whipped cream topping or homemade ice cream.

Strawberries make a great snack or treat any time of the year, but nothing beats a fresh strawberry picked from the plant. And now is the time to head for the patch: If the weather cooperates, the strawberry season will last two to three weeks. Some locally grown varieties of strawberries include Earliglow, Guardian, and Allstar. Each cultivar has its own flavor, size, and maturity time, but all are good to eat. Large berry size does not necessarily mean better flavor.

Here are a few tips for picking and handling strawberries:

• Pick berries early in the morning or late in the day when the fruit is naturally cool. Select fully red, plump, firm berries. To pick berries from the plant, grasp the stem just above the berry between the forefinger and the thumbnail and pull with a slight twisting motion. Pick with one-half inch of stem remaining. Avoid removing the bright green caps.

• In the field, handle fresh strawberries carefully. Don't leave them in the sun, and don't stack the berries more 5 inches deep to avoid bruising them.

• At home, keep strawberries cool. Refrigerate them uncovered in a shallow container. Berries are best used within two to three days of picking. After a few days, the fruit loses its bright color and fresh flavor.

If you don't have your own strawberry patch, consider supporting local growers by picking your own berries at a local strawberry patch or purchase fresh strawberries at a roadside market.

When ready to use or eat, wash strawberries in a colander under cold running water. Don't let berries to sit in water, as they will lose color and flavor. Remove the green cap with a paring knife without removing any of the fruit.

For more information on strawberries, visit the University of Illinois Extension Horticulture Corner's Web site at www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/strawberries/index.html.

Strawberry patches

Remember to always call ahead to check on strawberry picking status.

Here are a few local u-pick strawberry patches:

• The Berry Patch, 11471 Lynn Rd. (located off of Route 54, Buffalo Hart), 217-364-5606.

• Jefferies Orchard, 1454 Jefferies Rd. (five miles north of Springfield off of Route 29), 217-487-7582.

• Sabattini Garden Center, 112 W. Hoechester Rd., PO Box 112, Springfield, IL 62607, 217-529-3620. Call for reservations to pick (adults only).

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