Last year was Nathan Smith’s final year of growing strawberries for his farm stand in Gilford. Smith, owner of Smith Farm Stand, had been producing strawberries for 36 years.
“We’re 66, so we’re slowing down … it’s a lot of work growing strawberries,” Smith said.
Smith said last year the strawberry season opened on June 12 but that in other years it has started as late as June 26.
“It depends on the temperature and the amount of sun,” he said, adding that this year’s season will likely begin around June 20 (he still grows a private bed of strawberries for his family).
Before the strawberries ripen, Smith said, an inch of rainfall a week is ideal for proper growth. When the berries are ripe, long periods of clouds, humidity and wet weather can be damaging to the crops, he said.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Smith said of the inclement weather. “No one will pick berries in the pouring rain and [rain] promotes rot.”
Visitors also do not want to pick berries when it is 90 degrees — “we want 85 degree days with a little breeze,” he said.
Strawberries can grow in a variety of soil types, including sandy soil if it is irrigated regularly, but Smith advises not to grow berries in low, wet areas.
Farmers need to be cognizant of frost and take precautions to protect the plant, Smith said, adding that frost causes damage when the plant begins to blossom. One method of frost protection used by Smith was to water the plants late at night to melt the ice. The water, he said, needed to be at more than 32 degrees to protect the blossoms from freezing. He had also experimented with Remay blankets, a thin cloth of spun polyester, that keeps crops four to five degrees warmer in the springtime. Using a warming blanket, he said, can also cause crops to come in a week early.
Pesticides are often used on strawberries, Smith said, adding that because so much money is tied up in caring for, weeding and mulching the plants, people do not want to see their investment rot.
“I didn’t want picking season to start and not have a good crop,” he said.
Smith said during his strawberry-growing career he likely grew about 30 varieties.
“I usually ended up with four to six varieties on each field,” he said. “The biggest reason behind planting a lot of different kinds is because they each ripen at a different time.”
Smith noted the best strawberry taste-wise is the Sparkle variety, a late strawberry that he said is too soft to maintain its size.
“I grew them for years and years and eventually ended up giving up on them,” he said. “The taste was wonderful but the quality of berries wasn’t any good otherwise.”
For the last five to 10 years, Jewel strawberries have reigned as a favorite mid- to late-maturing berry at Smith Farm Stand. “They are good and firm and have yielded well,” Smith said.
While June-bearing berry season can only last up to four weeks on average, Smith noted that there are “day-neutral” or “ever-bearing” varieties that can produce almost year-round. The length of the day is what triggers June-bearing berries to produce, he said.
“The problem with [day-neutral] berries is that they don’t produce as many berries at once so managing the plant can be more difficult,” Smith said.
Smith used to produce 11,000 quarts of strawberries annually from about 7,500 plants. Measuring strawberries in quarts is the “old-fashioned” way, he noted, adding that a quart weighs about a pound and a half. Each plant, Smith said, could produce a quart and a half of berries. No fruit is produced from strawberries in their first year as the blossoms are plucked off to allow for the plant to create more runners that come out of the crown of the original plant. The runners then extend about five inches from the original plant and grow another.
“You might start with 7,000 plants but the reality is you could have 40,000 by time they’re finished,” Smith said.
The first strawberry that ripens on each plant is often called the “king” berry because it will be the largest of the berries. “That’s the nature of the plant,” Smith said. “It wants to make sure the first one is the biggest.” How much smaller the secondary fruits will be, Smith said, depends on the variety — another reason to grow assorted kinds of strawberries.
Frank Whittemore, owner of Brookdale Fruit Farm in Hollis, noted that strawberries can be frozen for a long time and maintain their flavor, depending on the variety.
Whittemore said he has been growing strawberries “forever” and produced an estimated 30,000 quarts of strawberries on six acres last season. Whittemore sells his berries wholesale and to roadside farm stands; he also allows visitors to pick their own. The largest variety offered at Brookdale is the Cabot strawberry, a mid-season berry that boasts a dark red color.
“The bigger the berry, the better,” Whittemore said. “People eat with their eyes, so they like nice, red, large berries.”
Whittemore is a regular participant in the annual Hollis Strawberry Festival, one of many strawberry season celebrations in the state. The day of the Hollis festival also kicks off the pick-your-own strawberry season at Brookdale.
Strawberries are used in many sweet creations at The Bakeshop on Kelley Street in Manchester. They are found peeking out of pies with rhubarb, in muffins, on top of cheesecake, sandwiched between layers of puff pastry and whipped cream in a strawberry Napoleon, and individually dipped in chocolate.
“You don’t need a lot of sugar [in strawberry-based desserts], not this time of year when they’re sweet and flavorful,” said Bakeshop owner Denise Nickerson. Nickerson buys her berries from a handful of local farms every season. “We don’t use a specific variety of strawberries, just the kind that looks the reddest and juiciest,” she said.
As only sweets line the shelves of the bakery case at her shop, Nickerson said she has not used strawberries to make any savory dishes but noted that they are a good salad addition.
“With strawberries, you can really put them on anything,” she said. “They are probably best with just fresh whipped cream without any sugar or anything added.”