DALTON >> I just finished picking almost two quarts of berries. When I despair of getting a ripe tomato, or the squash vines wither, I can always count on the berries to renew my faith in horticulture.
Growing conditions this year have been an unusual challenge. Too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, too many pests: we've had them all,, and it's only July. My entire crop of strawberries was wiped out by a rapacious rabbit. As soon as the berries were gone, so was he. Snow peas went from tiny pods to huge, overly mature, full of oversized peas pods in about two days. The excessive heat also tricked the basil into thinking it was time to bloom and set seed. Other herbs did worse.
Amidst all the death and debilitation, the briarly berries flourished. The raspberries set a modest amount of fruit for relatively new plants; but the blackberries bloomed in profusion, and ripening fruit is now weighing down those canes. The blueberries are just coming in, so we will have fresh fruit on our cereal and yogurt for weeks to come.
I have never grown apples or stone fruits, so I have never had the pleasure of harvesting them. Having a smallish, partly-shaded yard, I have never desired to plant them; but my foray into berry growing has been a fancy, fruit-flavored flight. Most of the seedlings came from the Berkshire Conservation District's plant sales, with a few additions from other sources like the late, lamented Project Native and mail-order nurseries.
My husband has volunteered to be the pruner of canes. He does a great job with the older raspberries, and I help with the new plants set nearer to the vegetable patch. That and fertilizing is all raspberries require, so once spring is over, you can just sit in the yard and wait for their mouth-watering berries to appear. Picking requires bug-spray and a long-sleeved shirt to outwit the mosquitos and the thorns.
Blackberries are another story. A few plants quickly grow into an impenetrable thicket that reminds me of the plant in "Little Shop of Horrors." When the new spring growth appears, the canes shoot up like bottle rockets, and after they reach about six feet in height, they gracefully curve back earthward. If the tips hit a patch of soft soil, they immediately send out roots and begin to grow there. If they are supported by wires, fencing, or even other plants, they remain semi-erect.
The best part about blackberries is that they bloom profusely — in clusters — down the canes. Because of the large size of the ripe berries, they fill a pail quickly, provided you are dressed to avoid being wrapped in their thorny embrace. This morning I picked until the mosquitos made life intolerable. I will go back later for a few more cups, so we can have a berry cobbler for supper.
I inherited my love of berries and baking from my mother. On our trips to Mount Greylock and Berry Pond at the Pittsfield State Forest, we filled our pails with wild blueberries that would become the most delicious pies in Berkshire County. Sadly, I have never mastered my mother's pie crust, so I can't duplicate the blueberry pie.
Raspberries usually appeared in cobblers, with a baking powder biscuit crust. I'm going to try to recreate that cobbler this afternoon. I've been practicing my biscuit-making technique this month to use on strawberry shortcakes, so I'm pretty sure I can handle the cobbler.
There are two places I can unfailingly capture my mother's spirit: in the garden and in the kitchen. The cobbler will have her special ingredient, the one she used freely with everything she did; it will be baked and served with love.
Anne Horrigan Geary is a regular Eagle contributor.