Ripening berries offer bounty of picking challenges

    The cherries we picked may be pitted, but our fruit harvest is still underway — the berries are ripening. We don’t have the usual suspects, but a bunch of northern fruits I learned to love at my mother’s home in Canada.
    We started picking a week ago. The first to ripen were the currants; we have red and pink. The pink ones are a relatively new introduction, a cross that combines the size of the red fruit with the increased sweetness of the white currant. The plants develop long racemes of flowers and the ripe berries hang from them like beads on strings. Currant shrubs are about four feet tall with stiff, brittle branches I carefully lift to expose the fruit.
    It’s easy to strip the berries from the stems, but don’t get too frisky during this operation. It’s easy to snap a branch tip.
    Although I gobbled some of the fruit during the harvest, most of our currants were made into jelly. It’s my aunt’s favorite, so she always gets the first couple of jars. We used calcium-based pectin so we can decrease the amount of sugar in the jelly and maintain the tart character of the fruit.
    By the time the currants were processed, the nearby gooseberries were ready. It’s always a surprise to get enough to can since most years the rabbits gnaw down the bushes almost to the ground to get at the fruit. This year, however, the rabbit population crashed, so instead of short stumps displaying a cup or so of wine-colored berries, the gooseberry bushes are more than 2 feet tall.
    Like currants, gooseberries have stiff branches that are prone to snap. Unlike the currants, gooseberries have thorns lining the branches — they’re about half an inch long. Even if I’m very careful, I get stuck a lot while picking, not only on the fingers but on the derriere and legs.
    The heavily laden branches arc over one another, and to reach the lower branches, the upper must be pushed out of the way. Whatever body part is used for this maneuver is impaled. The gooseberries come off the branches not only with their stems but the wizened remains of the blossom. Both must be removed before the fruit is processed.
    Taste testing while picking is frequent and some may be saved for snacks, but most of our crop is turned into preserves.
    Before coming to Port, my Missouri-born husband was unfamiliar with them since it’s too hot to grow them there. But now he savors them all, including the rhubarb in the back yard.
    His attention right now, however, is on one of his favorites, blueberries. The chipmunks stole the entire crop last year so he has constructed a sturdy defense system around the bushes. It’s paid off — a quart of blueberries accompanied Sunday’s breakfast.
    Blueberries need acidic soil, so around here beds must be prepared before planting them. We added peat to our planting bed and apply a sulfur-based soil acidifier to the plants yearly.
    Blueberries produce better fruit when different kinds are planted together so we have five varieties. They’ll ripen in waves and, with so many kinds the harvest, will go on for weeks. I won’t even pretend we won’t gobble all of them fresh because we will.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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