Last week there were white blossoms: Thousand of them in Virginia and Maryland, growing wild, in gardens and in fields.
This weekend in the area's southernmost spots, and in the next weeks everyplace, there'll be strawberries: fresh and warm and slightly gritty right next to the ground.
The Pick-Your-Own season is beginning down on the farm. Strawberries ripen first, then cherries, then raspberries, and so on through peaches to apple. Peas and beans will be up around the beginning of June.
The prices at the pick-your-own spots are less than in the stores, but don't expect a bargain -- especially with the cost of driving out to the country. Some of the strawberry growers in Prince George's County have decided to charge 59 cents a pound. Growers elsewhere say they'll wait to see their crops first.
The greatest advantage is the quality of the fruit itself, which will be sweeter and far fresher than any at a store.
A year ago, with a string yen for berries and a weak sense of Virginia geography, three friends and I wandered from Shenandoan Park to a little spot on the map: A Pick-Your-Own place. The back roads were quiet except near a church, where there'd stand a cluster of the upright in their Sunday finest. Surely, we foolishly thought, we'd discovered a hidden paradise of lush fruit and few farmhands.
Our circuitous route led us to Hill High Orchards, which is really just down Route 7 from Washington. The parking lot was jammed with cars with D.C. license plates.
But so what? Armed with shallow cardboard boxes and slathered with suntan cream, our rapacious fingers ever busy, we crept alongside a row of strawberry plants. Three for the box, one to taste ("quality contro," said John), a rub of the back of the knees and return to plucking.
We complained about the arduous task of picking; but that's nothing compared to what the grower does to get the berries ready.
"There's some spraying to get rid of bugs," said John Vinis of Manor Hill Farm in Warrenton. "And if the temperature drops below freezing in the middle of the night, we have to get up and tend to them -- fast.
"But mainly there's weeding. Weeding, weeding, weeding."
It's count-down time for the Pattersons, who expect their 12 acres of berries near Fredericksburg to be ready this Tuesday. They've received phone calls since the beginning of May from prospective pickers suffering from strawberry withdrawal.
"Then it's steady people for four weeks," Don Patterson said. "We'll even get men in business suits and women dressed like they're going to a party coming in."
The Pattersons have certain ideas about getting the best berries:
Pick as early in the morning or late in the evening as possible. The fruit will hold up better without the excess midday heat in it.
Weather, on the other hand, is irrelevant. If it's raining, take an umbrella or rubber boots or go barefoot, they say, as long as you have the time and they have the berries. The fields are closed only in a thunderstorm. t
Go for the berries that are red on all sides. If they've ripened on the plant (instead of in a refrigerator), they'll be sweeter.
Pinch off the berry and cap. If the little greep cap comes off while picking, the fruit spoils sooner.
Use a flat container; don't squish the berries together. On the ride home, cover the container with a newpaper to prevent air circulation. "And don't put them in the trunk," warns Don Patterson. "Do you know how hot it is in there in summer? Just think if you'd like to ride back to the city in the back of a trunk."
At home, wash the berries with the caps still on. You can freeze strawberries (still with the caps on; take them off when the berries are slightly thawed).
Let's add another rule to these: Call ahead to make sure the fruit or vegetable you're after is ready for harvesting. Some farms allow anyone to pick; others prefer that small kids stay out of the fields. And while most supply containers, a few require that you bring your own.
Once the first strawberries appear, there'll be about four or five weeks of picking.The farms are usually open for 10- and 12-hour days during that time.
After that hectic month, says Gail Patterson, the growers become human again and finally take a break. "The day the last strawberry has been picked, though," she said, "I go picking blueberries down the road. We go after peaches and tomatoes, too."
"I love strawberries," she added, "but I like pineapples best."
Listed below are approximate ripening times for the fruits and vegetables that grow in these parts.
Both the Maryland and Virginia Departments of Agriculture keep a close watch on their PYOs (as they're known in the business) and roadside markets. wBrochures that list all of them are available in both states. In Maryland, go to the county library or cooperative extension service.For a complete list of Virginia farms, write: Pick-Your-Own, Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, 203 North Governor Street, Richmond 23219.
Or try one of the closer-in places mentioned here. FRUITS STRAWBERRIES -- May 15 to June 20 SWEET CHERRIES -- June 10 to July 10 BLACK/RED RASPBERRIES -- June 15 to July 15 SOUR CHERRIES -- June 15 to July 15 BLUEBERRIES -- June 20 to August 1 BLACKBERRIES -- July 5 to August 1 PEACHES -- July 5 to September 20 NECTARINES -- July 25 to August 25. BLACKBERRIES (thornless) -- August 1 to September 10 APPLES -- August 1 to November 5 VEGETABLES SPINACH (spring) -- May 1 to October 1 SPINACH (fall) -- May 30 to October 30 CABBAGE -- June 1 to September 15 PEAS (green) -- June 10 to July 1 BEANS (green) -- June 10 to September 15 SQUASH (summer) -- June 25 to September 1 CUCUMBERS -- July 1 to September 1 POTATOES -- July 1 to September 30 BEETS -- July 4 to September 1 CORN (sweet) -- July 4 to September 15 TOMATOES -- July 4 to September 15 BROCCOLI -- July 10 to September 1 OKRA -- July 15 to August 30 LIMA BEANS -- July 20 to September 1 EGGPLANT -- July 25 to September 10 PEPPERS -- July 25 to September 15 SQUASH (winter) -- August 1 to September 30 TURNIPS -- August 15 to November 1 PUMPKINS -- September 10 to November 30 MARYLAND FREDERICK COUNTY CATOCTIN 301/271-2737. Route 2, Thurmont. Strawberries, sweet cherries, blackberries, black raspberries, peaches. GLADE LINK FARM 301/898-7131. 9332 Links Bridge Road, Walkersville. Strawberries, broccoli, cauliflower, pumpkins, gourds. ZIMMERMANN'S FARM MARKET 301/874-5654 or (D.C. number) 977-2466. Route 1, Adamstown. Peas. HOWARD COUNTY LARRILAND FARM 301/442-2605 or (D.C. number) 854-6110. 2525 Florence Road, Woodbine. Strawberries, red raspberries, peaches, apples, beets, cabbage, peas, lettuce, spinach, snap beans, squash, tomatoes, sweet corn, lima beans, potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, pumpkins. SEWELL'S ORCHARD 301/730-5500. 6233 Oakland Mills Road, Columbia. Strawberries, blackberries, peaches, apples, peas, green beans, pumpkins. MONTGOMERY COUNTY BUTLER'S ORCHARD 972-3299. 22200 Davis Mill Road, Germantown. Strawberries, blackberries, peas, green beans, pumpkins. FARMER FULKS GREENHOUSE 926-0772. 18849 Laytonsville Road, Gaithersburg. Strawberries. For groups only: pumpkins. HOMESTEAD FARM 977-3764.15600 Sugarland Road, Poolseville. Strawberries, blackberries, grapes, tomatoes, peas, beans. INNSTEAD FARM 301/972-7248. 18020 Edwards Ferry Road, Poolesville. Strawberries, peas. NEAL'S ORCHARD 301/972-8555. 21511 Peach Tree Road, Barnesville. Cherries, apricots, nectarines, peaches, plums. PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY CERRY HILL PRODUCE 292-4642. Gallahan Road, Clinton. Strawberries, peas, cucumbers, green beans, broccoli, beets, blackeye peas, cabbage, greens, limas, cranberry beans, turnips, eggplant, lettuce, okra, peppers, wax beans, squash, tomatoes. HARE'S BERRY FARM 868-4755. 7806 Colonial Lane, Clinton. Strawberries. KERBY'S FARM MARKET 567-4375. 8407 Indian Head Highway, Oxon Hill. Strawberies, green beans, limas, peas, summer squash, greens. E.A. PARKER & SONS 292-3940. Route 1, Clinton. Strawberries, peas, greens, spring onions, blackberries, red and black raspberries, corn green beans, limas, squash, okra, tomatoes, blackeye peas. ROBIN HILL FARM NURSERY 301/579-6844. Route 382, 10 miles east of Brandywine. Pumpkins; in October, kale and turnips. KENNETH SIMPSON 301/390-6097. 10907 Annapolis Road, Mitchellville. Strawberries, sugarsnap peas, blackberries, corn. VIRGINIA BELVEDERE FARM 703/371-8494. Route 17, seven miles south of Fredericksburg. Strawberries, kale, peas, broccoli, cauliflower. COX FARMS (VIENNA) 281-0165. Braddock and Pleasant Valley Roads, Centreville. Strawberries, tomatoes, beans, pumpkins. GENTLE GIANT FARM 703/234-9321. Route 1, Port Republic. Strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, peas summer squash, cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, green beans, cabbage, broccoli, October beans, peppers, limas. HARMONY HOLLOW 703/636-2009. Route 604, Front Royal. Raspberries, peaches, sweet corns, peppers, pumpkins. HILL HIGH ORCHARDS 703/338-7997 or 471-1448. Route 7, Round Hill. Strawberries, raspberries, peaches, blackberries, apples, pumpkins. MANOR LANE FARM 347-4883. Route 681, Warrenton. Strawberries, butternut squash, pumpkins, ornamental squash, popcorn, Indian corn, black walnuts. PATTERSON FARM 703/582-5241. Route 1, Thornburg. Strawberries. POTOMAC VEGETABLE FARM 759-2119.9627 Leesburg Pike, Vienna. Strawberries, peas, lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, stringbeans, Italian tomatoes, okra, spring onions, snap peas, peas, hot peppers, lima beans, beets. RAPIDAN BERRY GARDEN 703/672-4235 or -2730 or (in Virginia) 1-800/572-2262. Route, 615, Rapidan. Asparagus, strawberries, raspberries boysenberries, peaches, grapes, apples, peas, blackeye peas, Damson plums, stringbeans, limas, tomatoes. RICK AND VAN'S 703/775-7890. Route, 3, 12 miles east of Fredericksburg. Strawberries, peas, squash, beets, stringbeans, cabbage, tomatoes. RIVERBEND FARM 703/672-5311. Route 621, Rochelle. Peas, stringbeans, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, squash, sweet corn, taomaties, okra, pepper, eggplant, cucumbers, potatoes, onions.