Strawberry shortcake…strawberry tarts…strawberry jelly!

New Jersey’s strawberry picking season is in full swing, but it only lasts a few weeks.

Due to the difference in temperatures from south to north Jersey, the strawberry picking season starts around Mother’s Day in the southern part of the state and continues through mid-June in the northern part, said David Specca, who co-owns Specca U-Pick Farm with his wife, Lisa on Jacksonville-Mount Holly Road in Burlington County.

There are about 200 farms in the state that grow strawberries. Some are U-pick farms like Specca Farms, and others are pick-up only farms, said New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture, Doug Fisher.

Nevertheless, Fisher said it’s important to choose Jersey Fresh and visit a local farmer to get fresh strawberries.

“We encourage people to really pick it up at the farm and ask for Jersey Fresh. It’s a big part of the income for farmers, these early crops,” Fisher said.

There are a number of varieties of strawberries grown in the state. Every farmer has a different variety so it’s wise to ask the farmers what variety they grow so you know for future picking places, Fisher said.

Berry picking at Specca Farms, Mount Holly (Photo Credit: Wendy Byar)
Berry picking at Specca Farms, Mount Holly (Photo Credit: Wendy Byar)
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What are the ideal weather conditions for strawberries?

Hot, wet weather is not good for strawberries, said Specca. They like cool, dry air. In fact, the cooler air along with abundant sunshine makes the berries a lot sweeter.

When there was a cold snap in April, Specca said he lost a lot of the farm’s earlier berries to the frost. Even though he protected them with a row cover, it got cold enough that the flowers were injured and no fruit was produced. But the flowers coming behind the earlier ones look fine.

Rain also creates some trouble. Fortunately, the growing system that Specca Farms used is raised beds covered with a plastic mulch. The plants grow through that so the rain is shed off the berry and onto the ground. He said those berries tend to be of higher quality because they don’t sit on the damp soil.

Fresh picked strawberries at Specca Farms, Mount Holly (Photo Credit: Wendy Byar)
Fresh picked strawberries at Specca Farms, Mount Holly (Photo Credit: Wendy Byar)
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What to look for when strawberry picking?

Specca said always look for a berry that’s full-red, shiny, and plump. The seeds on a plump berry are recessed in the flesh of the fruit and stick up a little bit, too.

Berry picking at Specca Farms, Mount Holly (Photo Credit: Lisa Specca)
Berry picking at Specca Farms, Mount Holly (Photo Credit: Lisa Specca)
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What are the do’s and don’ts of strawberry picking?

Don’t pick a berry with a white tip, Specca said. Strawberries tend to ripen from the top to the tip (the bottom). He said if it’s white at the tip, that means it’s not ripe, so they are not sweet.

Don’t pull on the shoulder of the fruit. Instead, pinch the stem so the fruit is not damaged in any way.

Move the leaves of the plant around because a lot of the nice berries hide under the leaves. Oftentimes you won’t see them just standing in the field. So, if you just move the leaves a bit, you may just stumble upon a batch of nice, red, plump, ready-to-pick strawberries.

Berry face at Specca Farms, Mount Holly (Photo Credit: Lisa Specca)
Berry face at Specca Farms, Mount Holly (Photo Credit: Lisa Specca)
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How to properly store just-picked strawberries?

It all depends on what you want to do and how soon you want to use them, said Specca. So for example, if you plan to use the berries within a day of picking, then do not refrigerate them.

He said to leave them on the counter at room temperature, out of the sunlight. This preserves the most flavor in a berry.

Of course, before eating the berries, rinse them off with fresh water and dry them on a paper towel.

But, if you plan to store the berries longer than a day, they need to be refrigerated. If they are still in the quart container, wrap the container in a plastic bag. This preserves the humidity around the berry and won’t dry them out.

When you’re ready to use or eat the berries, then and only then, wash them. Never wash the berries before putting them in the fridge.

“Maintaining that humidity around the berry while it’s in the refrigerator, is important,” Specca said.

Strawberry field at Specca Farms, Mount Holly (Photo Credit: Lisa Specca)
Strawberry field at Specca Farms, Mount Holly (Photo Credit: Lisa Specca)
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There are about five acres of strawberries on Specca Farms. He said each field can easily yield over 5,000 pounds of berries.

The farm has also been working with Rutgers University which has a strawberry breeding program. Specca said they’ve developed some very nice, flavored good-looking berries. As those varieties of strawberries become more available, Specca plans to include them in regular farm production.

After strawberry season wraps up, garden peas, flat peas, and snow peas will be available for picking at  Specca Farms.

“A big crop of ours is fava beans. Many people may not know what they are but they’re a favorite of a lot of the Mediterranean cultures. They’re actually one of the oldest known cultivated plants in the world. That brings us to the end of June,” Specca said.

The farm grows 100 different varieties of vegetables, mainly for ethnic foods.

Specca Farms is one of 116 pick-your-own farms in New Jersey, according to www.funnewjersey.com.

Jen Ursillo is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach her at jennifer.ursillo@townsquaremedia.com

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