Now that fall has arrived, the farm crew, faculty and staff of our strawberry program are hard at work preparing for another strawberry season in central Florida. It’s one of the highlights of the year for our center when we get those bare root plants in the ground and watch the progress of this sweet Florida treat. However, many people might not realize that our strawberry plants are annuals, not perennials like the strawberry plants in the northern states. I remember as a child we had a couple of strawberry plants in the back yard next to the rhubarb, which go together nicely in numerous recipes. Once fall came around, we covered our strawberry plants with hay and forget about them until spring after the last freeze. We would remove the hay and the plants would perk up and bring us fresh berries in 2 months or so. Once the weather turned cold, we started the routine over again. Not the case here in Florida.
The summers here in Florida are for the most part hot and wet. This is not the best scenario for strawberries, which are prone to mold and disease caused by hot, wet weather conditions. So we wait for September and have our bare root, annual strawberry plants shipped down from nurseries in Canada and North Carolina where the plants are propagated during the summer. Then it’s time to get down and dirty. After the fields are prepped, the plants are planted, by hand, into the plastic covered mounds. Yes, by hand. It’s back breaking work almost as hard as harvesting the fruit come the end of November through March. But that’s how we do it here in Florida.
We are looking forward to some new marketing adventures for Florida strawberries as well in the upcoming season. When you go to the produce section of your favorite market to pick up some apples, you know if you’re getting a McIntosh, Envy, or Granny Smith. But what variety of strawberries are you getting in that quart-sized clam shell? No one knows. It could ‘Festival’, ‘Winterstar’ or one of the other successful varieties. This is about to change with additional labeling by the packing houses. So when you see that clam shell from Wish Farms or Driscoll, note the variety of berry your getting and then you’ll be able to pick your favorite in the seasons to come, just like you do when you’re picking your favorite apples or tomatoes.
Finally, when you get those first berries of the season, don’t be discouraged if they aren’t as sweet as you hoped they would be. Once those cooler nights kick in during January and February, our Florida strawberries will sweeten up nicely. Whether its true or not, it is suggested that the cooler nighttime temperatures cause a chemical reaction in the berries allowing more sugar to be released. Trust me, you’ll notice a difference in the taste once January comes around.
So here’s to another successful strawberry season here in central Florida. And for all of those people living in New York City who want those chocolate covered strawberries for their holiday festivities, you’re welcome.