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The Humble Gardener

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Berry Fond Memories

If I can be outside, I am. Dating Chip 36 years ago provided many enjoyable outdoor opportunities, but one in particular made me wonder if I should bow out gracefully and beat a hasty retreat. Despite oppressive temperature and humidity, we dressed in long sleeve shirts, jeans, and sturdy shoes and ventured into a black raspberry patch at a friend's farm. The "patch" extended along his woods, raspberry plants entwined with gooseberries, small trees, and other plants designed to trip the unwary picker. The humidity rose as we picked and the sun, so beneficial to ripen berries, beat on us. Daddy long legs shared the hunt for the purple jewels. Hmmm. Heat, humidity and spiders. I started to reassess this "date".

When we were finished, we returned to town to make jelly from the berries. First the berries have to be debugged. We had dissuaded most of the Daddies but still a few intrepid spiders rode home with us. Additionally, there were tiny critters hiding which necessitated removal. We filled a clean stock pot, rinsed the berries, and put them in the water. The unwelcome visitors rose to the top and we liberated them. The next step was to drain the berries, add new water, and simmer until the berries were soft. Chip had his mom's jelly bag, which is basically a closely woven cotton cloth that is large enough to put the cooked berries in, tie close with sturdy twine, and hang over a large pot to catch the juice. (The room where you hang the bag should have a door and the resident cat should be OUTSIDE the door. Dripping juice is quite irresistible.)

The next day, we made the jelly. If you have ever seen magazines such as Better Homes and Gardens, the kitchen is always staged with sunlight pouring through a window that glistens on the immaculate surfaces. Black raspberry jelly should be in that picture. The deep purple, almost black color in a canning jar back-lighted with the sun is stunning. Stronger people would stand and admire, but if one has tasted black raspberry jelly, the temptation to raptly gaze at the beauty is far outweighed by the need to snarf as much jelly as quickly as possible. Since I am an adult and therefore can eat what I want when I want, as soon as the jelly cools, I am there, teaspoon in hand, just protecting friends and family, making sure the stuff is edible. Sometimes I take one for the team and eat most of a jar making sure. Sometimes it even gets put on toast. Hey, someone has to do it.

The farm has long since been sold. Faced with the loss of our berry source, we planted a few bushes in our yard. We didn't get enough berries to make the mass quantities of jelly we wanted, so we decided to expand the patch. Plants consist of canes, one of which produces fruit for next year and one from which you pick this year's fruit. The berries are bunched at the tip of the cane. The unripe berries start off cream colored, which changes to a pinkish red, and then to a glistening black/purple. The ripe berries almost pop off the stem when ripe. Definitely easy pickings, requiring only the ability to differentiate between cream, pink, and purple.

Black raspberries are obliging plants. The canes bend over and, if not cut, make a new plant in the patch. Because Chip is vigilant, he guides the bent canes into individual pots of soil and, by the next spring, we have new plants. Another thing he does is "tips" the end of the canes that will bear next year's fruit. Because the plants are floppy, he cuts anywhere from 3-8 inches off the cane so it is about 2' high. This results in a sturdier plant; the plant produces 4 to 12 side shoots, which will produce berries. Cutting off the longer portion of the cane means the plant's energy is going into producing berries rather than long canes, which increases our harvest. Tipping sounds hard but it actually is easy to do. (Any good pruning book will provide pictures or you can send me an email with questions at I have been trained to do the tipping which shows how easy it is to master!

In addition to jelly, we have made syrup, glaze for cheesecakes, and raspberry liqueur. A friend loves to make black raspberry pies. I don't care for the seeds but she and her family don't mind them. I am happy to pick the berries for her. We aren't in the woods, the plants are easily accessible, and I sweat a little while happily contemplating the months ahead filled with yummy black raspberry treats. It's all good.

Sandra DePalma-Odell

Master Gardener

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