As I write we are in the midst of a scorching July heatwave, 36 degrees with barely a drop of rain all month. Very different from this time last year when the wet weather was persistent and gardeners were keeping a watchful eye out of the dreaded tomato blight.
While spring is my favourite season, I also adore summer for the abundance of soft fruit. Come rain or shine from May onwards there is always something delicious on offer with July bringing a seemingly endless supply.
I have cherished childhood memories of being tasked with fruit picking in my grand-parents garden near Heathrow. Being wrapped in an apron (or one of grandpa’s old shirts) with the words ‘don’t get juice of over your clothes’ ringing in my ears, I would be off clutching a stack of pots and down the long garden. I wandered past roses and herbaceous perennials, through the archway and past the greenhouse, to where an abundance of red and purple fruit hung heavily, waiting to be picked and eaten.
Strawberries, redcurrants, loganberries, raspberries, tayberries and blackberries were all within reach of little fingers and easily popped into greedy mouths. Warm and juicy, with the lottery of sweet and sour. Of the course the sweetest fruit was always just a little out of reach; and when picking blackberries there was the added peril of being prickled, but I think that just made the fruit taste even sweeter!
Whilst the supermarkets shelves now are overflowing filled with delicious British raspberries and strawberries, home growers’ baskets have been bursting with a much larger variety of soft fruits for decades. Delicious fresh off the bush, or served with ice-cream or yoghurt, added to cakes and puddings, preserved in jams, wines and liqueurs, and of course frozen to add to pies and crumbles, a home grower’s larder or freezer is always full.
Looking after soft fruit bushes is pretty simple for much of the year, although some varieties benefit from a bit of pruning once a year or removing the old canes and tying new ones in. But apart from that, you can usually just sit back and wait for them to fruit. When the fruit arrives though it’s all hands to the deck to gather the precious treasure before it spoils, or the birds swoop in. I must admit I do net some of my soft fruit against birds, but the pigeons and starlings still get their fair share of the cherry tree so I don’t feel too bad!
It’s not all lazy juicy fruit scoffing though, as fruit picking can be hard. Scratched arms, red ant bitten feet, sore backs and hot faces are part and parcel of gathering in the harvest; and for me, utterly worth it for the reward. Every summer I’m filled with gratitude that nature provides so much food for my family. Of course picking is only the beginning, when you get home sometimes the fruit needs sorting and processing to ensure nothing goes to waste. It’s a seasonal chore I am honoured to take on and it is comforting to be part of an annual ritual that links me to generations of people before me.
I’d love to see more of us to embrace the seasonal abundant fruit that the UK has to offer, whether grown at home, in allotments, in community gardens or orchards. These fruits can provide our families and communities with fresh fruit from April to November and for much longer with delicious preserves and other fruity products.
Local, seasonal fruit is zero waste and can also be zero food miles and zero carbon. Not only that, there is no better feeling than spending an hour or two with friends in the summer sunshine bringing in the harvest whilst chatting through fruit filled mouths. Connecting over food is something primal that lies deep within us; when we grow and harvest in communities we deepen our connections with our land and each other.
by Sarah Mason