Garden Muse

Pick Your Own

Story and Photos by Paula Steers Brown, Contributing Columnist

 

 

For a healthy treat and a healthy retreat, head for the country!

When my nieces were little, they clamored to sit on top of my mother’s kitchen counter to observe her peeling potatoes. They were fascinated when she began the vertical cuts that they had learned were “where French fries come from” (not from bags in freezers), and if she continued to cut them into cubes to boil, they declared that boxed flakes were not as cool. She and I were fascinated, too, at this sign of the times – that kids rarely see vegetables growing in the earth anymore. What could be more educational in the summer weeks off from school than to treat the kids to a real-life botany lesson? If you are tired of going to the pool, take a family trip to one of the many farms or orchards that are open to the public, and enjoy fields of vegetables, herbs, flowers and fruits ripe for the picking.

Farm freshness is highly desirable these days. It makes sense that the healthiest foods do not come from a box when you appreciate maximum nutritional value and an absence of processed additives. Nutrition can be a great follow-up topic once the family’s interest is piqued by all the fresh vegetables and fruits that are available. Blueberries, for example, are the number-one source of antioxidants that aid in fighting cancer and heart disease. Children can understand more about vitamins and minerals if they hear what direct advantages can be gained from them. After all, how many children have been successfully coaxed into eating their spinach so they can be as strong as Popeye?

Considering what a whopping problem childhood obesity has become (no pun intended), the exercise aspect of walking out to the fields, trekking up and down the rows, and bending or reaching to pick has added health benefits. “Freshness” can also refer to the cleansing air you breathe deeply throughout the whole process. Many farms offer wagon rides, games and visits to the animals. Chesterfield Berry Farm, for example, has a goat walk, pig races, and Bunnyville for kids, and features a different type of produce on successive weekends throughout the summer, such as tomatoes, followed by cantaloupes, etc. Many farms are also now offering cut flowers and herbs. The cost may not be that much less, but the hands-on aspect, the pungent aromas, and the brilliant sights of color and texture create a memorable sensory experience as well as family fun.

Visit www.pickyourown.org for listings of links to all states for farms participating in programs open to the public. They also suggest tons of activities for using your fresh produce. Consider it a springboard for a project kids will love and learn from, but don’t sit in front of that computer for long. Remember, it is the action of working together with nature that is so beneficial.

Years ago, our grandmothers made the most of summer by canning, freezing, pickling or otherwise preserving the bounty of warm weather to be stretched throughout the rest of the year. Community canneries are few and far between these days, but with a simple water-bath canner and Mason jars, it is pretty easy to put up some of your favorites. Tomatoes are one of those foods that just do not taste as good any time but high summer, so pick in quantity and think of lots of ways to use them. Make homemade salsa or spaghetti sauce that will be crowd-pleasers in winter, or experiment with sun-dried tomatoes, so popular now.

Dehydrating is another area to explore. Notice how dried cranberries or different trail mixes are appearing at the grocery checkout aisle where the easy-grab chip bags used to be? Show kids how grapes become raisins; or pick peaches and dry them in halves placed close together, pitted side up, to retain all the juices. If your kids like picking flowers, dry yarrow and celosia for everlastings to go into fall bouquets or holiday decorations.

Make the most of berry season or pick grapes and try your hand at a batch of jam or jelly. My kids used to look forward every year to picking cherries and then participating in the process of making cherry preserves. Or if that is too hot an activity, use some of the fruit to make homemade ice cream – always a welcome treat. 

Another thing my children seemed to relish was making pickles. They were fascinated with the crock we used and would inquire about the progress throughout the pickling period. There are many things to pickle besides cucumbers: beets, mushrooms, watermelon rind, cocktail onions, green beans, cauliflower, broccoli, okra, brussels sprouts, jalapeno slices and any of the immature, or “baby,” veggies like whole baby corn or baby carrots. If you have a place to pick herbs, let kids experience picking the actual plant that produces the distinctive dill aroma that goes into a dill pickle. As any teacher will tell you, children learn best by doing.

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has a helpful Web site at www.vdacs.virginia.gov/vagrown for lists of events, festivals, farm animals, tours, lectures and other special events on the farms (by county) or through farmers’ markets. You don’t have to wait until pumpkin season, when the mass exodus occurs from city to country. Pick a season, any time from strawberries to Christmas trees, and make it an annual family tradition.

 

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