Lush, midsummer berry gathering |

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Lush, midsummer berry gathering

When farmers and gardeners harvest crops from the land they tend, it is an intimate connection that is far more meaningful than the head of lettuce or basket of berries produced.

Gathering produce is the culmination of a commitment that turns earth into productive soil, seed into plant, and nurturing into harvest.

Recently I had the unexpected delight of meeting George Loftus, the energetic and inspired owner of SunSmile Farms west of Grass Valley. Organically farming 70 acres, which is a small portion of the acreage originally farmed by his family beginning in 1939, he has inherited their love of the land and mixed this with his own visions and creations.

I must have chosen the right day to stop by for his delicious strawberries and lettuce. He walked into the farmstand and offered me a tour. The land, with varied microclimates, is beautifully productive under his direction and hard work. The height of the tour was his amazing berry patch, with a lush crop of thornless blackberries, perfectly pruned for heavy production. It won’t be long before the crop is ready for U-pick, a good way to put your own effort into the food you are eating, if you are not growing your own.

U-pick fruits have been an integral part of SunSmile Farms for years. Soon these thornless blackberries will add a new dimension when the patch will be open for a summer evening harvest. And this is the perfect time of day to pick, while the berries are still warm from the day’s foothill sun, but the harvesters will be in total shade as the sun sets in the west. Music will accompany the quiet rhythms of berry picking.

Check the website,, where George will post the date and time when he knows the thornless berries will be at the perfect peak of ripeness. Meanwhile, visit the farm for other U-pick fruit.

George’s berry patch also teaches us about training and pruning berries. If you are planning on growing your own, pause in the patch and study the system he has perfected. Early summer tip removal is a critical step in maximizing production on shorter canes. It also makes faster picking possible when the berries ripen. You don’t have to move very far along the row to fill your container.

I am removing tips on some of my raspberries this week. This light summer pruning before buds form for flowers delays the harvest a bit, but the increased production is worth the wait. Strong lateral growth after the tips are removed produces lots of berries for several weeks in the fall, well into November.

Cultivated blackberries are quite different in sweetness and flavor than the wild Himalaya berry that grows so abundantly in the foothills. This will be a good year for that berry, too, after all the rains brought an extra-heavy crop. I have many fond childhood memories of picking wild blackberries in Sonoma County and in Seattle, where the wild version is larger and sweeter than our local foothill variety. However, approaching a wild patch means long sleeves, boots, good thick pants and clippers in the back pocket. Nobody tends those patches for easy access and maximized production.

One summer day years ago I was working in the vegetable garden when one of my boys came home from an adventure, excited and insistent that I come with him to the site of a discovery he had made. Ever in search of the best patch of berries, he had surpassed all earlier efforts.

We hiked back a mile up our private road, climbed into a row boat (with permission from the owner, of course), and crossed a small pond to where the berries hung over the water, lush and satisfyingly ripe. So ripe they fell into our hands with the slightest touch. The perfect harvest. And this is what you will experience at SunSmile Farms.

Carolyn Singer has gardened organically in the foothills since 1977. She is the author of two books of deer-resistant plants: “Deer in My Garden, Vol. 1: Perennials & Subshrubs” and ” Vol. 2: Groundcovers & Edgers.” Past articles may be found at