Read more about the love and labor that goes into this sweet spring crop
Ancient Romans associated the strawberry (Fragaria ananassa) with Venus, the goddess of love, and left offerings of the heart-shaped delicacy at her temples. Medieval masters took the fruit as a symbol of perfection and righteousness, painting it into elaborate renderings of the Madonna and Christ. The Victorians, on the other hand, regarded the luscious, red berry as a symbol of latent desire.
In the present-day Lowcountry, we’re passionate about strawberries, too. The first fruit of spring, strawberries represent an awakening from winter’s vegetative state, and April heralds ruby berries ripe for picking. Thankfully, hardworking farmers across our region sow thousands of rows of the low-growing plants each year and then welcome city dwellers and suburbanites into their fields for a fresh taste of the farming life and its bounty.
For decades, U-pick farms have served as a resource for stocking up on affordable seasonal produce, but these days, the businesses serve a hybrid purpose. Of course, they continue to provide nutritious local produce at a lower price point than most grocery stores, but in today’s fast-paced, tech-driven world, U-picks also offer a tangible way to slow down and connect to the land. “It isn’t just about picking. It’s about being in the moment, getting off your phone, and playing with your kids,” reflects Jimmy Livingston, who owns Wabi Sabi Farm in Cordesville with his wife, Johnna. “With more and more people being completely cut off from agriculture of any sort, the experience also helps demonstrate how food is made.”
Choose Your Own Adventure
At least nine U-pick farms have roots within an hour’s drive of downtown Charleston (see “Day Trippin’,” below), giving would-be pickers the chance to choose a destination according to their tastes.
“We’re situated down a long dirt road out in the middle of nowhere. You have to want to get here,” says Livingston, who relishes the opportunity to educate visitors on the agricultural process and share organic growing tips. “I enjoy our small-farm feel. We generally grow two acres of strawberries, plus another two to five acres of vegetables, and we sell everything right at our home all spring. It’s something my wife and I can do with just a little bit of help.”
The Livingstons encourage families to bring a picnic lunch, peruse the gardens and fields, and pluck baskets of their unsprayed berries. He’s thrilled that this year’s crop looks promising, especially after being forced to close in 2021 due to the pandemic and other personal pressures. “We needed to rest our land and our bodies.”
Livingston’s not alone in his positive outlook for the 2023 season. “I’ve got a beautiful crop so far, with berries all over them,” reported Pete Ambrose earlier this year. Since 1976, Pete and his wife, Babs, have farmed a couple hundred acres on Wadmalaw Island. In those nearly five decades, visitors to Kiawah and Seabrook have made a tradition of stopping at the Ambrose Family Farm for a gallon or two of freshly harvested strawberries (DIY or pre-picked). Even when a staffing shortage meant temporarily closing the U-pick side of their business last year, Ambrose strawberries have always been available at the family’s Stono Market on John’s Island—along with a side of no-frills farm-to-table cooking from the Tomato Shed Café, now in its second generation of Ambrose ownership with daughter, Barbara.
Those looking for a jaunt closer to home often turn to Mount Pleasant’s Boone Hall Farms, the agricultural arm of Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens. “We’re a big farm in the middle of a big city,” says farm manager Erik Hernandez. What started in 1997 as a two-acre U-pick field has multiplied into a 10-acre operation complete with an annual strawberry festival. “The intent is to give families the opportunity to engage with how some of their food is grown while enjoying wholesome fun on a farm,” adds Rick Benthall, Boone Hall’s director of marketing.
Picking berries at Boone Hall Farms
Nurture vs. Nature
While springtime may be embodied in that explosion of tart sweetness that bursts forth when you bite into a plump, sun-warmed strawberry, the work to produce these bright gems starts well before winter. In October, after blanketing the fields in plastic sheeting to protect the root system and hold in moisture, the farmers set their plants into the earth. “We plant each one by hand,” says Hernandez of Boone Hall’s 120,000 strawberry plants. The initial investment takes more than just time and energy, it requires seed money—literally. “Right now, our biggest challenge is getting consistently good-quality plants,” says Livingston, noting that plant costs have increased by about 65 percent, while the price of fertilizer has tripled in the last 18 months and the tab for plastic pails has doubled. “With input costs going ever higher, losing the farm is very real to us. One bad season could force us out of business,” stresses Livingston. “Every time we put a plant in the ground,” says Hernandez, “we tell it to be good to us.”
A favorite among local growers, the “Camarosa” strawberry performs well in our rich, coastal farmland. Livingston likes this particular variety for its good size, planting better than two acres of the berries this year. “I’ve tried all kinds, and none have satisfied as much as the ‘Camarosas’,” shares Ambrose. “They’re consistently sweeter.” Over at Boone Hall, Hernandez likes to experiment with the crop, a lesson gleaned from late owner Willie McRae. “We started with ‘Camarosas,’ but when we tried ‘Camino Real,’ we saw a big difference in yield, so we switched. Every two or three years, new varieties are released, and we want to give them a shot,” he says, explaining that he’s also testing another cultivar, ‘Frontera,’ this season.
Tucked into their rows, the plants go dormant over the winter, then begin putting out blooms when warm weather returns. “Those blossoms are like babies. They require care every day,” notes Ambrose. To protect the delicate white blooms from frost, which kills the flowers and harms the fruit, farmers often cover planted rows with big blankets or run irrigation systems during freezing temperatures to melt away any ice. “The one thing you can count on when growing strawberries is that you can’t count on anything,” laughs Livingston. During a late frost in March 2022, temperatures plummeted to 12 degrees, and swift winds blew the protective covers right off his plants. “We were in full bloom at that point, already picking strawberries,” he remembers. That same freeze stunted the berry growth at Ambrose Family Farm as well, and he “was out of business by the 10th of May,” says the owner.
Weather isn’t the only element these producers must contend with—mildew, rot, and pests can also jeopardize their crops. For Livingston, who uses organic alternatives to chemical sprays, preventing deadly diseases means cleaning his 30,000-plus plants by hand each January. “We take off every dead leaf and flower from every plant on the ground—talk about physical!” Many farmers work closely Clemson University’s Cooperative Extension Service whenever new threats take root. Their researchers can help identify problems, sometimes microscopic ones, and work to figure out how to treat them.
Then there are the larger pests, hungry wildlife foraging for food as winter supplies dwindle. “The deer are always a challenge,” continues Hernandez. “They’re looking for something to eat, and we have it.” Electric fences are a frequently used deterrent, though they don’t always work. “You can’t make the fence high enough, they will run right through it,” gripes Livingston. In January, five deer broke through his triple-layered electric fence and ate the crowns off about 1,000 plants that now won’t produce this season. “When everything is dead in the woods and they’ve exhausted their amassed nuts and acorns, then they see this beautiful green field, they’re coming. The young bucks will take the beating and run right through the fence, leaving a trail for others to follow.”
So the farmers have to get creative. “I walk around with my dog and shoot guns into the air at 2 a.m.,” continues the Wabi Sabi proprietor. “There’s not a night that I’m not in the field two or three times.” Ambrose hangs lights in the trees near his field. “When the wind blows, it looks like somebody with a flashlight,” he says. “I also have radios on all night to scare away the deer—anything with a lot of bass.” And the veteran farmer still gets fired up recalling the 1980s showdown he had with a flock of cedar waxwings that moved in to feast on his berries. “Hundreds of them just would not leave.” When asked how he finally got rid of the gluttonous birds, he harrumphs, “Custer’s last stand.”
And then, April arrives.
A Labor of Love
“We fight for these berries all winter, and come spring, the fields are full of ripe fruit, and the kids are out there having a big time. I’ve seen four generations picking together,” says Livingston. “It’s a joy to see everyone talking about and eating our berries,” Hernandez says. “That’s the reward.”
From mid-March through June, the Lowcountry’s berry bounty proliferates, growing sweeter as the spring nights warm. Sun-hatted pickers return from the fields toting bucketfuls of ruby treasure, cheeks flushed with the heat of the season, fingers stained deep pink. And the men and women who have toiled since early fall to nurture this springtime favorite? For just a moment, these farmers take heart in the ability to thrive for one more season before plowing forward with their next crop.
Even while digging in the dirt, it’s important to mind your manners. “The unspoken rules at the field are to respect the effort involved in making the crop produce. Strawberries don’t just grow—they are loved, defended, and cared for over at least six months,” stresses Livingston. Here, some U-pick etiquette advice from the farmers:
“Remember that these are living plants. The more we take care of them, the more strawberries we get to enjoy. Don’t pull the plant out of the ground or pick green berries. Look for a full, red berry.” —Erik Hernandez, Boone Hall Farms
“People often think that field’s a buffet. If you eat half a gallon while picking and only pay for what’s left, that hurts everybody. Instead, taste a few and decide if you like them. Eat all you want after you buy them.” —Jimmy Livingston, Wabi Sabi Farm
“Monitor children to make sure they aren’t picking green berries or pulling off the stems, which hurts the plants. And don’t toss unwanted berries into the field to rot, which causes disease. Take care of the crop as if it were your own.” —Pete Ambrose, Ambrose Family Farms
The Lowcountry offers a bounty of U-pick spots throughout strawberry season. Situated within an hour’s drive from Charleston, these farms welcome pickers from March through June. Be sure to check social media pages and websites for up-to-date hours
Ambrose Family Farm
2349 Black Pond Ln., Wadmalaw Island
Boone Hall Farms
2434 N. Hwy. 17, Mount Pleasant
Bugby Plantation U-Pick
Bugby Plantation Rd., Wadmalaw Island
10970 Hwy. 17, McLellanville
Hickory Bluff Berry Farm
245 Hickory Bluff Ln., Holly Hill
King’s Farm Market
2559 Hwy. 174, Edisto Island
Shuler Strawberries & Peaches
4983 Old State Rd., Holly Hill
118 Meyers Mayo Rd., Ridgeville
Wabi Sabi Farm
661 Anderson Ln., Cordesville
Westbury Farms Strawberries
1005 N. Gum St., Summerville
Storing & Cleaning Your Berries
Strawberry Festival: A Jam Good Time
The 27th annual Lowcountry Strawberry Festival at Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens delivers old-fashioned family fun on back-to-back weekends from March 31 to April 8. One of the state’s largest spring festivals, the event celebrates the strawberry season with pie-eating contests, amusement rides, a petting zoo, pig races, magic shows, acrobatic dogs, and, of course, ripe berries ready for picking. The fan-favorite Miss Berry Princess and Mr. John Deere contests return for little ladies and gents ages three to six. And this year’s lineup also welcomes an action-packed stunt show culminating in a death-defying 65-foot free fall. For details and tickets, visit boonehallplantation.com/special-events.
(Left) Strawberry Toast: Spread natural peanut butter on a slice of toasted sourdough or whole grain bread and top with strawberry preserves; (Right) Make strawberry ice cream with the Lee Brothers’ recipe. Top with sweet and salty crushed peanuts for additional flavor and texture.
Berry Good Ideas
1. Pretty in Pink: In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat 1/2 cup butter with one tablespoon sugar and four chopped strawberries for a flavorful whipped spread perfect for dressing up biscuits and toast.
2. Rose Bowl: Put two cups of sliced strawberries, a cup of plain or vanilla Greek yogurt, 1/4 cup each of sugar and orange juice, and a splash of vanilla into a blender or food processor. Process until smooth and chill. Voila! Strawberry soup.
3. Southwest Refresh: Mix finely diced strawberries with any combo of diced mango, pineapple, jalapeno, and red onion. Toss with fresh cilantro, lime juice, and a squirt of honey for a springtime salsa.
4. Boozy Berries: For a sparkling treat, soak your strawberries in a bubbly wine such as prosecco or cava overnight in the refrigerator, pat dry, roll in cane sugar, and serve immediately.
While it’s hard to top the deliciousness of a freshly plucked, sun-warmed strawberry (for which you have already paid, of course), the ripe fruit offers a smorgasbord of preparation possibilities, from jams and syrups to pies and wine. They can be frozen into ice cubes, dressed with a bit of balsamic, or sliced into a green salad. Here, find some more creative ways to savor strawberries: