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Slices of Life: Razzle-dazzle berries

You never know the lessons you might learn from something as small and unassuming as a raspberry.

The plants were a gift from a friend. A few clumps of leafy twigs, roots and the attached soil. You could hardly tell if they were alive, but I had faith in those little brown and green clumps. I plopped them in a bare spot in the garden and waited for my bounty.

And waited.

The first year generated no harvest. Zero. The plants were alive and growing. They just weren’t producing. Yet. 

My husband, who is less patient than me, questioned the practicality of using a portion of our limited garden space for a product that did not produce. I explained there is no room for logic in gardening, only optimism.

The second year we did pick some fruit, although our bounty was more like a handful than a harvest. My husband pointed out it was a meager yield compared to our efforts and commitment. Maybe he had a point. I have to admit I was leaning in his direction as to the efficacy of our raspberry plants. (This was a thought I didn’t utter out loud. At least not to him.)

I considered pulling the plants and investing our space toward another crop, but decided to give it one more year. 

This spring I had my doubts. Raspberry “bushes” are really canes, aka branches, that grow straight upward — not much to look at but they get the job done. The first year, the canes only grow leaves. The second they grow fruit and then they die. It’s the gardener’s job to cut down the dead canes to make room for new growth. A responsible gardener does her pruning in the fall. I didn’t get around to it until spring. No one’s perfect.

I pruned and I pruned and I pruned some more. Dead canes abounded. When I was done, even the most optimistic optimist would describe the plot as less than half full. In a word: sparse. I couldn’t imagine how we’d get any more than a handful or two of raspberries — again. 

I’ve never been so glad to be so wrong.

The raspberry canes grew and blossomed and were (and are) loaded with plump bright red berries. Ripe, as they say, for the picking. 

Harvesting raspberries is no simple feat. It’s a unique task that gardeners either love or hate. I happen to love. I’ve always enjoyed a challenge and a good treasure hunt and raspberry picking is both. 

Raspberry plants come complete with thorns (the challenge). Mother Nature isn’t going to give up her berries without some effort on your part. You have to endure the thorns in order to get the berries. 

In addition, many of the berries are hiding under leaves and between branches (the hunt). It works best if you examine the raspberry plants from numerous angles — from below and above and everywhere in between. Lifting the branches (with a gloved hand) helps to expose the berries growing on the underbelly of the branch. It’s a lesson in thoroughness. 

Berries grow in groups, but they ripen one at a time and you have to pick each one individually. At the start, when you have picked just five or six berries, it seems like your bowl (or your stomach) will never be full and you remind yourself (again) that patience is a virtue and every little bit counts.

I’m currently harvesting a couple of pints every other day, which in itself has produced another problem (albeit a good one). We are up to our ears in raspberries. We’ve frozen them, cooked them, eaten them raw and given them as gifts.

I’ve made jam and sauce. We’ve eaten raspberry cheesecake, shortcake and raspberry ice cream cake, complete with raspberry whipped cream. I’ve basted chicken breasts with a spicy raspberry sauce and tossed salads with a raspberry vinaigrette. 

A quick Google search resulted in a recipe for a raspberry facial treatment that promises to make me look younger. 

All this from a rather unbecoming thorny plant that teaches lessons in patience, optimism, faith, endurance and responsibility — before we take even one bite of its sweet, tangy fruit. I’d say that’s a raspberry worth picking and growing.

— Jill Pertler’s column appears Wednesdays in the Times. She can be reached at