Berry-picking season is in full swing, and there are plenty of places in the Asheville area — both wild and cultivated — to pick some of nature’s candy fresh off the shrub.
Of course, wild blueberries are free for the picking from late summer through early fall at spots on the Blue Ridge Parkway, including Craggy Gardens (mile post 364), Graveyard Fields (mile post 418) and Black Balsam Knob (mile post 420).
But for those who aren’t up for a hike or don’t want to compete with the late-summer crowds on the parkway, a few local farms offer u-pick options for berries that are not treated with chemical preservatives or pesticides. (The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research agency that works to educate the public on the importance of limiting consumption of pesticides, says that even when washed, berries are known to retain larger amounts of pesticide residue than many other kinds of produce.)
Ripening times can vary depending on the elevation of the site, soil conditions and the amount of sunlight received; however, berries typically follow a pattern. In the Blue Ridge Mountains, strawberries usually start off the berry picking season, followed quickly by blueberries. Black raspberries begin to mature in late June, followed by blackberries which are ripe July through August, and then red raspberries wind up the berry season in September. So fortunately, if you are raring to go berry picking, you will generally be able to find at least one variety that is ripening nearby.
Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Fairview is a great place to take the family for an afternoon of berry picking. Hickory Nut Gap farm offers u-pick options for blueberries, blackberries and black and red raspberries. All the farm’s berries are certified organic and cost $8 per pound, except for blackberries, which are $5 per pound.
And berry picking isn’t the only family fun available at Hickory Nut Gap Farm. “We have a treehouse, tire swing and culvert slides for the kids to play on,” says farm retail store manager Hallie Payne. The farm store serves ice cream made by local company Ultimate Ice Cream, has farm animals available for viewing and picnic shelters by the creek provide a refreshing break from the heat.
“You can pick berries, dip your toes in the creek, have an ice-cream break and bring home some meat to cook for dinner,” says Payne. Hickory Nut Gap Farm is open for berry picking Tuesday-Sunday. Payne advises calling ahead to check on berry ripeness.
Cloud 9 Farm in Fletcher offers 2 acres of no-spray blueberry picking. Owner Janet Peterson operates the farm, which has been in her family since 1974. Peterson enjoys seeing children berry-picking with their parents on the farm. “It teaches them where their food comes from,” she says.
Berry pickers are given jugs with rope to tie around their waste to make harvesting easier. All berries at Cloud 9 are free of preservatives and pesticides and cost $3.50 per pound or $16 per gallon. To give the berries sufficient time to ripen, the farm is open for picking on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Don’t forget to bring home some of Peterson’s homemade blueberry jam.
Another no-spray option in the area is the Long Branch Environmental Education Center. Along with berries, Long Branch also offers hiking trails, a picnic area and educational opportunities with its passive-solar community building, micro-hydro power system and greenhouses. It is located about 18 miles northwest of Asheville and offers u-pick blueberries and red raspberries by donation. Call ahead for directions and to let them know when you are coming.
NOTE: Zimmerman’s Berry Farm in Marshall has long been another local favorite for u-pick pesticide-free black raspberries. Unfortunately, a note on the farm’s website says it is closed indefinitely this summer due to a death in the family.
Hickory Nut Gap Farm, 57 Sugar Hollow Road, Fairview, 628-1027, hickorynutgapfarm.com
Cloud 9 Farm, 137 Bob Barnwell Road, Fletcher, 628-1758, cloud9farm.net
Long Branch Environmental Education Center, 683-3662, longbrancheec.org