Strawberry lovers have had a tough three years.

Last year, a warm, early spring spiked by a late frost brought some berries in early, some late, and some not at all.

The year before that, unending days of rain, rain and still more rain wilted the season altogether.

And three years ago? A harsh winter led to a lot of winterkill.

Well, you can start dreaming of strawberry shortcake again, and strawberry margaritas and strawberries on your cereal in the morning. Because this year, everything looks on time and delicious.

“It actually looks like we’ve got a pretty good season coming up,” said David Handley, a vegetable and small fruit specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

“I’m touching wood and crossing fingers and doing everything else I can to keep that in good shape, but in terms of flower development, plant health and so forth, the plants are right where they should be. They look pretty good. The amount of berries looks very nice, and the size and quality of the fruit that I’m seeing starting to ripen in southern Maine also looks very good.”

Bill Bamford of Maxwell’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth, who will be picking 13 acres of strawberry fields this year, said although there was an unusual spring, the berries look right on target.

“The crop looks really good,” he said. “There were a lot of blossoms there earlier, and every blossom turns into a strawberry. Barring some natural disaster, we’re pretty optimistic at this point and hoping we can make a few people happy.”

The unusual spring Bamford spoke of is one of the reasons the fields are looking so good. Cool, wet weather in March and April means there are fewer strawberry bud weevils, tarnished plant bugs and spider mites to chow down on strawberry plants before we can harvest them for our strawberry sundaes.

Handley said as far as strawberry-eating insects go, “there’s been very little out there this year.”

“Some of these insects overwinter as adults,” he explained, “and what happens in the spring is they crawl out and they have to eat a little bit, and then they have to lay eggs. And if the weather is really crummy during that period, one or all of those things start to fall apart.”

Penny Jordan, whose family grows about four-and-a-half acres of strawberries on their farm in Cape Elizabeth, said the berries there “look gorgeous.”

“To me this is a normal season, which means strawberries coming right around the 24th, 25th, 27th, in that time frame, which is normal from my perspective because you don’t want the season to peak before the Fourth of July,” Jordan said.

“If they come in right around the end of June, then your peak is going to be during that Fourth of July week when a lot of people have vacations and want to get out and pick strawberries.”

That means berries should be ready just in time for the numerous strawberry festivals being held in southern Maine this weekend. 

FROM SHORTCAKE TO PIZZA

On Friday, more than 150 volunteers will gather at the Community Center in South Berwick to hull, slice and sugar berries for the 36th Annual South Berwick Strawberry Festival on Saturday. The berries will be used in strawberry shortcake and strawberry cheesecake, which sell for $5 a dish to benefit non-profit organizations in town.

Last year, the festival used more than 250 cases of fresh strawberries, 80 gallons of whipped cream and more than 330 biscuits. It all adds up. Since the festival began 35 years ago, organizers have given away almost $200,000 in grants and scholarships.

Strawberry festivals most often serve strawberry shortcake, of course, but they are also good places to try something a little different. At the Third Annual Cape Farm Alliance Strawberry Festival in Cape Elizabeth, strawberry pizza, strawberry cookies and strawberry marshmallows will be on the menu.

Penny Jordan’s favorite dish during strawberry season is a salad made with baby spinach, strawberries, goat cheese and balsamic vinegar.

“It’s like I died and went to heaven,” she said. “That, to me, is like summer. It’s so light and flavorful.”

If you want to pick your own, it looks as if there will be plenty of opportunities this year. Handley said most of the growers he’s talked to from Augusta south are aiming to open up this weekend.

But it’s always a good idea to call first, because small changes in the weather can make a big difference in how fast berries ripen in different parts of the state. Plus, once a farm is picked out, sometimes they’ll close a day or two to allow more berries to ripen.

The bottom line? When it comes to picking strawberries, the telephone is your friend.

EAT FAST

Once you pick your berries, how do you make this luscious taste of summer last as long as possible?

Maine strawberries are not like California berries, which last much longer after picking, notes Bill Bamford.

“My first recommendation is to eat them just as soon as you can,” he said. “I personally wouldn’t want to hold onto them more than 24 hours.”

Handley said most strawberries will keep one to three days out on the counter. They’ll keep for up to a week in the refrigerator, “but generally what I’d recommend is you don’t stack them too deep.”

“Put them in a shallow container, and then put at least one wrap of plastic over them,” Handley said. “This way the condensation won’t get on them, and they won’t dehydrate. That’s typically what happens in the fridge – the water tends to come out of them a little bit.”

Wash the berries before you eat them, but don’t wash them before you put them in the refrigerator, or they’ll rot.

If you want to freeze your berries, lay them out on a cookie sheet and freeze them individually before transferring them to a freezer bag. That way you won’t have a big frozen clump to thaw out when all you want is a handful of berries for your smoothie.

Happy picking!

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: mgoad@pressherald.com

Follow her on Twitter at: Twitter.com/MeredithGoad