Unfortunately, being short-handed in the office leads to not a lot of time for me to write and do one of the things I really love to do — talk about food. But, I always manage to pull off something.

Oftentimes people ask me where I get my ideas for my column. Most of the time it’s a spur-of-the-moment idea that just hits me in the face like a paddle on a kid’s behind. Other times I have it planned for certain occasions or holidays.

With an early spring coming on according Buckeye Chuck, people are thinking about planting their gardens. There’s nothing better than fresh-from-the-garden strawberries. I love to sit and eat a bowl of strawberries while watching TV, or for a snack at work.

However, some of the strawberries you purchase at the store don’t always measure up to my standards. Grandma Lehman had a wild strawberry patch that grew on a hillside by her home in Carbon Hill.

I remember sitting on the hillside for hours at a time eating fresh wild strawberries and watching the cars go by. Great memories.

Homegrown strawberries are a billion times better tasting than the hard, rarely ripe, flavorless selection in the supermarket. Strawberries are cold-hardy and adaptable, making them one of the easiest berries to grow.

While most fruit trees take several years to begin bearing, you can harvest your own strawberries the very first summer. And even if you live in an apartment or small home, you can grow strawberries in a container on your balcony, rooftop, patio or even doorstep.

If your horizontal space is limited, consider growing strawberries in a hanging basket or stacked planter, which will allow you to take advantage of vertical growing space as the strawberry plants tumble out over the sides.

There are two main kinds of strawberries: June bearing and ever-bearing varieties. June bearing bear all at once, usually during a period of about three weeks. Because of their earliness, high quality and concentrated fruit set, June bearers, like “Allstar,” produce high yields of very large, sweet, extra juicy berries in late mid-season — which is usually late spring and early summer, depending on your geographic region. These are the best variety for preserving.

Ever-bearing strawberries produce a big crop from spring flowers, set light flushes of fruit through summer, and then bloom and bear again in late summer and fall. Perfect for large containers or raised beds, where you can give them attentive watering and regular feeding.

“Quinalt,” the most popular variety of ever-bearing strawberry, offers large, soft, deliciously sweet fruit, ideal for preserves or fresh eating.

Timely tips to ensure strawberry success:

• When planting strawberries, be sure the crown is above soil level and the upper most roots are 1/4-inch beneath soil level; buried crowns rot and exposed roots dry out. Strawberry plants should be placed approximately 14 to 18 inches apart from each other in neat rows that are separated by 2 to 3 feet each. Let runners fill in until plants are 7 to 10 inches apart.

• Use mulch to keep berries clean, conserve moisture and to control weeds.

• If you want to keep it simple, plant strawberries in a container. Just remember that container plantings need much more water than in-ground plantings, usually once a day and if it’s hot, twice. Strawberry pots are the best container choice for growing strawberries.

You can fit several plants in one pot; just make sure whatever type of garden pot you use has good drainage. Strawberries have a relatively small root ball and can be grown in containers as small as 10 to 12 inches in diameter and 8 inches deep. However, the smaller the container, the more frequently you will need to water. Synthetic and light colored pots will keep the roots cooler than dark colors and natural materials that conduct heat.

• Strawberries like well-drained fairly rich soil, so be sure to add compost or other organic matter when preparing the pot or patch.

• Strawberries need full sun, 6 to 8 hours per day, and frequent, deep soakings. They will grow in all zones and should be fed twice a year — when growth begins and after the first crop. You’ll need to feed them with a plant food.

• Control slugs and snails by handpicking them off plants and prevent theft from birds by covering your patch with netting as the first berries ripen.

Strawberries are one of the easiest and most delicious home garden fruits to grow. Try growing them with kids, plants produce fruit throughout the summer and children will love to pluck them right off the plant, wash and eat!

If your kids have yet to plant and care for a fruit or vegetable, strawberries are a perfect choice for their first gardening experience. Kick off this gardening season with your kids and get growing strawberries!

Strawberries are not only good to eat, but they are healthy and nutritious. Try mixing it up a little and make some tasty treats.

Strawberry parfaits

4 cups sliced strawberries, divided

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1 cup fat-free ricotta cheese

1/2 cup less fat cream chees, softened

1/4 cup powdered sugar

1 Tbs. water

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 cup Amaretti cookie crumbs

1/2 cup frozen reduced-calorie whipped topping, thawed

2 Tbs. slivered almonds

Place 2 cups of strawberry slices and granulated sugar in a blender or food processor and process until smooth. Set strawberry puree aside.

Combine ricotta and next four ingredients in a medium bowl; stir well with a whisk. Spoon 2 tablespoons strawberry puree, 1/4 cup strawberry slices, and 3 tablespoons ricotta mixture; repeat the layers.

Drizzle the remaining strawberry puree over each serving. Chill for 2 hours. Top each parfait with 2 tablespoons whipped topping and almonds.

Strawberries also are great in a salad with your favorite toppings and sliced chicken.

Until next time, happy cooking!

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