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Garden in the City: Note to Self, Read Before You Harvest

 When it comes to gardening, growing is only half the battle.
Garden in the City: Strawberries
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LINCOLN SQUARE — The good news: After a bumpy start, dozens of my strawberries survived to the ripening stage.

The bad news: Growing, it turns out, is only half the battle when it comes to gardening. I screwed up the harvesting.

I didn't read the instructions first.

Frankly, I didn't think harvesting strawberries warranted any additional research. I mean, how hard could it be: When the fruit turns ruby red, you pick it.

So that's what I did, snapping the berries off their stems just above the hull. Then I brought my treasures home, gave each one a good scrubbing under the kitchen tap, placed them in a plastic container and popped the Gladware in the fridge.

Wrong, wrong and more wrong.

I'd started to notice that shortly after picking, my berries went from glossy to dull. After a day or two in the refrigerator they began to lose their firmness and turn to mush.

Initially I attributed this to the fruit's organic origins and lack of preservatives. But, just in case, I Googled "harvesting and preserving strawberries."

My search led me to a tip sheet produced by the University of Illinois' College of Agriculture, and if they don't know what they're doing, I give up.

Here was the exact information I needed ... three weeks ago — kind of like the way all cooks and bakers ought to read the recipe all the way through before they unwittingly start whipping up something that calls for an exotic ingredient only available through mail order.

What the website told me:

"Berries picked during the heat of the day become soft, are easily bruised, and will not keep well."

Mistake No. 1. I have a habit of heading over to the garden in the afternoon, when the sun's at its peak.

"Cool them as soon as possible after picking."

Mistake No. 2. I also have a habit of harvesting first, then pruning other plants and then watering the entire bed, leaving the fruit sitting out in the sun all the while.

"When you get them home, sort but do not clean them [No. 3] until just before you use them. Store the berries uncovered [No. 4] in the refrigerator in the original or a shallow container." (Italics mine.)

Argh. I had done just the opposite.

I keep thinking that gardening should be intuitive — the old notion that a "green thumb" comes naturally. My twisted logic goes something like this: Studying up on the subject is "cheating," whereas winging it proves I've got real gardening chops.

Perhaps it's time to crack open that copy of "Square Foot Gardening" that's been gathering dust on my nightstand for the past year.

To follow my garden's progress between columns, check out my Tumblr blog at http://gardensinthecity.tumblr.com. Note the "s" in gardens — I'll be posting photos of my nonedible landscaping efforts, too.