The Sweetest Strawberries in America Might Be Growing in Virginia
On warm spring days, the heady scent of ripe strawberries drifts over the garden paths of Virginia's Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards. The fragrance comes from the tiny but mighty Mara des Bois, a woodland-style French selection that bears fruit for months and imparts a deep, lasting sweetness on the tongue. "When I take people on tours of the garden, I encourage them to taste them," says Pippin Hill horticulturist Diane Burns. "It's almost like eating a Jolly Rancher candy."
Burns learned about the Mara des Bois from the previous gardener at Pippin Hill, who'd heard good things about the berry but had not yet attempted to grow that kind. So two years ago, Burns ordered some bare-root Mara des Bois online and planted the first crop. Because Pippin Hill is both a vineyard and a restaurant, everything she grows—including heirloom tomatoes, apples, figs, gooseberries, and yellow-green Kieffer pears—ends up in the kitchen.
Luckily, Burns' experiment worked. The diminutive berry thrived in the climate and soil of the foothills southwest of Charlottesville, and their flavor and visual appeal thrilled Pippin Hill's executive chef, Ian Rynecki, who started using them in everything from salads to desserts. "They're about twice the size of blueberries and are the best strawberries you've ever tasted," he says.
And because the plant is everbearing, the Mara des Bois enlivens Pippin Hill menus from June all the way through the first hard frost of November. The berries also appear in the tasting room, where Burns likes to leave bowlfuls of freshly picked Mara des Bois to complement the vineyards' rosé.
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Nurturing strawberries and other produce amid Virginia's grassy meadows is a big change from Burns' earlier career as a security officer for the U.S. State Department. "I tell people that I used to pack a pistol," she says, "and now I'm packing pruners instead."
Burns was born and raised in Northern Virginia and switched to horticulture when she settled in Charlottesville with her husband and young children over 20 years ago to slow down. "I enjoy being outside," she says. "I love the connection to the earth and working with the cycles of the seasons right alongside the birds and bees."
Once she picks a ripe Mara des Bois strawberry, it will not last more than two or three days in a cool pantry. "This strawberry is such a contrast to the grocery store type, which can be kind of dry and pithy and hollow," Burns says. "Mara des Bois is a really delicious berry, and you don't need many of them because they are just so flavorful."
How To Grow Mara des Bois
Mara des Bois Strawberries need plenty of space because they spread quickly. Burns preps her beds with lots of compost to keep soil acidity between 6.3 and 6.8 on the pH scale and provide micronutrients.
Bare-root plants go into the ground as soon as the soil warms in spring (late March for Burns). About a month later, she sprinkles a balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer around the plants to jump-start growth and spreads hardwood mulch in the beds (straw works too).
Snip off the first set of flowers so plants will direct their energy toward root establishment. Unlike some berries, the Mara des Bois is replanted every other year. The extra labor has an upside: Frequent replacement keeps berry enemies, like parasitic nematodes and black spot fungus, at bay.