Strawberry season is the sweet reward for the long slog that is winter. After months of crisp, frigid days, the earth spoils us with a fresh start—and a new growing season.
Strawberries are typically the first fruit to ripen in the spring—rhubarb may out pace the berries in some places—but strawberries are typically the first warmer weather crop to show up in farmers’ markets and grocery stores.
Of course, thanks to advances in growing techniques and transportation, fresh strawberries are available virtually year-round, no matter your corner of the country. But you pay for that convenience in flavor and texture. Indeed, the ever-present grocery store strawberries are often watery and weak in comparison to fresh-from-the-farm berries that pop up in late spring and early summer.
So if you’re looking for prime, in-season berries, you’ll need to know when strawberries are in season. Here, find out when strawberry season rolls around for your area, and find out how to make sure you’re picking the best berries of the bunch, whether at the store or a U-pick farm down the road.
When Is Strawberry Season?
Strawberry season varies throughout the South—and throughout the USDA’s growing zones.
Strawberry season in Florida can be as early as the end of February. Communities in the Deep South will follow behind that, with prime berry season in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi blossoming in late April and May.
States in the middle South (think: Tennessee, Arkansas, and North Carolina) may not see berries ripen until late May or June. Cooler zones in the mid-Atlantic and mountainous regions can expect their strawberry season to herald another season: summer. Strawberries there begin to ripen as late as June.
Some strawberry varieties will produce a second batch of berries in fall. These everbearing strawberry varieties grow best in upper and middle Southern states (growing zones 6 to 8). Most warmer growing zones (8 to 11) are far too warm for these berries, which love warm days and cool nights.
June-bearing strawberries, which are what you’re most likely to find throughout the South, have a sweeter taste, so while you may miss the second fruiting, you’re rewarded with berries that are distinct during spring’s primetime.
Strawberry season lasts about three weeks, depending on how warm the days are. Rain (or snow) and cool weather can slow the ripening process and push out the window of strawberry season. Conversely, dry, warm days may speed it up. So if you’re looking to go pick strawberries, make plans as soon as the first few berries start turning ruby red. The season is precious and fleeting.
What About Those Strawberries You Can Find in Stores in Winter?
Farmers prize three things in today’s conventional strawberries over all else: size, firmness, and resistance to pests. But those priorities aren’t always the best traits for people looking to get a true taste of strawberry season.
Bigger berries tend to hold more water, which dilutes the strawberry’s sweetness and edge of tart bite. Smaller berries concentrate the flavor for a burst in each bite. But smaller berries are typically softer, a problem for transport.
Indeed, states like Florida and California often supply big, beautiful berries throughout the country during off-peak growing seasons elsewhere. So while it’s nice to have fresh strawberries in December, it comes at a cost: Berries just lack the dazzle of in-season fruit.
Related: How to Grow Strawberries in Pots
How Can You Tell if Strawberries Are Ripe?
If you’ve waited all fall and winter for a taste of the perfect strawberry in spring or summer, you want to be sure you’re picking the best options. These tips can help.
Strawberries will stop ripening once they’re picked, so if you see any white or green edges to the berries, leave them be. They’re not going to have the full-on sweetness you want, and they won’t develop it by sitting in your fridge or on your counter like some other fruits and vegetables. (Of course, if you like pickled green strawberries, do grab those.)
What to Look for in Ripe Strawberries
Whether you’re trying to pick strawberries from backyard containers or plucking the best at the U-pick farm, look for strawberries with these characteristics:
deep red color
shiny, smooth exterior
vibrant, fresh green stems
medium firmness with taut skin
distinct strawberry scent
How to Keep Strawberries Fresh
For better or worse, strawberries are quite delicate. They don’t handle transport well, and they will quickly degrade if they’re bruised, cut, or mangled. In other words, be gentle.
If you plan to eat the strawberries right away, by all means rinse them, dry them, and pop them, one after the other.
However, if you want to save them for any length of time, don’t wash them as soon as you get them home. Washing strawberries introduces moisture, which invites mold and may make them turn mushy quickly.
Instead, transfer strawberries out of the plastic clamshell, bucket, or cardboard box in which you brought them home. Sort out any that show signs of spoilage or bruising. Then, put them into a glass food storage container or, if you don’t have one, back into the original container. These containers allow for airflow, so in a pinch, they’ll work just fine.
Ways to Use Fresh Strawberries
You’ll find us eating berries straight from the berry bowl all strawberry season. But if you have a bushel and need some ideas, look no further.
If you prefer to pair those sweet berries with something a little less sugary, look through these all-purpose strawberry recipes. Don’t skip the Strawberry Caprese Salad, which makes for a delicious appetizer during spring parties.
Of course, you can always make the brief strawberry season last for months by stirring up a batch of Homemade Strawberry Jam. This recipe calls for two quarts of strawberries, so it’s a great recipe after you’ve picked the berry patch clean.