Nick was my husband’s dog. But, come June, he tagged along every time I ventured out to the garden with my picking bucket. Like me, the big yellow Lab knew that nothing in the world tastes as good as a strawberry plucked hot from the vine on a summer day. I think of him now, with this year’s bumper crop of berries, as I lean over to snap the stem of each scarlet jewel between my thumbnail and index finger.
Years ago, a friend gave me these plants, an ever-bearing variety that yields fruit almost until the first frost. Strawberry plants usually produce for just two years and then must be replaced using the offspring or “suckers” from the original plant, and most people grow them in regimented rows with ample space between the rows for the pickers to navigate. But mine have been allowed to roam—much to the dismay of my straight-line, engineer husband—wandering aimlessly around the front of our vegetable garden, replanting themselves among the flowers, rhubarb and herbs with which they share the space.
Picking berries in my patch presents a challenge even for the average two-footed being, but this Retriever’s four club-sized paws bouncing atop my bumpy red-and-green crazy quilt spelled disaster for the tender fruit. So, Nick soon came to understand that his place was on the perimeter. There he would wait, brow wrinkled, nose twitching, ears pricked forward until I called, “Hey Nick ... Wanna berry?”
One for Nick, one for the bucket, one for me: that was how my picking often went.
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Nick left us at age 14 and a half—a good long life for a big dog but not nearly enough for me. I miss him every day. He was the only fruit-loving dog I’ve ever known, dancing on his hind legs to pick green apples from the gnarled Red Delicious over by the pasture as soon as they grew to size in August or September. “Where’s Nick?” somebody would wonder, and we’d go hunting to find him under the old tree, sucking the remains of an apple core.
He had a taste for cantaloupe and watermelon as well, though he didn’t participate in the kids’ seed-spitting contests. He ate bananas, and even developed a foolproof way of picking raspberries, sauntering between the rows of canes, lifting that droopy upper lip and positioning his teeth just so to roll each purple pillow from its thorny stem into his soft Retriever’s mouth. Still, his favorite was strawberries.
This dog’s taste for strawberries allowed him a kind of symbiosis with the birds. Birds are strawberry lovers, too, and they can do a lot of damage. It should come as no surprise that a robin, for example, will bypass all the piddling undersized berries and pick the biggest, shiniest globe in the garden to sample first thing in the morning. These juicy morsels with a slice out of the side will spoil the rest of the berries in your bucket and so have to be thrown away unless you have a hungry Lab waiting nearby.
In my experience, strawberries hide as a matter of practice. Under their big clover-shaped leaves, they conceal their ripeness. Not wanting to be picked, they lurk in the shadows of sunflowers that have come up voluntarily next to the compost bin. As I reach into the waxy leaves of sweet marjoram that has surprisingly returned to my Pennsylvania garden, my fingers find the most luscious berry, hot in the sun, effervescing a delightful scent with hints of oregano—a perfect specimen, save for one ignominious gash on its crimson shoulder.
Hey, Nicky ... How about a berry? I call silently, closing my eyes, expecting to see my golden boy there next to Grandma Graham’s peony bush, doing his happy dance, bouncing first on one oafish front paw and then the other, ears cocked, mouth open, pearly whites just waiting for the toss.
Finding only a disappointing empty place in the sun, I bite off the good half, ruby juice rolling down my chin. And I savor the sweetness, knowing that even in dog heaven there can be nothing better than a strawberry, fresh from the patch on a summer’s day.