CATAWISSA — There’s nothing quite like the taste of strawberries right off the vine, especially when they’re picked from one of the 2,850 seedlings hand-planted in the ground by 87-year-old Earl Bell.
Bell has tended to his strawberry patches for as long as he can remember, opening up every year for people to come to his home at 368 Orchard Drive and pick their own berries for $3 a quart.
His love of strawberries began as a child when his mother would tend to strawberry patches every year.
“I don’t ever remember a year when we didn’t have strawberries. I just got to liking strawberries so much for the strawberry shortcake and strawberry ice cream. I guess I just got hooked on it and couldn’t quit,” said Bell.
Bell was married for 56 years and recalled planting strawberries during the majority of that time, even getting his four sons involved in the planting and cultivating. His youngest son especially had a gift at cultivating strawberries, Bell said, and had a great ability to handle the tractor, which he had driven ever since he could reach the clutch.
It’s those familiar memories that make it special for Bell. He loves to see families with children stopping by his strawberry patch to pick the fruits. There are patches that don’t allow children because they tend to step on the berries, but Bell said, having raised his own boys on the patch, it doesn’t bother him if some strawberries are stepped on while the families make memories of their own.
Bell typically plants about 1,000 seedlings, but this year decided to expand his garden to a new area of his land, which took almost 3,000 strawberry plants. It is the most he has planted since his wife passed in 2010, he said.
It took him a week and a half to plant everything by hand, and the rainy spring pushed his work back from April to May.
“I would start in the morning and work until my old body said ‘that’s enough for today.’ Then I’d quit,” Bell said.
But his aches and pains always went away overnight and left him ready for more work the next day.
“There’s so much work to this. You can’t believe the hard work. It’s unbelievable,” he said.
Bell plucks out all of the weeds in the rows and hauls them away. He doesn’t like to use chemicals to rid his patches of weeds, believing the chemicals do more harm than good for the plants. He prides himself on being able to pick his strawberries right from the vine and eat them without having to rinse chemicals off first.
Bell had rented a planter in the past but it “doesn’t plant perfectly by (any) means.” He found himself having to go over and straighten the plants.
“That would get discouraging so I thought I’d just do it by hand. I got a million things to do, but it doesn’t bother me,” he said.
He uses a tractor to make the rows and then drops whole plants from a nursery into each hole, making sure each is in straight.
Bell said he lives next to his strawberry patch, so it is open from sunup to sundown for people who want to stop by and pick them.
Thursday morning, Karen Cecco, of Elysburg, picked four quarts of strawberries and said she knew the product was good because she taste-tested them. At $3 a quart, she said you can’t beat the price.
She learned of Bell’s patches from a friend, and she and her husband had visited Bell in the past to gather strawberries. When hearing that each plant was placed in the ground by hand, she said, “I don’t think I’d be able to do that.”