Thanks to cooler days and mostly sunny skies, autumn is a great time for a family outing to your local apple orchard. However, before you head out with your bushel baskets in tow, there are some things to keep in mind.
In the United States, apples generally begin ripening in mid- to late-August, notes long-time grower Gayle Johnson, who owns an orchard with 17 varieties of apples, along with a bakery, flower and produce business. In most parts of the country, some apples will continue to ripen until early November. That's why you should be sure to check with the orchard where you plan on picking, just to make sure the apples you want are ready to harvest.
Depending on the variety, ripe apples can be green, yellow, red and any number of shades of red. Orchard employees know which apples are sweet, which are tart or somewhere in between -- as well as which are best for eating or baking. You can also can simply check the internet for a description of the different varieties.
As a rule, most apples are ready to harvest when the "background" is no longer green (or light green, if the apples are green once ripened). In general, apples ripen from the outside of the tree toward the center, so apples on the outer branches of a tree ripen first. When an apple is ripe, the stem should part easily when the fruit is cupped in the palm of your hand.
There is a method to harvesting your favorite autumn fruit. Be careful not to pull it straight away from the tree. Instead, roll the apple upwards off the branch and give it a little twist.
If you drop an apple, go ahead and pick it up. Just don't toss the fruit too roughly into your basket. Remember, if you bruise apples, it will go bad more quickly. Of course, if you notice a small hole in an apple, be on the lookout for worms.
Keep in mind that apples you pick off the tree won't look like the shiny produce you see at the supermarket. Moreover, fresh apples are never greasy. According to blogger Viola Yee, apples are naturally waxy, however "an apple just picked from the tree has a dull, powdery look."
The "bloom" of the fruit is actually a natural wax created by the apple itself. If you happen to have a bandana or handkerchief with you when you are picking -- and gently rub just-picked fruit -- it will shine up right away. Remember, apples quit ripening once they are pulled.
Of course, after you pick those apples, it's important to know how to store them. Don't wash the apples until you are ready to use them. Instead, keep them cool in a basement or in the fruit and vegetable drawer of your refrigerator.
If they are kept cool, fresh apples will generally keep for weeks. If you don't eat them all right away -- or hand them over to some deserving teacher once school is back in session -- you might have some left for baking those apple pies at Thanksgiving.