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When leaves first gain yellow or red traces in September, apple picking season is already in full swing. Head to a local orchard to pluck autumn’s ripening bounty: You’ll catch the tail end of early varieties, such as Gala and Ginger Gold, but there’s much more to come.

Before you go to gather a bushel or two, it’s a good idea to know what you want to do with your bounty of apples in upcoming weeks. Will you use them right away? Bake pies? Dip slices in caramel? Stew applesauce? Crunch into one each day?

The first thing you’ll notice about driving to a pick-your-own farm is that you’re out in the country. Winding two-lane roads — then likely dirt or gravel roads — get you to the orchard. Step outside into the fresh fall air, with a soundtrack of crickets and migrating birds in the background. Wear sturdy boots or sneakers, and bring your own reusable bags if you have them.

At Rock Hill Orchard, in Mount Airy, Md., I arrive on a crisp, sunny, blue-sky day. The orchard lies just over a small hill, so the road is hidden by farmland. Stiff grasses softly crunch underfoot, and visitors are likely to be greeted by a farm worker or manager, who can direct folks to different varieties of apples and advise which are better for eating or baking.

Some apples hold up well during baking and make better pies or tarts; others are best right off the branch. The good news is, unlike many fruits of summer, most apples will keep for weeks, so your bushel will last until the last leaf falls.

“When you pick, just give the apple a little twist and then pull,” says Nancy Biggs, who with her husband, Dick, grows some seven varieties of apples on nearly 600 trees at the 135-acre Rock Hill Orchard. The Biggses tell pickers which rows to graze based on what’s ripe; they can tell by taste, plus visual cues such as dark brown seeds and absence of greenish hues next to the skin.

I have my reusable bag weighed before venturing out to fill it with a few varieties. Blending apples is good; Biggs recommends mixing apples within the same pie. “It adds complexity to the pie,” she says.

When browsing in an orchard, she reminds me, don’t be too picky.

“Some people look for supermarket apples and don’t want any little specks — but they’re still good to eat,” Biggs says. “Apples don’t have to be perfect.” Tiny spots or imperfections can be cut out.

I’m one of only a few visitors picking apples, and I welcome the still autumn solitude I find far down the rows, with no one around. I pluck more than a dozen eating apples, plus enough to make a pie.

Not all apples are alike: The easiest way to find out what’s best is to taste varieties for yourself. I bite into a Gala with a satisfying crunch, and juice trickles onto my wrist. Eat apples in pick-your-own orchards right off of the tree, but beware of yellow jackets lured by the juicy, sweet dripping. I pick as many as I care to carry, and stop at the far end of the row to take in the pastoral scenery and one last, deep breath of country-fresh air.

My reusable sack bulging with apples, I have it weighed and pay, fantasizing about steaming, cinnamon- and nutmeg-laced apple pie slices.

Find an orchard near you

Shop for local orchards on by clicking on your state and browsing pick-your-own farms. Or, check with your state department of agriculture office for orchard listings. Call before you visit to find out what’s ripe and what hours the orchard is open.

Apple guide

Of the 100 varieties grown commercially in the U.S., these are the most popular:

Mid-August to early September

  • Gala: A sweet, firm, typically golden apple with peach hues; a prized eating apple. 
  • Paula Red: Tart with light flesh; good for eating as well as baking.
  • Earliblaze: Semi-tart and crisp; cherry-red apples are delicious fresh or baked.
  • Cameo: Red stripes over creamy background; extra crispy with sweet-tart flavor; doesn’t brown when cut. Dense fruit takes longer when baking.
  • Cortland: Large ruby red apple with snow white flesh; good for salads as it doesn’t brown when cut. Stores well.
  • Empire: McIntosh crossed with Red Delicious; good, sweet-tart eating apple with yellow-kissed red skin.
  • Ginger Gold: Greenish-gold, juicy apple with sweet-tart flavor; doesn’t brown when cut; good for snacking in slices or on salads, as well as for baking.
  • Golden Delicious: Yellow-gold skin with a sweet mild flavor; maintains white color when cut and is known for holding its shape in baking.
  • Honey Crisp: Juicy and sweet, this apple is best used for eating and making apple juice.
  • Jonaclicious: Large red apple with juicy, crisp flesh; good for applesauce.
  • Jonagold: Cross between Jonathan and Golden Delicious; large, sweet yellow-red apples; best for eating and making applesauce or juice; short shelf life.
  • Jonared: Small, red, crisp apples with tart-sweet, hard and crunchy interior; good for eating and pies.
  • Jonathan: A popular, versatile red apple; firm texture with a moderately tart taste make these good for eating.
  • McIntosh: Red over green exterior; an aromatic, juicy, slightly tart, tangy apple good for eating and baking.
  • Red Delicious: Crimson red apples with sweet flavor and crisp, light flesh; best for eating or making into apple butter; less desirable for baking.
  • Braeburn: Originated in New Zealand; red tones over yellow skin, multi-purpose apple with crisp, sweet taste; good for cooking as well as eating; stores well with refrigeration.
  • Fuji: Originated in Japan; yellow-green with firm, sweet flesh; best for applesauce, but also eating and cooking; stores well if refrigerated.
  • Granny Smith: Beloved for its green skin, crisp crunch and tart/sour flavor, Grannies are good for eating and cooking; slow to brown when cut.
  • Melrose: Red Delicious crossed with Jonathan; large, red-gold, juicy and sweet; holds together well when sliced — good for caramel apples and pies.
  • Pink Lady: Golden Delicious crossed with Lady William; blush red skin with white flesh; crisp, sweet-tart flavor; stores well and is best for eating and making applesauce.
  • Rome: Smooth round apple with ruby red skin and firm texture; mild yet slightly tart taste makes this a good choice for baking and cooking, though not best for applesauce.
  • Stayman: A dull red, all-purpose apple with firm light-to-yellow flesh; slightly tart flavor makes it equally good for eating and pies. Stores well.
  • Sun Crisp: Large, red-orange apple with tart taste; good for baking and stores well.
  • York: Red over green coloring with strong sweet-tart taste; holds texture when cooked; stays crisp and sweetens through storage. 
Sources: Rock Hill Orchard, U.S. Apple Association, Bay Weekly newspaper,, Virginia Apple Growers Association

MNN homepage photo: DeusXFlorida/Flickr

Picking apples: Everything you need to know
Picking apples: Everything you need to know. Now's the time to get to a local apple orchard and pick out some delicious fruit for pies, applesauce and eating pl