By Brooke Geery
For hundreds of years, people have used apples to keep doctors at bay and teachers happy for good reason. Whether you prefer pies, turnovers, or chomping into them fresh and raw, apples are one of the finest fruits out there. Vermont’s climate is prime for these sweet and hardy treats, and starting in early September and running all the way through November is harvest time. Even with no love and attention, a wild apple tree will produce edible fruit, but for the best flavor and quality, it’s a good idea to head to an official orchard, where dedicated farmers spend all spring, summer and fall making sure the final product is perfect for you.
The 2021 growing season
Like any living thing, apples are greatly affected by the weather, and this season in Vermont, with a dry spring and then very wet summer, has been a decent one. At Whitman Brook Orchard on Wheelock Road in Quechee, they have 132 varieties to choose from. Owner Terry Dorman said he’s very happy with this flavor and production of this year’s crop, even if they aren’t the biggest apples ever to come off his trees.
“It was a dry spring, which is the time the fruit is formed,” he explained. “The apples were putting energy into making the seeds, which takes the most energy, when it was still dry. That impacted the size of the apples. They’ve now rebounded with all this water, but even after quite a bit of water the apples are a bit undersized.”
The biggest challenge with a wet summer, though, are surface stains. This is especially true for yellow and green-skinned apples, such as Cortlands, which are more susceptible to disease.
“It’s really a cosmetic issue, so we don’t worry about it,” Dorman said. “We believe in as little spraying as possible. The surface staining we see can be washed off. The inside flesh is very clean, and if you wash the staining off with a little ‘elbow grease,’ it’s better than spraying it and having it covered with chemicals.”
At Whitman Brook, they are serious about letting nature do its thing, also opting against chemical thinning treatments and leaving as much fruit as possible to mature.
“Our thinning is not as aggressive as some orchards, because we have so many varieties. In a smaller orchard it’s easier, but with so many varieties and doing it by hand you’re not going to do as much,” he laughed.
Time to pick
Apples are a cold-weather crop, and so far this fall, Vermont has yet to see a frost. According to Mendon Mountain Orchard owner Jonathan Charles, this isn’t a necessarily bad thing, although the hotter temps can cause more apples to fall off the tree early (premature “drops”). Charles, a third-generation apple producer, took over the family business in 2014, and has transformed the former motel into a full-on fall entertainment zone. In addition to acres and acres of apple trees and gorgeous views, this year he also has a storywalk set up for families, plus a gift shop and a flock of roving chickens that love visitors.
In Mendon, it’s prime picking. “We’re having a great crop this year,” Charles said. “All our varieties have produced bumper crops.”
In addition to plenty of fruit, there’s another reason to get out and pick apples this fall — small crowds. Dorman said the lack of cool temps has prevented some people from even thinking about going apple picking, yet. “I think the biggest effect is that pickers tend to think more about apples when the nights get colder and the mornings chillier.”
Whitman Brook, which Dorman began bringing back to life in 1990, has trees dating back to the 1920s, including heritage Macintosh trees that he swears by. “There’s nothing better than a Mac off that tree on a frosty morning after the Tunbridge Fair,” he said. “I always think they taste a little better when it gets colder, so we’re missing that cold. A Mac that’s been subjected to cold concentrates the sugars. Our apples are still tasty, though, so we’re not seeing a big problem, other than the psychic problems.”
Apple picking is the definition of a family-friendly activity, there’s no major skill or knowledge required, and you can easily spend five minutes or five hours doing it.
“The great thing about apple picking is that you don’t need anything special,” Charles said. “Come as you are, dress for the weather, we’ll provide the bags.”
The Mark family, who have Wellwood Orchards in Springfield since 1981, offered a few more tips.“Dress comfortably and in layers. It can be colder up here on the hill. Avoid sandals and high heels! The ground is uneven in places so be mindful of your step. Sunscreen is a must even in these early days of fall.”
Both Dorman and Charles suggested, for the best results, show up to pick early in the day. “Anytime is a good time to pick apples, but I like to pick in the morning so the apples are cold and great for eating right off the tree,” Charles said.
Once the apples are in your bag (Dorman said at Whitman Brook they will also supply them, but encourage visitors to bring their own) it’s a good idea to provide the cold that Mother Nature may not. He recommends storing fruit in the fridge in a plastic bag with a few small pin holes in it.
“Once the apple comes off the tree, the quicker it can get cold, the better. Apples want to be stored as close to 32°F as possible. It’s good to keep them in plastic, otherwise the fridge’s defrosting feature will dry them out,” he said. “That holds true for any fruit or veggie that needs humidity.”
The ongoing global pandemic may also be affecting apple-picker turnout, though thanks to Vermont’s high vaccination rates and low case counts, neither orchard has had to put any pandemic restrictions in place.
“We just want our customers to do what makes them feel safe, whether that means wearing a mask or not. Social distancing is easy with all the space we have,” Charles said.
Dorman agreed. “I don’t think masks are necessary, but some of our customers are wearing them. If a customer would feel better having us wearing a mask we keep one on hand, but we’re in an outdoor spot and it’s pretty breezy, plus there’s no need to get real close!”
Mendon Mountain Orchards is open from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. seven days a week. Whitman Brook Orchard is open for picking Saturdays 11 a.m.-4 p.m. and Sundays 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Wellwood Orchards is open from 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. daily.