Autumn: Just like some people wait all year round for summer to arrive, I wait for the autumn season. Autumn is my most favorite time of the year. Yes, even more than summer! Between Labor Day and mid-to-late October, the landscape is transformed by the cooling weather which starts whittling down things to their very core. The trees display their foliage in fiery crimson, alizarin, gold, and tan hues, their last colorful display before they release their leaves to the Earth. There are many things that make this time of year magical to me: the wind-polished, clear blue skies; the smoky smell of wood fire lingering in the air; the satisfying crunch of dry leaves under my feet; the gentle rustling of the wind in the trees; and the last bursts of color provided by chrysanthemums, kale, and asters. In addition, back when I was a student, fall meant going back to school. I loved returning to school and getting my books and notebooks ready in my messenger bag as I walked to class at the beginning of a new semester. There are so may reasons why I love autumn.
Of course, apples, pears, and pumpkins are part and parcel of the fall season here in the Midwest. From cider to cinnamon-scented apple pie to pumpkin muffins to cardamom-laced pear tarts, these are some of the typical flavors of fall. Fall in the Midwest brings all these flavors, gorgeous color, and the last opportunities for weekend trips and getaways in the great outdoors. Predictably, one of my must-do activities in September is going to an apple orchard! Minnesota is apple-growing country, and its orchards yield several kinds of apple, including the popular Honeycrisps developed by the University of Minnesota. If you have any agrarian roots in you, you will understand how I feel. There is something idyllic about being in a countryside setting surrounded by rolling hills, green fields and neat rows of ancient fruit trees laden with their yummy red treasures. The soft breeze blows among the trees; the birds, butterflies and bees flit about in the bright sunshine and you exhale wondering: How could I not mark the change of season by embarking on this cherished rite of apple-picking? It makes me think of a simpler time when people were more connected to the land and the growing of their food.
If you want to experience this fall ritual, there are a lot of great local orchards. The one I’m currently hooked on is Minnetonka Orchards in Minnetrista, family-run since 1976, offering different varieties of apples, wagon rides into the woods, tractor rides in the open fields, hayrides, face-painting, live music, a petting zoo, a corn maze, and a pumpkin patch. There are some picnic tables and logs that function as a seating area, so you can rest, enjoy the cool fall air whilst sipping a cup of hot cider or munch on an apple. It’s pet-friendly too, so you can bring your canine friend along on a leash. It also features a cheerily-painted gift shop or country store where they sell apple-themed goodies like cider, jam, apple butter, candy, and cozy farm décor. The landscape is so picturesque that you will find tons of opportunities for fall-themed family photos in front of the green tractor, on the haystacks, by the apple trees, or near their hand-painted backdrops.
Visiting this fruit farm makes for a peaceful day out in the country, perfect to enjoy the crisp, refreshing fall weather, and to immerse yourself in all things apple. I visited the apple orchard shortly after my wedding. I loved it so much that it is now a staple outing of the autumn season. If you are lucky enough to go before October, you can take advantage of the pick-your-own-apple section while the trees are still fruitful with apples. If you arrive close to mid-October, most of this section will have been picked, but fear not: their country store is filled with bags of picked apples. While we were at the orchards, we picked apples from the trees, walked along the path into the golden woods, played in the corn maze, petted the goats and chickens, and hitched a wagon ride. We had a blast! We also sat down on the grassy top of the hill overlooking the scenic view of the orchard below and ate apples and drank hot cider while overlooking the beautiful countryside. Needless to say, the apples were absolute fruit beauties, with their smooth ruby skins and cream-colored interiors and small drop-shaped seeds. They were full of flavor, and I was reminded what a privilege it is to be able to eat fruit freshly picked from the tree right on the spot. The apples at the orchard don’t look perfect like the ones at the store, one of the reasons I love them so. Their sizes are uneven, and their skins are a blend of red, green, and yellow in patterns hand-painted by nature. Furthermore, they aren’t shiny. They are real apples and they aren’t coated with wax. It’s fruit right off the tree.
Of course, I do know that the reality of working in an orchard is far more complex than an afternoon of apple-picking. Establishing an orchard is patient work: An apple tree will bear fruit 8-10 years after it is planted. Did you know the first apple trees in the U.S. were planted by colonists in the Massachusetts Bay Colony? Talk about apples being a true American flavor! Picking apples may seem simple but it actually requires a lot of skill and practice to do it correctly so as not to damage the trees’ “fruiting spurs”: the small branches near the present fruit that will bear fruit the following year. The trick is to twist the apple gently so that it separates from the branch without damaging the fruiting spurs. When done on a scale, it is incredibly challenging physical work. Also, the crops are vulnerable to the weather elements. Apples are not self-pollenating. They need bees to pollenate the flowers to produce fruit. Too much rain during the blooming season can keep the bees from pollinating the blossoms. Too much rain also encourages diseases that damage the fruit. No matter how hard the work put into the crop, nature always wins. A thunderstorm right before the apples are picked can knock the entire bounty to the ground and destroy a crop in a matter of hours. So as much as I am recommending apple-picking as a fun family outing, I have the deepest respect for our apple growers and apple pickers, for every apple you see in any store was hand-picked.
In Minnesota, the apple-picking season starts in late August and lasts through October. Like all farming, it can vary significantly from year to year as well as depending on the apple variety.
A Few Tips for Apple Picking
- Apples are usually ripe when the stem of the apple is easily removed from the spur of the branch. This should be done with a gentle twist-and-pull motion.
- A tree with apples littered on the ground beneath is probably a little past ripe for picking.
- If you pick apples slightly on the tart side, it will allow them to store for longer.
- When you are apple-picking pick from the bottom branches first. There are a few ladders set up near the trees if you need to pick higher up the branches.
- Lastly, be aware that ripe apples bruise easily, so handle the apples with care and gently place them in your basket or bag. Try not to put any bruised apples in your bag or basket as they rot first and then take the others down with them.
- For storage, store in a cool, dry spot. If for whatever reason there was a spell of rain or showers at the orchard, dry the apples so they will store longer.
When I got home, I made the apples into my Maple-Glazed Minne-Apple Cake! Even if you don’t feel like baking, I hope you will decide to visit an apple orchard near you and have a beautiful day outdoors!