When you are new to growing apples one of the difficult things to learn is when to harvest apples. It can also be tricky to know how to pick apples as well. Use these tips to help you figure out when and how to pick apples and what to do with them once you pick them.
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Learning when to harvest apples is important, if you pick an apple too soon then the immature apples will be tart and hard. Wait too long to pick an apple and it will be overripe and mushy! There is a sweet spot you need to hit on when to harvest apples, that will give you the best flavor and a nice crisp flesh. It’s also important to learn how to pick an apple so that you don’t damage the fruiting spurs on the tree. This article will cover both of these topics
Quick Note: You will notice in the photos in this article my apples are covered in bags. These bags are called Organza Bags. We use them as an organic solution for keeping pests like codling moths and birds off our apples. You can learn more about using these Organza Bags as pest protectors by watching a YouTube video I filmed on the topic here!
When to Harvest Apples
Knowing when to harvest apples and how to pick an apple is important! Getting the timing and ripeness right will assure that you have delicious fruit that will store for a long time! There are 5 main methods that you can use to determine when to harvest apples from your backyard garden trees. Let’s look at each of the 5 methods below.
Time of year to pick an apple
Most cultivars of apples are ready in the fall. Apple season is traditionally from mid-September to October. With a few varieties ripening as late as November. There are also some summer apples that are ready as early as late July to late August. Of course, all of these estimated times will vary based on where you live. Those who live in warmer climates will have an earlier bloom in the spring and therefore an earlier harvest in the fall.
Variations between climates make it important to know the number of days to maturity for the variety you are growing. With that information, you will have a good idea of when to start checking your fruit for ripeness. Keeping track of harvesting dates in a Garden Journal will help you establish a good estimate of when your trees will be ready each year.
Also, recognize that frost is not a bad thing when it comes to apples. A light frost can improve the sweetness of your apples, so strains that mature in late September or early October can benefit from the frost.
Look for a change in the background color
As harvest time for your apples approaches the first thing you will see is a color change. Most apples start out green, and towards the end of their growing cycle, they will start to take on their final color (most apples turn red). Once the apples start to change color you will notice that there is still a background color to portions of the apple.
Notice the difference between the two apples in the photo? The background color on the apple on the left is still green, this apple is NOT ready to harvest. With the apple on the right, you will notice the background color has moved away from green, to a yellow/tan/white color.
This background color change is the first signal of when to harvest apples. Depending on the variety of apples you have, that background color will change from green to yellow, tan, or even a creamy white color. Once that change happens you know you will soon have a ripe apple and background color change can be a very reliable indicator of ripeness.
What about apples that ripen to a solid color (like a red delicious) or a green apple (like a Granny Smith)? With these apples, you are instead looking for a complete color change on the entire apple. These apples should ripen to a nice even dark color. Background color won’t be present so you will need to try some of the other methods with these solid-colored apples.
Once you have seen this color change happening on your apples it is time to move on to the next method for learning when to harvest apples.
Ease of Removing the Apple from the Tree
The next step in knowing when to harvest apples is the ease of picking. When an apple is ready to pick from the tree it should come away from the tree with very little effort. This ease of picking is a very good indicator of ripeness. If you have to twist or pull, or if the fruit feels like it is “fighting” to stay on the tree then it is not ready and you should leave them for a few more days.
If it doesn’t easily come off don’t force it by twisting or pulling this will damage the fruiting spur and future apple production. Just be patient and leave your apples on the tree.
I will talk more about the actual process of how to pick an apple towards the end of this article. For now, just know that if it isn’t easy to remove the fruit from the tree then the fruit isn’t ready!
Change in Seed Color
The next two methods require that you actually pick an apple from the tree. If you are having a hard time telling if your apples are ready to pick then a good way to tell if the apples are ready is to look at the seed color. Dark seed color is a great indication of maturity.
Simply pick an apple from the tree, slice it in half, and look at the colors of the seeds. Seeds on an apple that isn’t ready will be white, or light tan.
As an apple matures the seeds will darken and look like the seeds in the photo above. Those dark brown seeds are a great way to tell that an apple is ready. This can be especially helpful with solid-colored varieties, where you can’t see if the background color has changed. Sacrifice an apple every few days and see if those seeds have darkened in color.
Taste your Apples
The last way to know when to harvest apples is to do a taste test!
Most apple varieties will sweeten up when they are ready for harvest. The apple will lose all of its “tartness” and become sweet and tasty! If you cut open an apple and it still has a tart taste then the others are likely not ready and should be given a few more days.
This method of course doesn’t apply to naturally tart varieties like Granny Smith.
How to Pick an Apple?
Picking an apple the correct way will help protect the apple tree and its fruiting spurs from damage.
What is a Fruiting Spur?
A fruiting spur is a short shoot on a tree branch where the apples actually grow. Most fruiting spurs can last and produce fruit for many years, on some varieties fruiting spurs may remain productive for up to 10 years.
Because they can produce for so long we want to be sure to protect them from damage while we are harvesting the fruit. Lots of twisting and pulling can damage fruiting spurs, causing them to not produce for a few years as they recover.
How to pick an apple – The Palm and Roll Method
There is a very simple way to gently pick apples. I will show you some photos to demonstrate.
Hold the apple in the palm of one hand. If the branch the apple is growing on is small then support the branch with the other hand.
Then simply roll your palm over towards the branch with the apple held gently in your hand. If the apple is ready to pick the stem of the apple will cleanly separate from the fruiting spur without any twisting or pulling needed.
It’s that simple, just that little rolling motion with the apple held gently in your palm should cleanly remove a ripe apple from the tree!
How to Store and Preserve Apples?
Most years our 2 little apple trees give us a really nice harvest! On a good year, each of our semi-dwarf trees gives us at least a bushel each. That is hundreds of apples!
Remember apples continue to ripen once picked
When planning how to store apples fresh keep in mind that mature apples will continue to ripen once harvested from the tree. This isn’t an excuse to pick them early, early picked apples will never have the correct level of sweetness. But apples will continue to ripen and so when storing them fresh the key is to slow down that ripening process.
The best way to store fresh apples is to keep them in a cool, dark, and dry location. Root cellars are great for this, but if you don’t have a root cellar then an unheated spot in a basement or a garage can also work.
A shed can be a good place to store apples, but only if you live in an area where you don’t have freezing weather in the winter. You don’t want your fresh apples to be frozen. And of course, if you only have a small number of apples then storing them in a refrigerator will work great!
Be sure to keep apples away from other fruits and vegetables that are also being stored. Apples in storage produce ethylene gas as they are ripening and this gas can cause other fruits and vegetables to ripen or even rot more quickly.
Other ideas for Preserving Apples
If you have too many apples to just eat fresh, there are many other options for preserving your harvest!
Apples can of course be made into applesauce, apple juice, pie fillings, or just canned as plain slices. One nice thing about apples is because they are a high-acid food they can be water bath canned which is a much easier method of preservation.
Apples can also be dried and they can be very tasty this way! In fact, dried apples are one of our favorite snacks. It is easy to do and the dried apples can simply be stored in plastic bags. Apples can be dried, freeze-dried, or made into fruit leathers. For instructions and recipes for drying apples see this page from the National Center for Home Food Preservation.
What Apple Varieties do I Grow?
The two apple varieties that we grow in our garden are early Fuji and Honeycrisp. Both ripen for us here in Zone 6B Utah in early October. Honeycrisp apples are our favorite variety they are so sweet! Harvest time is so exciting at our place because we can’t wait to have fresh apples again to eat.
Knowing when to harvest apples and how to pick an apple is easy if you use the 4 steps outlined above and then gently remove the apples from the tree! It is also important to know how to store and preserve your apples once you have harvested them. I hope this article helps you as you start picking your apples. Happy Gardening!!