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By Mary Jane Solomon
Friday, September 14, 2007

The time is ripe to enjoy one of autumn's most appealing outings: a jaunt to an apple orchard, where crisp country air and unspoiled vistas prove as delicious and plentiful as the clusters of sweet, crunchy fruits ready to be plucked from laden branches.

More than a dozen orchards within 90 minutes of the Washington suburbs offer pick-your-own apples from row upon row of easy-to-reach, semi-dwarf trees throughout September and, in most cases, during much of October. This year, locally grown apples generally survived such challenging weather conditions as frost, hailstorms and a summer drought.

"Despite the late spring freeze and dry August, I have heard we are looking at a very good crop of apples," says David Robishaw, sales and market development manager for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. He adds that rainfall at the end of August helped later varieties grow in size.

The abundant dry weather may have affected apple sizes, but it does offer some advantages.

"People going to the orchards may find the apples to be slightly smaller than in years past, but the flavor and sugar content should be excellent," Robishaw says.

"So far it has been a very dry season, which is typically very good for all fruit crops," says Joseph A. Fiola, a specialist in viticulture and small fruit at the University of Maryland's Western Maryland Research and Education Center in Keedysville. Most growers have irrigation systems, giving them "the best of both worlds: dry, low disease, high sugar and flavor conditions, and they can add water just to the soil when the plants really need it," he says.

The arid conditions also diminished the populations of potentially harmful bugs.

"Two dry summers in a row have really depleted the [Japanese] beetles," says Dick Biggs of Rock Hill Orchard in Mount Airy. "We didn't have to do nearly as much spraying."

Robishaw encourages apple pickers to call ahead to check orchard conditions, and growers recommend confirming availability. Some varieties are ripening a week or more ahead of schedule.

Orchard operators also advise visitors to follow certain guidelines to enhance their outings. Wear comfortable, protective clothing and sturdy shoes that you don't mind muddying. Apply sunscreen, and bring insect repellent in case you need to ward off stinging yellow jackets, which may hover close to the fruit. Dogs are not allowed, but children are welcome as long as parents keep a watchful eye.

"There's simply nothing better for a family activity than getting out to a farm and picking a few apples and feeling the crisp air," says Mark S. Powell, chief of marketing and agricultural development for the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Many Maryland orchards will offer kid-friendly Johnny Appleseed-related activities Sept. 29 and 30, and most Maryland and Virginia locations will feature such seasonal highlights as farm animals and hayrides throughout the fall.

For additional information about pick-your-own apple orchards, descriptions of apple varieties, apple facts and schedules of apple-related festivals, visit the following Web sites:


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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