THIS FALL, the early bird gets the apple, as most varieties of the tempting fruit are reaching their peak a week to 10 days sooner than usual.

"Extremely warm temperatures in May got things rolling early," says Henry Allenberg, president of the Maryland Apple Promotion Board.

Varieties usually available at this point in September -- such as Gala and Jonagold -- may be in scarce supply for pick-your-own enthusiasts. Growers also report that Golden Delicious crops, which tend to produce more heavily every other year, are somewhat light this year. Overall, however, crops are proving bountiful and sweet.

"The sugar's up in them and they're doing fine," Allenberg says. "Orchards in central Maryland have had less rain, which is probably actually better for flavor."

"In general, I've heard -- and seen -- good things," says Dave Robishaw, regional general marketing manager with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "I think we had just a wonderful growing season with plenty of rain."

The most popular varieties, Robishaw says, include "standard old-time favorites" Red and Golden Delicious, along with the newer sweet-tart Gala and sweet Fuji.

"By far the most fanatical following is the Fujis," Allenberg says. "I think they're just really something special as far as flavor. . . . There's a lot going on there."

As for other apple trends, Robishaw notes that people are gravitating more toward "eating" apples rather than apples typically used for baking, as fewer have time to bake apple pies and such from scratch. He also says that tourism offices are promoting "agri-tourism," encouraging people to visit farms and orchards for entertainment.

The industry also is trying to educate the public about "good for you" carbohydrates in apples.

"I think we're seeing a little of the luster come off " Atkins and similar carb-counting diets, Robishaw says.

FRUITS OF YOUR LABOR

Pick apples at the following Maryland and Virginia orchards, most of which lie within a 90-minute drive of the Washington area. Call ahead to double-check availability and weather conditions. Most locations also sell picked fruits and vegetables along with seasonal items like cider, pies, pumpkins, gourds and locally made condiments. Many places offer additional autumn activities.

Apple growers recommend guidelines for an optimal pick-your-own experience. Wear comfortable, protective clothing, sunscreen and bug repellent, and watch out for yellow jackets and other stinging insects. Old, sturdy shoes are best, as the ground can get muddy and contain uneven spots. Don't allow children to wander off and pick unsupervised. Leave pets at home. Sampling an apple is fine, but don't eat up the orchard's profits by helping yourself to unlimited fruit before weighing and paying for your pickings. Pick gently and avoid knocking apples to the ground. Because nearly all pick-your-own trees are dwarf or semi-dwarf in size, you needn't climb ladders, which generally prove the biggest potential hazard for pickers.

Orchards provide strong bags or other containers, and some locations lend picking poles for reaching fruit on high branches. Apples vary in price according to supply, variety and location, generally ranging from 69 cents to $1.19 per pound; some locations sell by the bushel. Some growers offer discounts for purchases of 20 pounds or more. Most varieties will keep for four to six weeks if stored in plastic bags with air holes in a refrigerator or in a cold, but not freezing, location such as a garage.

For additional apple information, including descriptions of varieties, listings of upcoming festivals and locations of orchards and farm markets throughout Maryland and Virginia, visit these Web sites:

MARYLAND APPLE PROMOTION BOARD -- www.marylandapples.org. This site promoting Maryland apple growers encourages consumers to learn more about apples and purchase locally grown fruit.

PICKYOUROWN.ORG -- www.pickyourown.org. Locate pick-your-own fruit and vegetable farms throughout the country.

U.S. APPLE ASSOCIATION -- www.usapple.org. This Vienna-based association offers abundant educational information about apples and their uses.

VIRGINIA STATE APPLE BOARD -- www.virginiaapples.org. Find growers, special events and apple facts at this site, sponsored by the Richmond-based commodity board of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Gala apples are a popular variety at area pick-your-own orchards, but other kinds, such as Golden Delicious and Fuji, are in demand as well.