FALL officially starts Thursday, but one of the season's most popular pastimes already is providing a welcome -- and tasty -- diversion for city and suburban folks craving some country-flavored R&R.

"It's a great, festive time," says Homestead Farm owner Ben Allnutt of late September and October, when families and school groups flock to the Poolesville farm's orchards to pick apples and take part in other autumn activities.

"It's a fun time of the year," echoes Dick Biggs of Rock Hill Orchard in Mount Airy. "It's a real family thing."

Many orchards -- most of them family owned and operated for several generations -- offer pick-your-own apples on easy-to-reach dwarf and semi-dwarf trees bearing various varieties, including traditional sweet types for eating raw such as Red and Golden Delicious and sweet-tart, multipurpose apples such as Stayman and Granny Smith. The season typically starts with sweet-tart, red-orange Gala apples -- still available in limited supply -- and ends with the popular sweet, blush- and green-tinged Fujis.

"We want 'em to sample them and pick whatever varieties they want," says Ed Streapy of his customers at High Places Orchards in Rappahannock County. He encourages visitors to taste different kinds of apples while they're picking and to mix and match the fruits, priced the same regardless of variety.

Overall, growers report good crops this season.

"Very big size-wise and volume-wise," says Bill Green of Hartland Orchard in Virginia's Fauquier County. "It's a good year -- we've had plenty of moisture."

Spring weather caused a good blooming season, resulting in a big apple crop this fall, says Todd Butler of Butler's Orchard in Germantown.

The lack of recent rain in the metro area hasn't caused any big adverse effects, although some apples might be smaller, producing a more concentrated flavor.

Apple growers offer tips for making pick-your-own outings pleasant and productive. Wear comfortable, protective clothing -- long sleeves and long pants, if temperatures allow -- and don't forget the sunscreen and bug repellent. Apples tend to attract yellow jackets and other stinging insects. Wear sturdy shoes that can get dirty, as orchard grounds are uneven and get muddy.

Adults must supervise children, who have a tendency to wander off. Help youngsters pick gently, and avoid knocking apples to the ground. Leave Bowser at home, as excited dogs can annoy other pickers. Apple growers don't object to sampling but likewise don't appreciate customers eating up profits by snacking on unlimited fruit before weighing and paying for their pickings.

Orchards provide hefty bags or other containers, and some locations lend picking poles for reaching fruit on the highest branches. Most varieties keep for four to six weeks if stored in plastic bags with air holes in a refrigerator.

While the apple-picking tradition looks solid at most area locations, one popular site, Cherry Hill Farm & Orchard in Clinton will close at the end of this season "because we're in our seventies and very tired and can't work like we used to," says Pat Gallahan, who owns the six-generation farm with husband Alton. Before the farm shuts down and the land becomes developed, Cherry Hill will hold one last fall harvest celebration.

"We're trying to do it really good and really big this year," Gallahan says.

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

APPLE PROMOTION BOARD -- www.marylandapples.org. Learn about Maryland apples and where they're grown.

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

U.S. APPLE ASSOCIATION -- www.usapple.org. This Vienna-based association offers news about the apple industry and facts about apples.

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


Pick apples at these Maryland and Virginia orchards, most of which are within 90 minutes of the Washington area. Call first to confirm availability and weather conditions, as orchards can become muddy. Most sites also sell fruits and vegetables along with cider, pumpkins, baked goods, fall decorations, locally made condiments and other items. Many orchards offer seasonal activities such as hayrides and festivals, and all locations have bathrooms or portable toilets. Apples vary in price according to supply, variety and location, but generally range from 79 cents to $1.19 per pound; some locations sell by the bushel, and many offer volume discounts.

Liana Rubin Bare, 2, reaches high for an apple at the Homestead Farm in Poolesville. Sasha Mikita, 16 months, samples an apple fresh off the tree. Homestead Farm employee Julie Dove bags apples at the farm's market in Poolesville. The farm is one of many in the area offering apples this season.