All About When to Pick Apples


Apple season is in full swing! It’s the end of September here and everyone is wondering which apples are in season and when is the best time to go apple picking in local orchards.

Wondering when to pick apples? The month of September is peak apple picking season. While different varieties of apples ripen at different times, and the climate varies the harvest from year to year, early fall is almost always a reliable time to go apple picking.

Since the timing of apple season varies from year to year, its helpful to watch the apples for signs of ripening. Read on to learn about how to tell if an apple is ripe and ready for picking.

Knowing when to pick your own apples

When are Apples Ready to be Picked?

Apple ripening depends on many factors, including the cultivar of apple and the weather during the growing season. While annual patterns are well established, farmers don’t set an exact harvest date for their crops. Apple growers observe the ripening apples for maturity before making the decision about when to harvest them.

Apples picked too early are tart, plainly-coloured, and small. Apples picked too late can be soft and prone to deterioration.

So, how do you know when apples are ready to be picked? Fortunately apples do give quite a few indications to show they’re ready. But….not all apples will show all signs. There are lots of exceptions. Growers get better at determining apple ripeness as they gain experience.

Ripe light pink apples on a small row of apple trees - how to tell apple maturity and ripeness

Here are some signs of apple ripeness:

  • Taste is crisp and juicy, not starchy and tangy. An apple’s acidity and starch content decreases as it ripens.
  • Check the firmness. Mature apples are firm and crisp, but not hard. Apples shouldn’t be soft or easily bruised.
  • The background skin colour (the part of the apple skin that isn’t red) changes from green to yellow.
    • Green apples are generally immature (unless it’s a green variety).
    • Mature apples are to red or yellow. But, some varieties turn red before they are mature. So many exceptions!
  • The colour of the skin inside the stem indentation changes from green to yellow.
  • The apple’s flesh is white instead of light green.
  • The apple’s seeds turn from white to brown.
  • The apple stem separates easily from the branch. Under-ripe apples don’t come off the tree easily.

So how do you tell if an apple is ready to be picked off the tree? Pick one off the tree and observe it! The apple should come off the tree easily and will usually be red or yellow. Cut the apple in half to check for white flesh and brown seeds. The apple should taste sweet rather than overly sour.

Different varieties of apples ripen at different times and show different indications of maturity. Climate variations in temperature, water and sunlight all affect the ripening pattern of apples. Even apples on the sunny side of the tree can be ready for picking before apples that are in the shade. Local nurseries and State Extension Offices are a good source for learning about apple ripening patterns in your area.

Apple Season

So which month is apple season? Apple season is around the month of September. While peak harvest generally occurs in September for most of the apples we see in stores, there are some cultivars which are ready as early as late July and others that aren’t ripe until October.

When is the season for apples? Fresh apples are available from late July to early November. Each apple variety has it’s own ripening requirements, and some just take a lot longer to ripen than others! Different varieties are grown in different regions, and the varieties grown in one region will have a range of maturity dates. There are thousands of different cultivated apples (and that doesn’t even include the endless wild apples grown from seeds).

Summer apples are ready in July and August. Summer apples don’t store well, and are therefore less likely to be sold in bulk. Gravenstein, Hawaii, Jersey Mac, Lodi, and Vista Bella are examples of summer apples. Look for summer apples at specialty orchards or inquire at the local farmers market.

Fall apples are ripe in September and October. Fall apples do store well, and we are therefore more used to seeing fall varieties in the grocery store. McIntosh, Gala, Fuji, Ambrosia, Granny Smith, and Honeycrisp are all examples of fall apples. Fall apples are the classics for “going apple picking”, as you’ll be able to wear your cozy sweater and flannel.

Ripe Red Apple Still on the Apple Tree

How to Pick Apples

Apples are picked by hand, even in commercial orchards. Some growers like to gently twist the apples off, lifting them upwards to separate the apple’s stem from the branch. Others roll the apple upwards first and then twist. We were taught just to gently turn apples upside down. Most people agree that apples shouldn’t be pulled straight away from the branch.

The stem should separate from the branch easily if the apples are mature. Treat fruit gently. Try not to drop the apples, and don’t let them be thrown. Apples bruise easily. Bruised apples do not store well, and often can only be quickly used up in apple juice or sauce.

Sometimes all the apples on one tree will ripen at roughly the same time. If this is the case, it’s fine to pick them all at once. Some apple trees, however, ripen their crop over a few weeks. These trees will need to be picked a few times.

Apple ripening is also affected by each apple’s location on the tree, and how well the tree is pruned for sunlight and air movement. Fruit on the top of the sunny side of the tree can ripen a week or two before fruit growing low inside the shady leaf canopy.

Unripe Apple Growing in Shady Spot on Tree in Mid-September
Here is a Macintosh apple that’s not yet ripe, even though its mid-September. The apples on the outside of this tree are ripe and ready to eat, but this one is inside the shady canopy and isn’t ready yet.

Apples that have a few scuffs or specks (but are otherwise intact) are usually fine for storage. Apples with bruises or visible decay won’t store well. Apples that get bruised during picking can still be eaten, they’re just best used for making applesauce or other yummy treats.

In climates with harsh winters, it’s best to pick all the apples off a tree by the end of October. Warmer climates may allow for ripe apples to remain on the tree from August-December.

Do apples ripen after picking?

Apples that have reached sufficient maturity continue to ripen even after they are no longer on the tree. If an apple falls off a tree when it’s too young, it won’t continue to ripen. Very young apples won’t ripen in storage.

It’s important to note that a “mature” apple isn’t necessarily ripe. Maturity in apples only indicates that the fruit has developed to the point where it will finish ripening on it’s own, even if removed from the tree. A “mature” apple is not necessarily “ripe” yet.

Apples for storage should be harvested once they are “mature”, but before they are perfectly ripe. Apples for fresh eating can stay on the tree right until you’re ready to eat them!

Picked apples do lose moisture once they’re off the tree (this is why grocery-store apples are covered in thin sealing wax). Picked apples also don’t change their colour much during storage.

When is apple picking month - its September

Frost in Apple Picking Season

Apples are not necessarily helped or harmed by a light frost. If the apple is ready, it should be picked. Apples don’t need a frost to sweeten them up. It’s also true that a light frost won’t ruin the apples.

Apples that freeze solid on the tree are a different story. Apples that have been frozen don’t store well at all. If you’ve got apples that have frozen and thawed on the tree, but are otherwise ok, they may be ok for apple juice, cider, or applesauce.

Apples on the tree will tolerate light frosts (a temperature of 28 ̊F or lower) with no apparent injury. However, severe frosts (25 ̊F or lower) will damage fruit.

University of Wisconsin – Extension, Teryl R. Roper
Ripe apples ready for late september harvest

How The Pros Decide When to Pick Apples

Professional tree fruit growers have a few scientific tests at their disposal to help them decide when to pick apples. Apple maturity can be tested in a laboratory for starch, firmness, soluble solids concentration, acidity, and background colour.

For immediate consumer consumption, the presence of background color, starches in the range of 4.5-6.0, sugar content above 13 percent, and firmness readings greater than 13 pounds should meet consumer expectations.

Penn State Extension, Fruit Harvest – Determining Apple Fruit Maturity

Growers who sell fresh apples at specialty markets are generally testing for flavour and colour, while growers who sell bulk apples for storage are more likely to test for starch or firmness.

Firmness is tested by using an instrument to measure the amount of pressure required to puncture the apple’s skin. Starch is tested by applying an iodine solution to the cut apple surface. The iodine turns the starch molecules a dark colour. The more starch that is observed, the less ripe the apple is.

See this article about apple maturity from PennState for a photo of what apples look like as they are tested for maturity using the starch-iodine test.

Further Reading About Growing Apples

To learn more about growing apples in general, check out this handy guide from North Carolina State University Extension.

Also check out this article about how long it takes for apple trees in the average yard to start bearing fruit.

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