If you are growing fruit trees in your garden, it can be an enormous challenge to know when the fruit is ready to pick. There are proven indicators that suggest when we should pick apples, including color. But different apple varieties mature at different times, which can be a challenge for home gardeners with no previous apple-growing experience.
So, how can you tell if your apples are ripe and ready to harvest? A common way to estimate when your apples are ready to pick is to rely on the expected days between flowering and harvest. But this is not a reliable indication because of weather conditions and variations in sunlight, water, and temperature every year.
How Do You Know When Your Apples Are Ready to Harvest?
When it comes to knowing when apples are ready to harvest, it’s literally a case of comparing apples with apples of the same sort! That’s because different cultivars ripen at different times.
We’ve mentioned the unreliability of using dates between when apple trees flower and when they should be ready to harvest. Instead, it makes more sense to use a handful of well-known indicators. One particularly easy indicator is to do a taste test.
Acknowledged indicators include the color of apples, and how easily they separate from the tree. When the fruit starts to fall off the tree is another sure indicator that apples are ripe, and/or ready for picking.
Maturity and Ripeness Are Different
People often talk about fruit being mature and/or ripe in the sense that these two words mean the same thing. But, as the University of Wisconsin-Extension expert, Prof. Teryn R. Roper, points out, there is a big difference between apples that are mature and apples that are ripe.
Mature apples are fully developed and can continue to ripen. Ripe apples are ready to eat at harvest time because they are at their peak for flavor and texture.
While commercial apple farmers will pick mature fruit that they can store, when you have an apple tree at home, you can decide whether to pick ripe or mature apples.
You certainly don’t have to pick all your apples at one time. You also don’t need to be in the position that you need to store your crop.
Indicators That Apples Are Ready to Harvest
If you know what you’re looking for, you’ll get a good idea when your apples are ready to pick. The following indicators are recommended by several university extensions including the University of Wisconsin and Utah State University.
Color of the Apple’s Skin
All immature apples are green. When they mature they change color according to the wide range of apple varieties.
Examples of different colored apples include bright green Granny Smith, yellow Golden Delicious, Red Delicious that are glorious red colors. Others like Gala and Fuji are partly red and almost patterned, with stripes and splodges.
But like the flower to harvest idea, color is not always a reliable indicator in terms of maturity or ripeness. The truth is that skin color, like human skin color, varies even when you compare apples with apples of exactly the same cultivar.
This is the color of the skin where the stem is attached to the apple tree. With some varieties, the ground color changes from a bright green color to a much lighter green, and then to yellow.
The problem is when you are growing red apples, including Red Delicious and others that are a solid red color. It simply won’t help you!
But there is an upside because if there is discoloration of the ground color, this might be a warning that codling moths have been tunneling into your apples! Codling moths are a huge problem, but not one that we are going to discuss here.
The color of apple seeds can sometimes tell you if your apples are mature. Usually, they will turn dark brown as they mature, but you’re going to have to cut an apple in half to check the color of its seeds.
But there’s another caveat. When some cultivars ripen, their seeds stay white! This is yet another challenge when it comes to knowing when to harvest apples.
As apples mature their flesh softens. While the flesh of mature apples is firm and crisp, it should never be hard.
When you pick apples, you can push your thumb and fingers against the fruit to see how firm it is. With experience, you will learn whether it is hard or firm – mature or ripe!
Remember, you don’t have to pick all your apples. Some will be more mature (or ripe) than others.
The Taste Test
If your apples aren’t ripe or mature, they will taste starchy. This is because the starch in the fruit is converted to sugars as the fruit matures. It makes sense, doesn’t it?
You don’t have to be an expert to be able to taste the difference between immature and mature apples. As apples ripen, their smell and taste improve.
What Happens If You Don’t Harvest Apples?
Presuming you have an apple tree or two (or more) at home, it all depends on whether you are growing the fruit for a meaningful harvest or simply to pick and choose an apple now and then.
If you have one or maybe two apple trees, you don’t have to harvest all the apples your tree produces. But don’t stress.
Most fruits and vegetables will die if you don’t harvest them. While the apples on your apple tree will die, your apple tree may have a lifespan of 50 to 150 years.
In reality, what will happen is that ripe apples will fall off the tree if you don’t pick them. So, it’s not a big deal. You can either grab them off the ground or leave them to rot … or be claimed by the various creatures that visit your garden, like squirrels and other critters.
Probably more importantly, if you don’t harvest your apples, you will lose out on your potential harvest.
How to Harvest Apples?
All apples must be picked by hand. Unlike some fruits and vegetables that are harvested mechanically, apples are always picked manually whether they are grown commercially or by home gardeners.
It’s not a difficult process. All you need to do is hold the fruit in your hand and twist the apple so that the stem breaks off the branch.
The challenge is that the fruit of some cultivars will mature all at once. Others, including late summer apples, mature progressively over a few weeks.
This is why you need to know when your apples are ready to harvest. Pickers who work for apple farmers know how to spot-pick mature apples.
What they also know is that apples ripen from one side of the tree (usually the outside). This means that some of the fruit on the northern or southern side might ripen a couple of weeks earlier.
It’s a challenge in the commercial world of apple production. It’s not so much of a challenge if you are simply going to pick apples for yourself and for your family.
Another factor to consider when you harvest apples is access.
If your apple tree has grown a lot, you might need to use a ladder. If so, don’t be tempted to lean it against the outer limbs of your tree, and make sure that it isn’t going to tip.
An apple a day might keep the doctor away, but it’s not going to heal broken limbs!
Should You Wash Apples after Harvesting?
The question of whether or not to wash fruit and veg after harvesting is a universal one that has pros and cons. In general, washing cleans and gets rid of bacteria and pathogens while it can cause rot and mold.
When you buy store apples they are clean. So, it should make you think. We promote washing apples and drying them thoroughly before storing them.
The golden rule, however, is to make sure that you always wash apples before you eat them whether they come off your apple tree or they are store apples.
Can You Eat Apples Immediately after Harvesting?
You can certainly eat ripe apples right off your apple tree. But, if you pick mature apples, you will need to wait until they are ripe.
Growing trees that provide us with fruit can be enormously rewarding. But planting trees takes commitment, and it takes time for them to produce fruit.
It can take about eight years or more for standard apple trees to bear fruit. If you have the commitment, there’s nothing more rewarding than picking apples off your own apple tree rather than buying and eating store apples.
In this garden guide for 2023, we have given you a wide range of tips that will help you identify the right time to harvest apples off that stunning apple tree in your backyard. These include easy ways to identify whether your apples are mature and ready to harvest, or ripe and ready to eat!
There’s a big difference here!
Whether you have one apple tree in your backyard or are angling to plant an orchard, our garden tips will help you succeed.