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Top Fruit Harvesting

How to: Pick Apples and Pears

Top fruit harvest season is here, so it’s time for a guide to picking apples and pears the safe and careful way.

‘Saturn’ apples ripening in the late summer sunshine.

2020 has been an excellent year for top fruit; apples and pears in particular. On our allotment orchard in north Manchester, a warm spring followed by a cool July and then an eventual burst of warmth and sunshine in August has resulted in trees groaning under the weight of bumper but well-balanced fruit crops, thanks to some careful fruit thinning back in June.

Early fruit crops, too, with apples already dropping from the trees of cultivars that the guide books and info sources say shouldn’t be ready to pick until late September or October.

With fruit already on the ground and socially-distanced Apple Days just around the corner, now seems like a good time for a blog post explaining how to properly pick your apples and pears.

You might think that picking fruit is the easiest thing in the world. Surely you just grab the apple…

…well, I’ll stop you there, and explain why that’s already not a good idea, and how best to go about it instead, assuming you’re picking your fruit for eating fresh or storing, rather than for juicing or making cider and perry (in which case you can just give the tree a damn good shake and then pick everything up from the floor…)

As Easy As 1, 2, 3

First, the how. It’s no great secret. Monty Don explains the method every year on Gardener’s World, when the time comes to start picking his pears, and the same, simple, three-stage process applies to apples as well. Here it is:

  1. Cup the fruit gently in the palm of your hand.
  2. Lift the fruit gently towards horizontal.
  3. Detach the ripe fruit, or return it gently to position if it’s not ready just yet.

One more time, with pictures (hand-modelled by the lovely Jo, ably assisted by ‘Kidde’s Orange Red’…)

1. Cup the fruit gently in the palm of your hand
2. Lift the fruit gently towards horizontal.
3. Detach the ripe fruit, or return it gently to position if unripe.

Stage 2 is key. If the fruit is ripe and ready then, almost as soon as you lift it to horizontal, the stalk will gently and cleanly snap away from the stem. You can then pack the fruit safely into your collecting basket, box, bag, pocket or other receptacle of choice. Or of course you can scoff it on the spot (my usual receptacle of choice is me, until that one’s full and I have to resort to a basket).

The same principle applies if you’re using an apple picker – I have one made by Burgon & Ball, which is essentially a metal basket on the end of a pole – to reach the high-growing fruit that you can’t safely get at from the ground or with a properly-positioned ladder.

The temptation is to use the claw-like ends of the metal basket to tug at the fruit. Instead, if you have the room to manoeuvre, you should use the rim of the basket to lift the fruit up towards the horizontal, to gently snap the stalk of any fruit that are ripe and ready.

If at stage 2 the apple doesn’t immediately come away from the tree – you’ll usually feel fairly stiff resistance in the stalk – that means the fruit isn’t quite ripe and ready.

At this point you have two choices. You can leave it on the tree to ripen fully and come back for it another day. Or, if you’re deliberately harvesting early – maybe you have an Apple Day deadline to meet, or the damned squirrels have started attacking your crop – you can snip the stalk with a pair of clean, sharp secateurs or scissors.

Some apple cultivars have very short stalks, or no stalk whatsoever, so snipping isn’t always an option. In these cases a sharp twist can help to loosen the apple, but again, if the fruit doesn’t come away clean then it’s not ripe and ready (and you’ll have to weigh up whether it’s worth applying more force, bearing in minds the potential consequences outlined below).

That’s the how. As to the why:

(Tree) Safety First

What you should avoid doing if at all possible, is pulling, yanking or otherwise ripping the fruit from the tree, either by hand or by picker, for three very important reasons.

The first reason is that any damage you do to the tree and then leave un-treated could be a source of longer-term problems.

A snapped-off twig that comes away with the apple might seem like nothing to worry about at the time, but the wound it leaves behind a potential entry point for infection by fungal diseases such as apple canker, silver leaf, or coral spot. Whereas the stalk of a ripe and ready apple leaves behind it an abscission layer of hardened tissue, that will quickly seal the broken end of the shoot. And a cut from a clean, sharp pair of secateurs will also heal much faster than a ragged tear or break.

The second reason is the possibility that you’ll damage the shoot from which the apple or pear fruit has grown.

If you look closely at the part of the tree that the fruit is attached to, you’ll most likely see that it’s a swollen and rounded. This is the ‘bourse’ (from the French for purse, or pouch) shoot (sometimes also called the ‘knob’). You can see one newly-forming bourse (above) and one mature bourse (below, also showing the abscission scars from last year’s ripe fruit stalks) in this pic, taken back in the spring as the fruit buds were just beginning to open:

The most important thing about the bourse shoot is that, as well as carrying this year’s fruit, more often than not it is also the source of next year’s fruit buds. Either those, or a new shoot (called a ‘brindille’, clearly visible in the pic above, off to the left) that will grow out from the bourse and then has a good chance of developing new fruiting buds and bourse shoots in turn. This helps to develop the fruiting spur network (bourse-on-bourse system) that will bear the majority of a spur-bearing tree’s fruit in future seasons. And in tip-bearing cultivars, the bourse is still the most likely source of next year’s fruit buds and for that reason alone needs to be protected.

So if you tug, tear, or rip an apple or pear from the tree, there’s a very good chance that you’ll break, or even snap off the fragile bourse shoot, not only leaving behind a wound that could become infected, but removing the potential for next year’s (and potentially many subsequent years’) harvests at the same time.

The third reason is that you might end up losing more than you gain.

Quite often when you pull on an unripe fruit, the branch it’s attached to will bend, then whip back when the apple or pear finally comes away. This whipping branch can easily dislodge nearby ripe fruit and when they fall there’s a good chance they’ll be bashed and bruised on the way to the ground. Or the branch-whip could crash into and snap off nearby twigs and fruiting spurs, or damage unripe fruit, which could then become infected with brown rot. So for the sake of grabbing that one unripe apple at all costs, you could lose a lot more.

It’s not difficult to avoid all of that fruit and tree damage and the potential for future problems that it brings. You just need to be careful (and patient) and follow that three stage process: cup, lift and detach. Or snip if you have to.

Happy harvesting!

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