It’s apple-picking time in North Georgia

Orchards offer petting zoos, mazes, games and apples.

Luke Dilbeck can’t quite put his finger on it, but he swears there’s something special about picking apples. “There’s something inherent inside people where they’re just looking for something that reconnects them with food and a simpler life. And, for a brief moment every fall people get to do that and create memories with their kids and families.” Dilbeck and his wife, Amanda, own The Folk Collaborative, formerly the Deep Roots Orchard.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

For the first time in a few years, families from all over the metro area will drive up to the North Georgia mountains and go apple picking. In 2020 an April freeze destroyed most of last year’s crop and then there were the COVID-19 years.

It’s a good crop

“This is the apple picking season — the first part of August until the first week of November,” said Tim Mercier, whose parents started Mercier Orchards in 1943 and recently turned the operation over to his two two sons-in-law. Adding, “This is one of the better crops in several years.”

Different apples peak at different months and Granny Smith, Arkansas Black and Pink Lady are the prized apples during October with others such as Jonathan, Rome, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Rusty Gold, Stayman/Winesap, Grimes Golden and Coldrush, more available in September, but have some carryover into October.

“Apple picking is a great time to learn about the diversity of apples,” said dietitian, nutritionist and cookbook author Carolyn O’Neil. “There are so many different kinds. Some, such as Granny Smith, are great for baking because they’re firm enough to hold their shape when cooked. Some, such as Gala and McIntosh, are better for biting into as a delicious and nutritious snack.”

Sydney Watson, 8, and Leo Watson, 5, have picked apples at B.J. Reece Orchards in Ellijay for years. “My wife and I are huge fans of being outdoors in general. We’re a big apple family and we love supporting the Ellijay community where we’ve had a cabin for 10 years,” said dad Seth Watson, owner and founder of Distillery of Modern Art in Chamblee.

Credit: Seth Watson

Credit: Seth Watson

The family loves picking apples as well as the orchard’s other activities. “Ever since they were young, they’ve loved the petting zoo. After picking about five to 10 apples, they are ready for the petting zoo where my son loves to chase the animals and my daughter loves to pet them. They’ll spend a good hour with the goats, pigs and chickens.”

At first the Watson family, which includes Watson’s wife, Sara, picked too many apples but are now “smart about it. But even if we pick too many we’ll go ahead and make pies, simple syrups, just about anything. My kids like to deliver apples to neighbors. We also buy a ton of apple cider and doughnuts.”

O’Neil said it’s easy to be too enthusiastic and come home with baskets full of apples. “Apple picking is so much fun that you may find yourself getting carried away and bringing home more than you know what to do with,” she said. “If you store part of your bounty in the fridge, place them in the crisper drawer. Apples naturally release ethylene gas that can cause other produce to ripen faster, so keep your apples separate.”

Top of mind are apple pie and apple desserts, but O’Neill said apples can be used in other ways as well. “Don’t forget about savory recipes starring your just-picked apples. Apples pair beautifully with pork chops, or add diced apple to butternut squash soup,” she said.

More than just apples

The Watson children aren’t the only ones who enjoy the other amenities many of the orchards offer.

Hillcrest Orchards, now in its fourth generation, offers a day’s worth of fun including wagon rides, jumping pillows, a game zone and pig races — along with apple picking. On weekends, there’s even more with mini golf, an apple tree maze and cow train rides. They also have live duck races and swimming pigs as well as live entertainment with cloggers and bluegrass music.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

“A lot of people come for the whole experience,” said Janice Hale, who runs the orchard with her husband, Lynn. “We’re a place to pick apples but there’s a lot of things for families to do. People just want to get out of the city, come to the country and let their kids run and play around. They see a real working farm. Not many people have milked a cow and on weekends you can do that.”

Besides the petting zoo, B.J. Reece Orchards has so many activities they have different rates. For $13 guests can enjoy a farm slide, cow milking and duck races, among others. For the Mega Fun experience ($26) youngsters can enjoy a mega slide, pony ride, milk a cow and get tree apples to shoot at cannons.

The Folk Collaborative doesn’t have the “bouncy houses,” said Dilbeck. “We just want people to come up and get a little basket and go into the orchard and pick.”

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

The McCaysville enterprise does offer more, however. “We’re not just an orchard; we’re more like an old-fashioned apothecary and a bakery.” In addition they offer picnics with a food, blankets and drinks, and Fire on the Mountain, an Appalachian-inspired experience with a sunset tractor ride through the orchard culminating with a bonfire in Poplar Holler with hot dogs and s’mores.

“We just want people to come and step back in time and learn what we’re about,” Dilbeck said.

Adding, “When I was a kid I would go apple picking and, now look at me, I run an orchard. There’s something about apple picking. I just don’t know what it is.”

Mercier Orchards. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday-Saturday. $14. 8660 Blue Ridge Drive, Blue Ridge. 706-632-3411, mercier-orchards.com.

Red Apple Barn. Apple picking: 10:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday; 1-4 p.m. Sunday. Farm Market Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday-Saturday; 1-5:30 p.m. Sunday. $10. $6 quarter peck; $10 half peck; $20 peck; $29 half bushel. 3379 Tails Creek Road, Ellijay. 706-635-5898, redapplebarn.com.

Hillcrest Orchards. 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday-Saturday, October; 9 a.m.-5 p.m., November. $12 weekdays; $18 weekends. 9696 Ga. 52 E., Ellijay. 706-273-3838, hillcrestorchards.net.

B. J. Reece Orchards. 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 1-6 p.m. Sunday. $8 general admission; $13 Farm Fun; $18 Super Fun; $26 Mega Fun. $10 half a peck; $20 peck; $40 half a bushel. 89131 Ga. 52, Ellijay. 706-276-3048, reeceorchards.com.

The Folk Collaborative (formerly Deep Roots Orchard). 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday-Sunday. $3. Prices for apples range from $5-$50. 2984 Mobile Road, McCaysville. 706-492-7753, thefolkcollaborative.com.