There are many advantages to gardening in the continent’s midsection. I don’t have to worry about an alligator grabbing me by the leg as I’m picking my cucumbers, and we can grow better apples than our Southern neighbors can.

Apple trees are genetically wired for growing in climates where temperatures drop below a certain point for a consistent number of days each winter to trigger continued growth and survival. Warm climates don’t receive the necessary chilling, and that explains why common apple varieties do poorly in Florida and Texas, although they grow pretty good oranges and grapefruits.

Homegrown apples, like Honeycrisp, grown in states like North Dakota and Minnesota are often higher quality than fruit from other apple-growing regions because the cool fall weather favors the accumulation of sugar and flavors within the fruit.

But how can you tell when apples are ready to pick? Each apple cultivar ripens during a fairly consistent period, sometime between August and October. Even if we aren’t sure what kind of apple we have, there are clues to tell their ripeness.

When ripe, apple seeds are dark black or brown and shiny. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
When ripe, apple seeds are dark black or brown and shiny. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

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Here are five ways to tell if apples are ready to harvest:

  1. Apples turn red long before they are ripe, so redness isn’t the best indicator. Instead, examine the “ground color,” which in most apple types changes from green to creamy white or yellowish, especially near the depression around the stem of the fruit.
  2. Although it’s normal for a few immature apples to drop during the summer, a steady drop in late summer or fall indicates ripeness. Apple fruits develop a natural abscission layer between stem and twig, which allows apples to drop when ripe.
  3. Test an apple by slicing it in half. The seeds of a ripe apple are dark black or brown and shiny. Seeds in an unripe apple are light tan to brown.
  4. Sample an apple. If you like the taste, the apples can be harvested. For top quality, most cultivars should be left on the tree until fully mature. Apples that ripen early in the season should be harvested promptly, as some tend to become mushy if left on the tree.
  5. If the name of the apple is known, check the average ripening date for that cultivar, which is fairly consistent.

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To make things even easier, here are the average ripening dates and storage lengths of our region’s common apple cultivars:

  • Beacon: mid- to late August.
  • State Fair: mid- to late August (keeps in refrigerated storage two to four weeks).
  • Hazen: late August (stores two to four weeks).
  • Kinderkrisp: late August (stores two to four weeks).
  • Zestar: late August to early September (stores six to eight weeks).
  • Red Baron: mid-September (stores four to five weeks).
  • Prairie Magic: mid-September (stores four to five weeks).
  • Sweet Sixteen: mid- to late September (stores five to eight weeks).
  • Honeycrisp: late September (stores seven months).
  • Haralson and Haralred: late September through early October (stores four to five months).
  • Frostbite: Late September to mid-October (stores three to four months).
  • SnowSweet: mid-October (stores two months).
  • Fireside and Connell Red: mid-October (stores four months).

Care must be taken when picking fruit. Grasp the apple in your palm and give a slight twist while lifting upward to detach the stem from the twig. Be careful not to pull the fruiting spur off the tree, which is the little twig to which the apple’s stem is attached. That’s where next year’s fruiting buds are already preformed.

Gently set apples into containers as they can bruise easily, decreasing storage life.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, is the horticulturist with North Dakota State University Extension for Cass County. Readers can reach him at kinzlerd@casscountynd.gov or call 701-241-5707.