IT'S been a bumper year for apples, but how do you know when they're ripe for picking?

WITH the nights drawing in and the temperatures falling, plants start to become dormant, leaves begin to turn and fall and the tender crops in the Kitchen Garden need to be cleared or brought inside to protect them from the frosts.

The beds are starting to empty here at RHS Garden Harlow Carr, Harrogate, North Yorkshire and the team is busy harvesting fruit and vegetables and filling the gaps with green manures which will help to protect the soil over the winter.

One of my favourite jobs - and one which is well underway at Harlow Carr - is harvesting apples. A question we often get asked as we’re doing the harvest is ‘How do you know when the apples are ready for picking?’ The first step is to be aware of the type of apples you’re growing: this will dictate when they should be harvested as well as which cultivars are suitable for storing and how to store them correctly. Many apples can be eaten straight from the tree, whilst others will taste sharp, but will sweeten and develop their flavour when stored.

Apples ripen at different times of the year, with early, mid and late season varieties. Most apples mature naturally from late summer to late winter, although the ripening period of fruit varies from year to year according to the climate, like it has this year.

Make sure you do your research if you’re thinking of buying an apple tree. Advice is available from specialist nurseries or use books and websites to research recommended picking dates. If you have an old tree and you don’t know the cultivar, you could take it to an apple identification day which are quite popular; there’s one at Harlow Carr from October 31 to November 4.

Early apples that are ready from August and September can usually be eaten straight away or kept for just a few weeks; otherwise they will start to go soft and mealy. Mid-season apples that are picked in early October will keep for up to a couple of months if stored in the correct conditions, and sometimes a little longer, especially if they are stored in polythene bags in the fridge. Late-season apples that ripen later than mid-October are best picked unripe and stored until they ripen. Normally picked before the end of October, they can be stored for months.

There are several ways that you can tell if your apples are nearly ripe. One is that you might notice windfalls under the tree. With early-season apples, the other way is to gently hold the apple in the palm of your hand, lift the fruit slightly and gently twist; the apple should come away from the spur easily with the stalk intact. You can tell that late-season apples are ready to pick by the change in their colour. Make sure you don’t leave late-season varieties to drop as this will reduce their storage life.

Storing mid-to-late season apples is the best way to keep them in good condition for the longest time, until they naturally ripen. Storing is very easy, providing you follow the correct guidelines:

• Fruits must be stored in good condition with no damage to the skin caused either by mechanical damage or pest and diseases. Any blemished fruits must be put to one side and eaten first.

• Use containers such as crates, slatted shelves or shallow wooden boxes if you have large quantities. Small quantities of apples will keep in a polythene bag, around 5 apples per bag, which allows for easy inspection. Make three small holes in the end of the bag to allow good humidity and air circulation.

• Lay fruits in a single layer and ensure they don’t touch each other as this can cause rotting. Apples can be stacked on top of each other, use a container with open sides to allow air flow.

• Inspect regularly: it is easy for rot to spread in storage, so remove as soon as they are spotted.

• Keep in a cool, frost-free place with ideal temperatures of about 3 -5 degrees Celsius. Some humidity and ventilation will lengthen the keeping time. Garages and sheds make useful apple stores.

• Keep different cultivars separate: don’t mix mid-season and late-season as this could affect ripening times. Always label the cultivars.