It’s an activity whose appeal is timeless and ageless. From the kinetic thrill of climbing a tree to the giddy fun of balancing in the back of a hay wagon and the tart, juicy jolt when you bite into your first Macoun of the season, apple picking as a fall ritual bears eternal charm.
And on beautiful fall days like the ones that have graced this month, orchards throughout the region swarm with eager apple pickers. They are out on sun-drenched weekends and during the week, when a trip to an orchard is a popular activity for play groups and after-school clubs.
But it’s not only about filling bags with apples at pick-your-own fruit orchards these days.
Hayrides, live animals, and stands selling tasty, freshly made wares are only the beginning of the extra attractions offered by area farms.
At Belkin Family Lookout Farm in Natick, there are train rides, a moon bounce, pony rides, and face painting. At Old Frog Pond Farm in Harvard, the grounds are scattered with sculptures made by local artists. Tougas Family Farm in Northborough has wagon rides and a playground. And at Nashoba Valley Winery in Bolton, visitors can even mix in a wine-tasting and gourmet picnic with their apple picking.
Julie Martin-Sullivan, co-owner with her brother of Honey Pot Hill Orchards in Stow, is particularly proud of her Green Monster Maze, in its second year of operation.
“It is a cool, challenging maze made of up 3,000 arborvitae evergreen shrubs, which take about eight to 10 years to grow and are now 9 to 10 feet tall. It takes most people about 45 minutes to an hour to meander through this maze,” Martin-Sullivan said.
One thing all the orchard owners seem to agree on this year is that it’s been a great growing season.
“It looks like a very good apple crop,” said Paul Newton, co-owner of Jane and Paul’s Farm in Northborough.
“There are plenty of apples out there. Last year we had a very small crop because an early frost killed the blossoms. This year the conditions have been much better — both for growing and for picking,'' he said. “We’ve had two beautiful weekends in a row, and the weather is bringing people out.”
And Martin-Sullivan believes that interest in picking your own fruit is spreading for reasons philosophical as well as culinary.
“There’s definitely a trend in terms of people wanting more of a sense of closeness to where their food is coming from,’’ she said.
“It gives you a good feeling to stand right where your food was grown. It means the food is fresh and local. Nothing beats the flavor of something fresh-picked, whether it is an apple or an ear of corn.”
The growth in patronage of community supported agriculture programs has a ripple effect that touches her business as well, Martin-Sullivan said. “People using CSAs are becoming more acquainted with local flavors and realizing how much better they are.”
Here are some area places where apples are ready for the picking, and that also offer other activities for visitors:
■ Tougas Family Farm, 234 Ball St., Northborough. Pick your own apples, more than 20 varieties. Wagon rides, barnyard, playground. Kitchen features cider doughnuts, caramel apples, pies, and other goods. Fall hours: Tues.-Sun. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. 508-393-6406, www.tougasfarm.com.
■ Honey Pot Hill Orchards, 138 Sudbury Road, Stow. Pick your own apples, pears. Cider doughnuts, apple cider, caramel apples, pumpkin pies, ice cream, and more available in farm store. Farm animals, tunnel maze, miniature hedge maze, Green Monster Hedge Maze (open weekends 10 a.m.-4 p.m.), hayrides (weekends 10 a.m.-5 p.m.). Farm hours: Daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. 978-562-5666, www.honeypothill.com.
■ Shelburne Farm, 106 West Acton Road, Stow. Pick your own apples, pumpkins. Farm animals, hayrides. Cider doughnuts, caramel apples, pies, apple cider and more available in farm store. On weekends, pony rides, moon bounce, miniature hay maze, tractor discovery zone, lunch menu. Hours: Daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m. 978-897-9287, www.shelburnefarm.com.
■ Belkin Family Lookout Farm, 89 Pleasant St. South, Natick. Pick your own apples, pumpkins, Asian pears. Train rides, children’s play area, moon bounce, farm animals. On weekends, pony and camel rides, hayrides, face painting, live entertainment. Hours: Daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Wednesdays until 6 p.m. 508-653-0653, www.lookoutfarm.com.
■ Highland Farm, 635 Highland St., Holliston. Pick your own apples, 11 varieties. Farm stand features pears, jams, jellies, vegetables, and more. Hayrides available by appointment. Hours: Daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m., with apple picking until 5 p.m. 508-429-8370, www.highlandfarmorchard.net.
■ Fairmount Fruit Farm, 887 Lincoln St., Franklin. Pick your own apples. Farm stand features apple fritters, pies, caramel apples, apple cider, and more. Hours: Weekends 10 a.m.-4 p.m. for apple picking. 508-533-8737, www.fairmountfruit.com.
■ Carlson Orchards, 115 Oak Hill Road, Harvard. Pick your own apples, more than 14 varieties, daily 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.. Farm store features apple cider, apple crisp, more; open Mon.-Fri. 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. 800-286-3916, www.carlsonorchards.com.
■ Doe Orchards, 327 Ayer Road, Harvard. Pick your own apples, wide variety. Farm stand features local honey, cider, maple syrup, pumpkins, more. Hours: Daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. 978-772-4139, www.doeorchards.com.
■ Carver Hill Orchard, 101 Boxmill Road, Stow. Pick your own apples, wide variety. Some pick-your-own vegetables available. Farm store carries produce. 978-897-6117, www.carverhillorchard.com
■ Dowse Orchards, 98 North Main St., Sherborn. Pick your own apples. Apple cider, vegetables, and more at the farm stand. Store hours: Daily 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Pick-your-own hours: Daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. 508-653-2639, www.dowseorchards.com.
■ Nashoba Valley Winery, 100 Wattaquadock Hill Road, Bolton. Pick your own apples, winery, restaurant. Store, pick-your-own hours: Daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. 978-779-5521, www.nashobawinery.com.
■ Old Frog Pond Farm, 18 Eldridge Road, Harvard. Pick your own apples at certified organic orchard. Potatoes, vegetables available at farm stand. Sculpture walk. Hours: Wed.-Sun., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. 978-456-9828, www.oldfrogpondfarm.com.Nancy Shohet West can be reached at nancyswest@ gmail.com.