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Natural Awakenings Chicago

Harvest. Store. Plant. Create.

Aug 27, 2017 10:01PM ● By Lisa Hilgenberg

PHOTO: Chicago Botanic Garden

Fall is the time to pick crisp apples for eating now and also to preserve nature’s bounty for winter enjoyment. Here are a few tips to extend the fruitful fall season and to prepare for future seasons.

Harvest: Whether picking homegrown apples or harvesting during a fun afternoon at a local orchard, it’s best to let apples ripen on the tree, rather than picking before they are ready and then trying to coax them to ripen on the kitchen counter. Look for apples with color that has mellowed from a green-tinged background to a yellow undertone. Harvest by holding apples in the palm of the hand, lifting upwards and gently twisting the apple to release it from the branch, leaving a small portion of stem on the apple. If the fruit comes off the spur easily, then it is ready to pick. Slice the apple in half, noticing if the seeds have turned from white to brown, another indicator of ripeness. Take care not to puncture or bruise the fruit.

Store: Granny Smith, Fuji and other apples are at their best when stored at 30° to 40°F in covered, ventilated, containers. Post-harvest handling and proper storage in a cool basement or garage means extending the freshness of the apple harvest to last well in to the fall. Store apples in the refrigerator at 33°, extending the life of the apple 10 times longer than storing them at room temperature. If time or storage space is limited, apples can be simply peeled, sliced and dipped in lemon juice, then placed in freezer bags and frozen for later use.

Plant: Nearly 40 percent of Chicagoland backyard gardens grew fruit trees during the 1950s, but they are missing in many urban gardens today. Consider planting apple trees in a home garden. This is easily done in the late fall, when plants are dormant. There’s hardly a more satisfying harvest than plucking ripe apples that we’ve grown ourselves.

         Start by selecting pest-resistant varieties that can withstand the extreme weather and temperature fluctuations of the Midwest. Planting two varieties with similar flowering times is best, as bees will take care of proper cross-pollination and good fruit setting. Choose disease-resistant varieties like Liberty, GoldRush, Zestar and Wolf River, all superior apples for home gardens. Try to select apples on semi-dwarfing rootstock to keep trees at a manageable height of around 10 feet.

         Choose a well-drained location receiving at least six hours of sunlight per day. Dig a hole twice as wide as the roots. Planting depth is important, as planting too deeply can suffocate new trees. After unpotting the young tree, prune off any circling and broken roots and settle the tree into the ground, leaving the graft union (a large bump on the truck down near the root ball where the top of the tree, or scion, meets the rootstock) two inches above the soil level. Backfill the hole and tamp down the soil around the tree with the end of the shovel to remove air pockets. Water well and mulch with three inches of leaf mulch under the tree’s drip line, taking care not to mound the mulch against the trunk. Newly planted trees require one inch of water per week until the ground freezes. If Mother Nature hasn’t provided the inch per week, hand water the tree to ensure enough moisture.

Create: Think outside the pie. Look for heirloom farm recipes for lightly sweet, healthy and appealing ways to use apples. Savor fall’s harvest long into the autumn by making applesauce, chutney and crabapple pickles. Share the immediate sweetness of fall’s bounty with a neighbor, a favorite teacher, coworker or coach by baking an apple crisp or creating a caramel apple. Fall is the time to collect nature’s bounty; here are four recipes to help make the most of the harvest.


Four Easy Apple Recipes from Lisa Hilgenberg’s Kitchen:


Apple Charlotte Zurich Style

6 green apples (peeled and cored)

¾ cup sugar

¼ cup raisins

½ cup butter

12 thin slices firm white bread

Cut apples into half-inch slices and place in a pot. Add a quarter-cup sugar and raisins, then cover and simmer until barely tender.

Butter an eight-inch square pan and sprinkle a half-cup of sugar on the bottom and sides.

Melt a half-cup of butter and brush both sides of the bread slices. Line the pan with all but four of them.

Drain apple slices and pour over bread. Top with the four remaining slices. Dust with a bit more sugar and dot with butter if desired.

Cover with foil and bake at 350° for 30 minutes. Serve with ice cream.


Green Tomato and Apple Chutney

1 cup green pepper

4 cups ripe tomato

2 cups green tomato

4 cups apple

½ cup onion

2 Tbsp mustard seed

2 Tbsp celery seed

1 tsp ground ginger

3 Tbsp salt

2 cups sugar

1 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp cloves

4 cups cider vinegar

Chop vegetables and fruit. Mix with rest of the ingredients and boil gently for 1.5 hours.

Pour into hot clean jars, adjusting caps and process 10 minutes in boiling water bath.


Crabapple Pickles

6 cups sugar

2/3 quart vinegar

4 cups water

1 Tbsp cloves

1 stick cinnamon

Wash firm crabapples and remove flower end, leaving the stem. Punch skin with fork in three places.

To make syrup, boil ingredients for five minutes, then add apples. Boil five more minutes, taking care not to overcook.


Apple Crisp

4 cups apple (cored, peeled and sliced)

¾ cup quick cooking oats

¾ cup brown sugar

½ cup flour

1 tsp cinnamon

½ cup butter

Spread apple in nine-inch square pan.

Combine remaining ingredients until crumbly and sprinkle over apples.

Bake at 350° for 35 to 45 minutes until apples are tender and top is browned.

Serve warm with ice cream.


Lisa Hilgenberg is the horticulturist at the Regenstein Fruit and Vegetable Garden in the Chicago Botanic Garden, located at 1000 Lake Cook Rd., in Glencoe. For more information, call 847-835-5440 or visit