An abundance of warm weather has speeded up the local apple crop. The apple season, which usually stretches into December, is already in full swing.
"Everything is very early this year because of the heat," said grower and packer Bunny Varn of the Apple Stop in Valley Center.
Varn, one of North County's major apple producers, specializes in unusual, low-chill varieties.
"Apples like chilly weather," she said, "but the ones we grow do fine without the winter chill."
Annas, galas, Braeburns, Jonathans, Fujis and Mutsus are among the myriad varieties grown under North County skies.
Varn grows nine varieties from around the world. She stopped using pesticides and commercial fertilizers more than 12 years ago, and uses no sprays on her trees.
This year, she is particularly excited about the Braeburn, a tart, New Zealand apple new to Valley Center.
Among other varieties, Varn favors the Anna, a firm, semisweet apple developed in Israel. "It's ideally suited for this area, since we don't have a late frost like they do up north," she said. "It starts blooming at the end of January and produces at the end of June." So well-suited is the Anna to Valley Center's unique microclimate that it yields a second crop in October.
The green Granny Smiths--discovered in Australia in the mid-19th Century--are firm in texture and tart in flavor. They are ideal for cooking, baking and making juice, Varn said.
Another native of "down under," the sweet and crisp gala from New Zealand, has also adapted well to the area and should be available through December, weather permitting.
The Criterion, a golden delicious variety, is firm and juicy. It also enjoys a lengthy growing season, from October to spring.
The Fuji, a Japanese variety, is also gaining in popularity among American consumers. It's sweet and retains its crispness for several months in cold storage.
The Apple Stop also produces red delicious (the variety that accounts for half the U.S. apple harvest) as well as golden delicious and Dorsett golden.
Zeb and Gini King operate the King Ranch orchard in Valley Center and take their apples to area farmer's markets. King, who retired as a music professor at Cal State Los Angeles, sings the praises of Granny Smiths, red delicious and Parkdale beauties. He planted his first trees in 1981: "I wanted something to do that would keep me busy all the time. I got more than I bargained for."
Like the Kings, Leo and Jane Johnson sell their apples at area markets. They split their time between orchards in Valley Center and Ranchita, at the foot of Palomar Mountain.
For Jane, who grows 16 kinds of apples, the mildly tart Jonathan remains a favorite. "It reminds me of my childhood in the Midwest," she said wistfully. "Many of my customers feel the same way."
Rather than doing the rounds of farmer's markets, Lewis and Jan La Dou of Julian Apple Mountain Orchard in Julian have come up with a different way of marketing their apples.
For the past nine years, about 400 apple lovers have been able to "rent" a tree from their 70-year-old orchard, which is planted mainly with red and golden delicious, Romes and MacIntosh apples. Although the 1990 crop is already spoken for, La Dou is accepting tree reservations for the 1991 harvest on a first-come, first-served basis.
"People get really attached to their tree, and they return to harvest it year after year. Some even use rented trees as Christmas gifts," said La Dou, who keeps renters informed of the status of their crop throughout the year.
"Apples are ripening fast because of the drought conditions of the past four years," La Dou said. "Anyone who wants to buy Julian apples this year had better come as soon as possible because they're going fast. It gets crazy around here during Apple Days." The annual festival lasts through October.
Like the La Dous, the Hall family of Apple Lane Orchards sells only locally grown fruit.
"This isn't a fancy setup like other Julian orchards," said Mary Hall, who runs the five-acre operation with her husband, Don. "We're just a small family orchard, and we sell only what we grow." She expects to sell Jonathans, red and golden delicious, Winesaps and Granny Smiths through November.
In addition to picking and packaging their own apples, the Halls slice and peel the fruit for several pie companies in town. They also make cider every Thursday, which the public is invited to watch.
Choose apples that are firm in texture and bright in color. The natural white dots on the skin, or lenticels, allow the apple to "breathe." Avoid apples that show brownish bruise spots or withered flesh--this is a telltale sign that the apples have remained too long on the shelf. Some apples can keep for months in controlled-atmosphere storage, a refrigeration process that reduces the amount of oxygen and slows the fruit's natural ripening process.