It began with a few apple trees in the yard. Three decades later, one couple's hobby has blossomed into a full-scale apple orchard that opens to the public each fall.
"It's a family experience," says More Than Delicious orchard owner Velma Downes. "People have fun going out into the orchard. The trees are low enough so small children can pick themselves. And it's a small orchard, but people can find a row of apples where no one else is."
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With apple-picking season nearing, Velma and Mike Downes, as well as other suburban orchard owners, are gearing up for a busy fall. It's a more challenging season for some, however, with the extreme weather of the past few months taking a toll on the apple crop.
"It's been insane," says Anthony DeMoon, owner of Heinz Orchard in Green Oaks. "Mother Nature didn't know the meaning of moderation."
Many owners say the weather -- which included heavy spring rains, a blazing midsummer drought and more heavy rain -- has delayed some apple varieties by a few weeks and lightened some crop loads.
"In terms of bloom, it hurt," DeMoon says. "There's a much lighter crop this year."
One suburban orchard -- Ziegler's Apple Orchard in Grayslake -- won't open at all this season because of crop failure.
Still, other orchard owners say there's plenty of fruit available for picking. "We have a lot of apples, and our pear trees are full," Downes says. "There's a lot of beautiful fruit out there."
Many orchards offer online crop reports that detail what's ripe, as well as uses for each variety. While apple-picking spots may not be as common as they once were, suburban families still have options between smaller, family-owned orchards and larger ones that also offer fall activities like pumpkin picking, hayrides and family entertainment.
And people can't wait to start. DeMoon says he has been getting calls about the orchard's opening since July. Apple picking, he says, is fun for the whole family, whether you pick "one bag or five," and there's no secret strategy, either. "You just grab whichever apple you like. Some people like to pick off the ground."
Like Heinz Orchard, More Than Delicious is smaller and family-owned, with about 450 trees on its property. Three decades ago, the Downes planted about 20 trees, mostly apple, with a few pear, plum and cherry trees. The apple and pear trees were the only ones to survive.
"Every year, we decided to plant a few more trees," Velma Downes says. "It's a hobby that's gotten out of hand. We realized at one point, we couldn't use all the apples."
So they decided to share the apple-picking fun with the public.
The 120-acre Royal Oak Farm Orchard in Harvard offers more than just apple picking. There's also pumpkin picking, live concerts, a petting zoo, a country store and bakery, a replica train, a carousel, a kids' play area and other fall activities.
Sarah Bell, manager of Royal Oak Farm, says they're running a little behind as far as harvesting, but the apples are "starting to size up and are looking pretty good."
"Most people come out for apple picking, but it's also a full-day experience for the whole family," Bell says. "It's a nice peaceful area, out in the country. There are lots of picnic tables and areas to sit and relax and enjoy the scenery. It's a nice calm place for people. People like to make a tradition out of it."
All Seasons Apple Orchard
14510 Route 176, Woodstock, (815) 338-5637 or allseasonsorchard.com.
Crop report: Apple picking begins at 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 3. Twelve varieties are available for picking, including the sought-after Honeycrisp apple.
Other amenities: The orchard offers a pumpkin patch, hayrides and a 12-acre corn maze. The renovated main barn has new bathrooms, a commercial kitchen, and a separate area for customers to enjoy apple doughnuts and apple cider. Outside attractions include a giant tube slide, new duck races and pedal karts, a giant jumping pillow, a petting zoo, a cow train and an apple tunnel.
Info: The orchard is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in September and October and until 6 p.m. on Saturdays. In November, hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekends, weather-permitting. Costs can be found online.
1050 Crest Road, Green Oaks, (847) 770-3449 or heinzorchard.com.
Crop report: The orchard plans to be open for picking in early September, with a date to be determined. Five varieties of apples are available, including Empire and Red Delicious.
Other amenities: The small, family-run orchard offers raw natural honey for sale.
Info: Cash only. Customers can purchase half-peck bags (about 6 pounds of apples) for $8, or one-peck bags for $15. No admission or parking fees. Days and hours of operation have yet to be determined.
11802 Charles Road, Woodstock, (815) 338-7443 or homesteadorchard.net.
Crop report: Apples are already available for picking; the orchard has sold more than 1,000 pounds. There are 20 varieties, including Gala, Empire, McIntosh and Jonathan. Cherries, raspberries and pears are also available for picking.
Other amenities: Visitors can shop in a converted 1880s horse barn that sells pies, jam, honey and handcrafted items. A World War II commemorative room pays tribute to veterans.
Info: Cash or check only. Free parking and admittance. The U-Pick orchard hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. The price is $1.40 per pound for apples, with no minimum.
145 Watson Road, Maple Park, (815) 827-5200 or kuipers familyfarm.com.
Crop report: The farm's season opens on Labor Day weekend. More than 20 varieties will ripen through fall including Gala, Golden Delicious and Cortland.
Other amenities: Hayrides, a shop and bakery, a pumpkin farm with carving activities, animals, a jumping pillow, a tractor tire mountain and more. Pumpkin farm activities are open Sept. 17 to Oct. 30.
Info: Apple picking is available on Saturdays and Sundays only, September through October. Picking hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Orchard admission is $8.50 per person (price includes hayride and quarter-peck bag of apples). See website for more pricing options.
17411 Secor Road, Woodstock, (815) 568-7547 or langsorchard.com.
Crop report: Season opens Saturday, Sept. 10, and continues through mid-to-late October. The orchard offers 13 varieties for picking, including Gala, McIntosh, Jonathan and Cortland.
Other amenities: Visitors can buy fruit spreads, jellies, salsas and craft items.
Info: Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday through Wednesday; orchard is closed Thursday and Friday. Check or cash only. Most apple varieties cost $14 a peck.
More Than Delicious Orchard
9905 W. Thompson Road, Woodstock, (815) 338-2309 or morethandelicious.com.
Crop report: Season opens Friday, Sept. 2. About 80 varieties of apples and pears are grown on the grounds, with about 60 available for picking. Weekly updates are available online for the most accurate picking schedule.
Other amenities: No bells and whistles -- just apples and honey.
Info: Pecks cost $15, with other pricing options available online. Cash or check only. The orchard is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday through the end of October. No parking or admission fees.
Pine Apple Acres
41651 Powers Road, Huntley. Call (847) 669-3251 or visit pineapple-acres.com.
Crop report: The season starts Friday, Sept. 9, with six varieties available for early picking. Apple offerings include Gala, Granny Smith, Jonagold and Golden Delicious.
Other amenities: The farm sells honey from its hives.
Info: $5 entrance fee per car. If the total apple purchase for the vehicle exceeds $37.50 (25 pounds of apples at $1.50 per pound), a credit of $5 will be given for the purchase. Cash or checks only. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Monday.
Prairie Sky Orchard
4914 N. Union Road, Union. Call (815) 923-4834 or visit prairieskyorchard.com.
Crop report: The season is expected to begin Saturday, Sept. 3. Five varieties are available for picking, including Jonagold and Golden Delicious. Honeycrisp is available for sale.
Other amenities: Fall raspberries, blackberries and pumpkins are also available for picking in early September. The small family-run business sells salsas, jams, pies and more at the orchard's pole barn.
Info: Orchard is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Price is $15.50 per peck; $30 per half bushel.
Royal Oak Farm Orchard
15908 Hebron Road, Harvard. Call (815) 648-4141 or visit royaloakfarmorchard.com.
Crop report: Picking of early varieties has already begun. The orchard grows 29 varieties of apples including Liberty, CandyCrisp and Enterprise.
Other amenities: The 120-acre setting offers raspberry picking, pumpkins, a petting zoo, train and hay rides, and other fall activities and entertainment. Also on-site are a gift shop, bakery and restaurant.
Info: Orchard is open through Nov. 19, with picking hours from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed on Sunday. Admission is $3 per vehicle on Saturdays; no admission during the week. $16 per peck for U-pick varieties; with a minimum of one peck per family. Call for the latest crop report.