Gilby’s Apple Orchard in Aitkin was recently picked as one of the top 10 apple orchards in MN. Owner David Gilbertson explains that “over the years we’ve been trying to create a destination for people to come with their children and their complete families and really have a good time. So we’ve tried to set up not only really good quality products and apples but also a great experience. We believe that’s what leveraged us to get on that top 10 list.”
Gilby’s was also one of the first to plant one of Minnesota’s newest apple varieties, First Kiss. “First Kiss is an apple that has really gotten a lot of attention this year. We were very fortunate. We were working with the University of MN back in 2015. We were awarded a contract to grow First Kiss and we planted our first trees in ’16. We had fruit in ’17, and this year we had pretty good production. We were able to provide our customers with this First Kiss apple right up until last Saturday. From what I understand people were calling the University and trying to find this apple throughout the state and we still had some inventory. So we were excited that we were able to provide out local customers here in this area that quality product; that First Kiss, that new apple. “
The University of Minnesota is always looking for a new and better apple. “They continually use Honeycrisp as a parent,” Gilbertson explains. “They took one of our best apples, Honeycrisp, and then they took Black Arkansas, Arkansas’ best apple (or I believe it was Black Arkansas), and they crossed those two and they ended up with an apple that has a tart start. If you pick the apples—they’re very early season picking apples—so you get them at the end of August, is when they’re ready. But the thing about that apple is not only is it one of the first ones out of the gates for harvesting, it expands the whole season for you to have fruits sooner for your customers, and the apple has 5 months of storage. It’s amazing. This last year we were doing some cold storage testing and we got all of that 5 months.
But the thing that’s even more interesting about it, is that for those of you who have purchased that and have it sitting in your refrigerator, this is like a good wine. It’s going to get nothing but better. As the starches continue to convert to sugars, it creates this new complexity in its taste and flavor and balances and acids. So we’re finding right now that people are coming back to say ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe how it’s changed in just the last few weeks.’”
First Kiss is a University of MN “managed” apple variety. Managed varieties date back to Honeycrisp, and how its brand became compromised when people started growing it outside its optimal growing region. “We’ve tasted Honeycrisp from 6 different states, and every one of them has a completely different experience. And when the customer goes into the store in January, February, or March and gets a Honeycrisp, they’re still wanting to have that great Honeycrisp experience but they weren’t getting it because the apples weren’t grown in its optimal growing region. So the University is doing things to try to protect that. So when you have the First Kiss experience or the SweeTango experience, it’s something that you can repeat. That’s kind of what’s going on with some of these managed varieties.”
When is an apple ripe and ready to pick? “To keep it simple, we recommend that you don’t ever let your apples get over-ripe. So if you go out to your tree and you start doing a taste test two or three weeks before you think your apples are ready, just start tasting them and see if they’re starting to lose some of that starchy taste and move more to more sugars. And then, a very, very good indicator is to check the seeds. If the seeds are fully brown, that’s a good indication that the apple is getting very close to being ready. And then we encourage you to get those apples off the tree before they get over-ripe, because as they get over-ripe you’re compromising your storage.”
To ensure optimal apple storage in the refrigerator, the best thing you can do is keep them cinched up in the plastic bag they come in and keep them at 40 degrees.
There is also a proper way to pick an apple. “Children often come to the orchard in classes. The very first thing we do with anybody who goes into our orchard—because of the fact that we let them pick our premium fruits—like right now we’re picking SweeTango. And if indeed they ‘pluck,’ if you will, that apple from the tree, what ends up happening is the stem connects to a fruit spur…and that could then compromise your fruit production for the following year.
“It’s really important that you spin that fruit. We spin it and spin it and spin it and then softly and gradually lift. And that fruit will fall off right in your hand.”
SweeTango and Honeycrisp are popular apples at Gilby’s Orchard right now. Both are ripe, and Honeycrisp can store 5 or 6 months under proper conditions.
A video tour of Gilby’s Orchard is available on their website. In-person visitors will see the orchard’s bird scare system in the sky. “And as you walk through the orchard, the trees, in many cases, are just fully loaded with SweeTango, Honeycrisp, Haralson, and Chestnut Crab and other apples,” says David. “We try to keep a perfectly clean orchard floor, due to the fact that when families come in with their children we’re concerned that they could possibly get stung by bees, because the bees are attracted to any fallen fruit.”
Gilbys’ annual apple festival runs for two more weekends—Septermber 29-30 and October 6-7. Fifteen or 20 different crafters come for the event; there are food concessions and kids’ activities like pony rides, hay rides, carriage rides, an apple blaster, a scavenger hunt, and a Wizard of Oz-themed corn maze, complete with a yellow brick road.
David Gilbertson offers fall tree care tips for home orchardists, and discusses tree varieties available through Gilby’s nursery in the complete interview below.
Gilby’s Orchard hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. 7 days a week during the height of the season.