If you haven't already done so, it's time to start thinking of getting that must-have of the holiday season—the Christmas tree. There are those practical people who merely unpack the artificial tree from its storage boxes, and assemble it in the living room, pre-wired, perfectly shaped and sized, and flame-resistant. Then there are those of us who have to have the real deal, despite the inconvenience.
For the hopeless holiday romantics among us, nothing beats the experience of going to a honest-to-goodness genuine Christmas tree farm, getting our hands dirty, and cutting a tree down ourselves. Of course it's a great family photo op and it's usually a lot of fun, too. Those annual trips to the Christmas tree farm remain some of my fondest childhood memories, and now it's a tradition with my own family
Unfortunately, there aren't any Christmas tree farms in Marin County anymore (the last one—in Olema—closed down years ago). To get the real Christmas tree farm experience within close proximity to Marin, you have to head north to rural Sonoma County. Most tree farms seem to be clustered around Sebastopol and Petaluma, with a few near Sonoma and Santa Rosa. We recently checked out five Christmas tree farms sited in the rolling hills southwest of Sebastopol: Garlock Tree Farm, Reindeer Ridge Tree Farm, Frosty Mountain Tree Farm, Grandma Buddy's Christmas Trees, and Victorian Christmas Tree Ranch. Christmas tree farming is definitely a family business—all the farms are operated by branches of the same family.
Unless otherwise indicated, all farms accept cash, checks, and credit cards.
Late summer marks the start of apple season, and plenty of the tasty and popular fruits can be found in the North Bay, especially in the area around Sebastopol in western Sonoma County, which is famous for its Gravenstein apples. Even more fun than eating and cooking with apples is heading out into an orchard and picking your own!
If you're not lucky enough to have an apple tree growing in your backyard, then head up to one of the local apple farms that offers a u-pick experience. It's a fun family outing, and prices and quality are usually bettter than you'll find in the supermarket. There's nothing quite like an afternoon on the farm, too.
Apple season begins in late July or August with local favorite Gravensteins, and continues through the late summer and fall with varieties like Golden Delicious (September and October), Granny Smith (October and November), and Fuji (October through December).
Twin Hill Ranch outside of Sebastopol has been a favorite place for school and family outings for over 60 years. They offer u-pick for apples Monday through Saturday from 9 am to 4 pm. Check in at the ranch's store to pick up your baskets and learn about the different varieties of apples available, and then head out into the orchards to pick your fruit. You'll find several varieties including Gravenstein, Pink Lady, Golden Delicious, and Granny Smith. Twin Hill Ranch is not certified organic but their apples are grown pesticide-free.
U-pick season runs from August throughout the fall, until the apples are all gone. The cost for u-pick apples here is $1 per pound; you can pay with cash or credit card. The country store at Twin Hill Ranch also offers goodies like apple bread (our favorite), fresh apple juice, pies, cookies, jams, and jellies. There's also a picnic area with a spacious lawn.
Chileno Valley Ranch grows organic apples—all of which are blind taste test winners—and provides them to local markets like Toby's Feed Barn in Point Reyes Station and the Organic Farmstead at the Marin Art and Garden Center in Ross. You can visit the ranch for u-pick from Labor Day weekend through the month of October. Varieties include Orin, Pinova, Molly's Delicious, and Jonathan's Pride.
U-pick takes place on Sundays only from 10 am to 4 pm, and apples cost $2 per pound. Make sure you call ahead before you go: (707) 765-6664. They also raise grass-fed beef on the ranch.
Gabriel Farm is a family-run, certified organic farm in Graton, just north of Sebastopol. They grow a variety of apples including Golden Delicious, Jonagold, Gala, Rome Beauty, Fuji, and McIntosh. This season they're making u-pick an activity for their CSA members only; you can join at the farm by purchasing a membership. A share consists of a case (6 half-gallon bottles) of their Asian pear juice ($35). U-pick takes place on weekends from 11 am to 4 pm or weekdays by appointment.
Every year at the end of summer we head up to western Sonoma County in search of ripe apples to pick. Apple-picking season in the Bay Area starts in late July or August and runs throughout the fall. Local favorite Gravensteins kick off the season, and you can work your way through Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Rome, Braeburn, Fuji, and other varieties over the fall. This is one of my favorite things to do in August, and we always end up with plenty of apples for making things like apple pie, apple crisp, and apple sauce, and of course including in school lunches, too.
Last weekend we visited Twin Hill Ranch outside of Sebastopol to pick apples. You might be familar with Twin Hill Ranch from the holiday season, when they're a destination for Christmas crafts and holiday goodies. You can, of course, visit them at any time of year, and apple-picking season is a great time to do so. Right now, they still have Gravensteins available for u-pick, as well as Golden Delicious, and Pink Ladies.
Twin Hill Ranch has been around for over 60 years, and their apples, while not certified organic, are grown without pesticides. The ranch is an active apple processing and packing facility, and their country store share space with conveyor belts, crates, refrigerators, and other equipment. They're also set up to welcome visitors, though, with a picnic area and a large lawn where kids can run and play.
When we're travelling around the Bay Area, we always keep on the lookout for family-friendy (and budget-friendly) places to grab a bite to eat. We find ourselves in the west Sonoma County town of Sebastopol every fall and winter for apple picking, pumpkins, and Christmas trees, and one of our go-to places for a quick lunch or snack is Mom's Apple Pie, located on the north side of town at 4550 Gravenstein Highway North.
To be honest, the lunch part is just an excuse to go to Mom's and chow down on what she's famous for—homemade apple pies. As you might have figured out by its name, Mom's is all about the pie. Fresh baked, handmade apple pie takes center stage here. I think it's probably the best I've ever had, anywhere, and if you visit Mom's at the right time of year (August through November only) you can get apple pie that's made with Sebastopol's own Gravenstein apples. To make things even better, the Gravenstein apples come from the trees growing right behind the shop. The rest of the year the pies are made with Granny Smiths—but the Gravenstein pies are a special treat.
Starting in 2012, you need to be a member of Gabriel Farm's CSA to participate in apple picking at the farm. You can sign up for a membership at the farm; the share consists of a case of six half-gallon bottles of the farm's Asian pear juice ($35). Non-members can still visit the farm store.
Late summer and early fall are apple season, and plenty of the tasty fruits can be found north of Marin in western Sonoma County, particularly in the area around Sebastopol, which is famous for its apples. Early every September, we head up there for a visit to Gabriel Farm, a family-run, certified organic farm on fourteen acres in the Graton area on the north side of Sebastopol. Gabriel Farm is especially fun to visit at this time of year because you can head out into the orchard and pick your own apples!
Gabriel Farm is open for apple picking on weekends from late August or early September through October from 11 am to 4 pm. (They're open this Monday, Labor Day, too.) Keep in mind they close at 4, so if you want to spend some time picking apples on the farm, count on arriving no later than 3:30 pm. Gabriel Farm also offers weekday visits and school group or group tours by appointment; call them at (707) 829-0617 to make arrangements.
Guest writer Holly White-Wolf tells us all about this weekend's Gravenstein Apple Fair, a century-old tradition in the Sonoma County town of Sebastopol, about 40 minutes north of Marin. Holly shares the "art of mothering" with readers in Sonoma County and beyond on her blog and community website sono-ma.com.
Imagine spending a day walking across meadows under ancient oaks following your nose to food booths featuring frying apple fritters or slices of 4 inch high apple pie. Picture sitting on rustic benches (hefty planks resting on hay bales) while taking in terrific, acoustic music. Then, conjure up the noise of a turn of the century barnyard - complete with the bray of horses and the clanking of old-time harvesting machines - and you'll get a sense of the many agricultural attractions abounding at this event. Yes sir, Sonoma County's summertime, vintage jewel is the annual Apple Fair at Ragle Ranch Park. Let's explore what's in store for 2011.