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Where to Pick SoCal’s Best Harvests

Sure, you may have visited a “pumpkin patch” somewhere in the fall. You may have ridden a tractor and you may have even picked a pumpkin up off of the ground.

But to me, it’s not a “pick-your-own” unless you’re hacking the gourd off its vine by its stem.

Fortunately, there are plenty of places in SoCal where you can pick, pluck and snip your way through groves of fruit trees and wide expanses of fruit fields to get the freshest produce possible directly from local growers.

And no matter what time of year — be it berries, stone fruit, citrus or herbs — there’s always some colorful harvest that’s in its peak season.

So, when even the nearest farmers’ market just won’t do, here are five of the best crops that these fertile lands have to offer … and that you can pick on your own.

There really is nothing like a food source that goes from tree to tongue.

1. Berries (Spring / Summer)

The months of May and June in Southern California seem to be dominated by strawberries. Whether it’s the California Strawberry Festival in Oxnard, the Balboa Strawberry Festival in Encino or the Garden Grove Strawberry Festival in Orange County, you’ve got your pick of festivities celebrating everyone’s favorite red berry. But if you want to pick your own berries to sweeten up your shortcake, you’ll have to take a strawberry tour at Tanaka Farms in Irvine or visit Carlsbad Strawberry Company, McGrath Family Farm in Camarillo (weekends only) or Kenny’s Strawberry Farm near Temecula. But Southern California berries aren’t just red, they come in a variety of colors — like blue and purple. You can pick your own blueberries starting in May at Temecula Berry Company, but call ahead to make sure they’ve got any left. June is peak season for blackberries and boysenberries at the Moorpark location of Underwood Family Farms, although you can also get strawberries, blueberries and raspberries at its Somis location in July. (Both locations of Underwood have lots of options throughout the year — including vegetables — so check its website to see what’s in season whenever you plan on going.)

Tanaka Farms, Strawberry Picking
Sandi Hemmerlein
Tanaka Farms, Strawberry Picking
Sandi Hemmerlein

2. Cherries (Late Spring / Early Summer)

You might be more likely to associate cherries (like the “Bing” and “Rainier” varieties) with the Pacific Northwest, but L.A. County has its own cherry mecca — and it’s not the fancy cocktail bar that serves the good kind of maraschinos. It’s the rural community of the Leona Valley, where cherries were first planted way back in 1912. A few miles southwest of the Antelope Valley, about 60 miles north of Downtown L.A., and a stone’s throw from Lake Hughes and Elizabeth Lake, the cherry orchards of Leona Valley grow many varieties of cherries from sweet to sour — but you won’t necessarily find the same cherry offerings at two orchards next to each other, and you won’t necessarily find the same two orchards even open at the same time of the season. Cherry season is typically May through July, if the weather cooperates and the birds don’t eat all the fruit. Any one cherry crop will only last a couple of weeks, depending on how many people come to pick them. And you can be sure that lots of people do take advantage of cherry season, sometimes waiting hours in the hot sun on a weekend day just to get in. To beat the crowds, try visiting during the week — and, whenever you go, get there early to beat the heat. The Leona Valley Cherry Grower’s Association has the full scoop on which of its member orchards are open and what they’re offering. This year, the late bloomers include Villa del Sol (open for picking now, with a bumper crop and more cherries ripening to perfection every day) and Rolling Thunder U-Pic Cherry Ranch. Generally, you buy the cherries by the pound, but ask what each orchard’s minimum is. Bring cash and, if you arrive during peak times, be prepared to walk from your parking spot and wear sun protection.

Leona Valley, Cherry Picking
Sandi Hemmerlein
Leona Valley, Cherry Picking
Sandi Hemmerlein

3. Lavender (Summer)

You may not think of lavender as a plant you’d pick for culinary purposes, but taste the cookies or lavender-infused olive oil at 123 Farm in Highland Springs in the Inland Empire and you’ll immediately change your mind. Commonly used as a fragrant botanical for personal care products (soaps, lotions) as well as an herb for cooking and baking, lavender grows in abundance in Southern California. Unfortunately, there’s no picking at 123 Farm — during either the regular season or its annual Lavender Festival — so head on over to Frog Creek Farm in Ojai, whose lavender bloom season usually runs from June to July and which hosts a lavender festival in June, which the city considers “lavender month”. You may be surprised at the tremendous variety of lavender available — ranging in all shapes, sizes and even colors. Just note that if you wield your clippers and plunge your hand into a field of lavender yourself, honeybees LOVE lavender. The entire field buzzes with them. They want the lavender more than you, so they’ll leave you alone as long as you don’t accidentally grab them as you collect your cuttings.

Lavender
Sandi Hemmerlein
Lavender
Sandi Hemmerlein

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4. Apples (Fall)

On your trek to find some fall foliage, you’re bound to come across some seasonal apple picking. Although you may be able to find apples elsewhere, by far the two main hubs of apple activity starting in September are the “Apple Country” of Oak Glen in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains and the Apple Capital of Southern California, San Diego County’s mountain town of Julian. Each rustic getaway has its own charms, both recalling a bygone era. But while you might find archery demonstrations and tomahawk throws at Riley’s Apple Farm in the Inland Empire, you might find yourself panning for gold and gemstones at Julian Mining Company in the Cuyamaca Mountains. In “The Glen,” you really can’t go wrong by going to any of the Riley establishments (technically separate businesses run by members of the same family) — whether it’s the heirloom varieties at Riley’s Farm or the Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious or Rome Beauty apples available for U-Pick at Riley’s at Los Rios Rancho, a historic site that’s also got some nice hiking trails maintained by the Wildlands Conservancy. Julian has a half a dozen or more orchards for picking apples (and even pears), but it can be tempting to skip out on all that work in the field and just jump straight to what Julian is really famous for: its apple pies.

Oak Glen, Apple Picking
Sandi Hemmerlein
Oak Glen, Apple Picking
Sandi Hemmerlein

5. Citrus (Winter)

Where else but Southern California can you kick the New Year off with a bag full of freshly-picked citrus fruit? (OK, maybe Florida.) Because in SoCal, January is the beginning of the orange harvest. And in the City of La Verne in the San Gabriel Valley, just 35 miles east of L.A., you can pick some sweet oranges from January through March at Heritage Park, a 1.5-acre ranch surrounding the historic Weber House, which was saved from destruction in the 1980s. Built in the late 1880s, it was a private home for John Weber, a long-time resident of La Verne, who resided there until 1914. After that, it became part of a working citrus farm and its present-day condition has been restored to a recreation of its 1915-era past. You can take a tour of the house and peruse the antique equipment, like rusty old hoppers, tractors, manure spreaders, furrowers, oil and water tanks, smudge pots, and a horse-drawn "spray rig" made out of a 1930 Ford Model "A" truck. And for just $5, the La Verne Heritage Foundation will provide empty bags (that can hold five pounds) and a picker tool to get to anything out of arm’s reach. Take their advice and gravitate towards the trees whose fruit “don’t look so pretty” — because those are the sweetest ones you’ll ever taste.

Citrus Picking
Sandi Hemmerlein
Citrus Picking
Sandi Hemmerlein

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