Season’s pickings

Autumn is the perfect season to spend outside. The sun is shining, the humidity is gone and the leaves are turning out symphonies of color. So when you feel the need to commune with nature on the weekends or your day off from classes, look no further than our own Mercer County area for fun fall activities.

For better or worse fall is associated with back to school. But what better way to start off the new academic year than picking an apple for your teacher?

Going apple-picking is an experience unique to fall that is a great way to spend an afternoon. The unmistakable scent of fresh Macintosh and golden delicious apples wafts through the tree-lined avenues of area farms during the months of September and October. Apple-picking is also inexpensive, and when you’re done you’ll have all the apples you can eat.

A good place to start is Terhune Orchard in Princeton (330 Cold Soil Road; 609-924-2310; Farm Festival weekends began with Apple Day last weekend and run until late October.

Picking your own apples from the tree is much more enjoyable than shifting through Sodexho’s supply of produce.

“The apples are a lot fresher here and they’re cheaper than buying them in the store,” Paul Sheak, an employee at Turhune Orchards, said.

Terhune Orchards is more than just apples, with other fresh produce and flowers to buy along with homemade pies and cider.

The farm also sells apple cider doughnuts – a Terhune Orchard speciality

“Everyone seems to get them when they come,” Sheak said. “People just love them.”

Another staple of autumn is of course Halloween. And no Halloween would be complete without pumpkins. Whether they be in the form of jack-o-lanterns, pies or pancakes, pumpkins are best when you pick them yourself.

West Windsor U-Pick (1220 Windsor Road, 609-443-9379) is a nearby farm that specializes in pumpkin-picking during the fall season. After you’ve found the pumpkin perfect for you, refrain from hacking away at its waxy exterior and try painting it instead, another option offered at the farm.

Once you’ve finished your masterpiece you’ll be just in time to head off on a spooky Halloween hayride. (But if you’re a scaredy-cat at heart, you can just blame your allergies and hang out by the petting zoo – which offers a much less intimidating milieu).

When you think of fall, the colors red and orange pop into your head for other reasons than just apples and pumpkins. The leaves are changing not only to crimson and auburn, but gold and indigo as well. And of course there’s no place that has more trees than an arboretum.

One is on site at Longstreet Farm in Holmdel, Monmouth County (Longstreet Road, 732-842-4000). Along with the tree preserve, the farm features nature trails and a farmhouse restored to its 1890 appearance.

Stone Brook Millstone Watershed (31 Titus Mill Rd. Pennington, 609-737-7592, is another nature preserve alive with fall color. Its 585 acres hold an education center and nature trails, on which, if you walk quietly enough, you might see snakes and turtles.

Visit its Web site to learn about upcoming fall events such as the “Walk through the Solar System” and “Stuff Ye’r Scarecrow” programs that are either free or reasonably priced.

If you’re willing to stray into Pennsylvania, visit Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve (1635 River Road – Route 32 New Hope, PA, Just two and a half miles from New Hope, this 100-acre preserve offers over 1,000 species of native plants, all of which feature riots of color in the fall months.

Easy nature trails offer views of the river and if you’re up for a challenge, you can hike up to Bowman’s Tower, a Revolutionary War oupost.

Walk quietly and you’ll find fish swimming in the river, snakes, turtles and frogs in the pond, and maybe a wild turkey will cross your path.

After a day of nature, New Hope, with its stores and food, is just down the road (complete with witches and costume shops for your Halloween needs).

So this fall, don’t let another weekend afternoon pass without stepping out into nature. With winter coming, you’re going to be spending a lot of time in your dorm room, but your fall outings will help tide you over until the spring.