Mike O’Brien, owner and founder of O’Brien Garden & Trees, led groups of apple tasters around his gardens and high tunnels on Saturday, educating guests on growing techniques and sharing anecdotes about the many successes — and failures — he’s had with his fruits and berries over the years.
“Just because we have been used to crummy fruit in this state, doesn’t mean it’s what we’re stuck with,” O’Brien said, while showing off some of the plums and plum hybrids growing in one of the high tunnels.
O’Brien pointed to a plum-cherry hybrid tree that was bearing fruit for the first time this year. The fruit looked a bit like a cherry, but was definitely plum-sized.
“Look at how well they did!” O’Brien said to the tour group. “And look at the size, I mean I am totally impressed. But there’s one thing we’re lacking: How good does it taste?”
The fruit wasn’t quite ripe enough to try, but O’Brien said he was excited to plant more of those trees if it turned out well.
The tours were part of O’Brien’s annual apple tasting event, which saw dozens of Kenai Peninsula residents flock to O’Brien Garden & Trees in Nikiski over the weekend to get a taste of some of the apple varieties harvested by the local orchard this year.
Nineteen varieties were available to sample this year, but more than 70 apple varieties are grown at the garden. In addition, all kinds of berries, fruits and vegetables are grown there.
The annual apple tasting isn’t just for the farmers to show off their produce. Katrina Nelson, general manager of the garden, said they use the apple tasting as an opportunity to home in on what varieties are popular from year to year.
Participants are given a scorecard to rank the apples from 1 to 10 based on preference — 10 being the highest — and to make note of any characteristics that stand out.
“It gives people the opportunity, if they want to grow trees, to come taste and then pick out the tree that they want,” Nelson said. “And also for us in getting products out to the public, we want to know: What’s the No. 1 rated apple?”
Nelson mentioned “Zestar” and “William’s Pride” as two of the more popular varieties, with one of those two winning the people’s choice award for the last six years.
For Rene Benner, a teacher at Soldotna Elementary School, the choice was tough, but she leaned toward the “Mollie’s Delicious” as her favorite — a particularly sweet red variety.
Benner recently moved to Alaska from Oregon this year and was at the apple tasting for the first time. Benner had heard about the event from a coworker, who she said saw it advertised at one of the local farmers markets.
“This is way better than grading papers,” Benner said. “We’ve gotta get out while we can, because I hear it’s gonna be dark and cold pretty soon.”
Maggie Grenier, who is a student at Nikiski Middle/High School and works at the garden during the summer months, said the “Pristine” variety was her favorite, although she was partial to all of them.
“It’s hard because I like all of them for different reasons,” Grenier said.
Tickets for the tasting were $5 per adult and $3 per child, and most of the varieties included in the tasting were also for sale, both as individual apples and as saplings for people to plant in their own gardens.
The garden also offers you-pick opportunities for blueberries, cherries, gooseberries, currants and more throughout the week.