WALLA WALLA -- The red Honeycrisp with the subtle streaks of pink was the size of a softball hanging from a branch at David Guss's Wallula Avenue property on a late September morning. But the self-taught grower had his doubts that the seemingly ripened fruit was prime for picking.
"In another day or two they'll be ready," Guss said with little more than a passing glance at the tree's crop.
Over nearly 20 years, the Walla Walla County resident and elementary school teacher has refined his knowledge of the sweet fruit on the back acre of his property while simultaneously turning a dream of raising his kids among the apple trees into reality.
Now with his own kids long grown and producing children of their own, the harvest continues, and friends and family members aren't the only ones reaping the benefits.
Guss and his wife, Kay, offer u-pick services at their home north of College Place. Some days they post a sign on the edge of the street inviting guests to stop by and peruse the selections from about 100 fruit trees. Other times, they open the property up by appointment. They also offer delivery.
Though those softball-sized Honeycrisps have sold out, this is the perfect time of year for Fuji apples, Guss said.
A teacher by day at Pasco's Robinson Elementary -- where his co-workers eat up much of the crop -- Guss has been a student of apple growing since he and Kay came to Walla Walla after living overseas.
Originally from Tacoma, Guss traveled through Europe after college, taught school in Guam for five years and lived in Japan for another 10. Sandwiched among the crowded quarters of the densely populated Asian communities, he longed for land where he could garden as his father did and grow Washington's famed apples for his own children, his wife explained.
In 1991 his family moved to the single-story home at 495 Wallula Ave., where a few older variety apple trees had already been in place.
Guss decided to plant a few more to add to the selection.
"Mainly it was just going to be for family and friends at first," he said.
He added Asian pears, grapes, plums, chestnuts and more apples. Lots more apples. Fuji, Honey Crisp, Jonagold, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Mutsu. Until there were 76 apple trees and not enough friends and family to eat them all.
They got creative. Their kids set up roadside stands, where they sold the fruits of the family's labor to help raise money for college. They offered u-pick services, flagging down drivers along the roadway who pay between $10 and $13 for 20 pounds.
Along the way, Guss learned some intricacies about apples: The trees tend to bear large crops in even years like this one. Hungry deer tend to be more warded off by human hair than any other deterrent. Natural insecticides have proven to be most effective at ridding the trees of codling moths while at the same time preserving the cleanliness of the fruit. He also learned the importance of thinning the branches and how regular watering leads to a healthier-size apple.
The work keeps Guss busy in the summer. And he's grown his orchard as large as he'd like it to be.
And of all the lessons he's learned over the years, the most affirming may have come from a more than 90-year-old customer who makes the annual visit to the orchard for his bounty of apples. Amazed to see the man climbing the ladder to pick his own fruit, Kay asked him his secret to health.
His response: An apple a day.
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8321.
To learn more about Dave's Orchard, call 525-2345 or visit www.davesorchard.us. Owners David and Kay Guss offer u-pick by appointment, as well as delivery. Senior citizens get a $1 discount on 20-pound boxes, which run 55 cents to 65 cents per pound, depending on variety.