Picky Eaters

Now is the time to harvest your share of the Willcox bounty.

Summer in the Sonoran desert requires a different set of coping skills. Many of us labor with memories of summer that don't necessarily conform to the typical Tucson conditions. Here, long, lazy days idling in a hammock won't yield much more than a barbecued corpse. If you want to go fishing, leave town. Even gardening provides its own special challenges.

Gardening in this climate is mostly about finding a moment's satisfaction watching water pass from the hose. You won't find much pleasure elsewhere. The normal joys of gardening are curbed here ... if the ants don't eat the seeds, the birds will. If the pack rats don't gobble up the seedlings, the rabbits will run off with the prize. All you will reap for your efforts will be a handful of tomatoes that probably cost their weight in gold.

Still, if you miss a living link with the land, if standing out in the garden and eating a warm tomato or picking your own corn signals summer to you, then there is an elegant solution. Pack the kids up and spend the day down in the Willcox area, which is studded with pick-your-own fruit and vegetable farms. At least 15 different locations in the Willcox area provide you with orchards and fields packed with whatever bounty you seek.

Right now, stone fruit is pretty much in full swing. This year, even though the peach trees set a record crop of blossoms, a freak snowstorm and deadly frost took out many of the blossoms in the Willcox area. With some luck, and a good deal of hard work, Apple Annie's orchards were spared, and her trees are loaded with enormous sweet peaches. The orchards are also already beginning to yield apples and pears.

Not surprisingly, Apple Annie's is hosting a peach festival. Peach Mania will be held August 11-12 from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Breakfast is served each morning from 6:30 to 10:30, or you can drop by for some apple-smoked burgers from 11 to 5. You can take the kids on a free hayride around the orchards and pick fruit to your heart's content. Picnic tables are set up so you can bring your own meal, or just sit and enjoy a slab of fresh homemade peach pie, a fresh peach sundae or a peach ice cream cone.

If you long to stand in a field of corn and select your own ears, or if you need pickling cucumbers, some vine-ripened tomatoes or a big, fat watermelon, then head on down the road to LaBella Produce. This family-run operation provides plenty of fresh summer vegetables. You can place an order and have it pre-picked for you, or you can wander out into the fields and help yourself. Fields of tomatoes, beans, beets, carrots, chiles, corn, garlic, melons and peppers stretch as far as the eye can see.

The Estavillo family is welcoming. Their generosity extends to their motto: whatever you find in the field, you can pick. Since summer is in full swing, the weekends provide a lot of action, and it is best to either visit the Web site (www.labellaproduce.com) or call ahead to see what's been picked clean and what is ripe for the picking (413-513-2364). LaBella provides a fun and family-friendly environment. A petting zoo for children and picnic area invite you to make a day of it. The low prices and sense of accomplishment actually make the drive worthwhile.

If organic products are important to you, several organic farms in the area will let you come harvest their crops as well. Valley Farms specializes in organic cherries and apples. Call for availability (520-384-2861). Briggs and Eggers Organic Orchard grows peaches, pears and eight different varieties of apples (520-384-2539). U-Pick Organic Produce (520-826-1266) offers plums, peaches, grapes, pears and apples. A shaded picnic area and roaming peacocks will leave you feeling you've traveled to some pesticide-free parallel universe.

If a small-scale pilgrimage is in order, try visiting the Holy Trinity Monastery (520-720-4642). The monastery's pecans are available year-round. While the orchards aren't open to the public for picking, you can purchase the specially made Benedictine Bread and spreads, fresh eggs and mint. A thrift shop, gift shop, bookstore, bird sanctuary and picnic tables, even guest rooms, all provide an opportunity to slow down and enjoy the simpler life.

If it's more of an event that you seek, you can devote a day to one particular product. Simmons' Honey Ranchito is a worthwhile and educational trip. The honey ranch is located eight miles north of Douglas and requires an advance call (520-364-2745), but if you've always had a longing to visit a bee farm, head here and find nine different types of honey being processed.

If it's just too hot for you to make it much farther than the grocery store, then keep the following dates in mind. Labor Day weekend signals the peak of apple season when harvest starts for red delicious, golden delicious, Rome beauty and criterion apples. Later, of course, almost every farm has some form of pumpkin celebration. Whether you end up at Apple Annie's for the "Punkin Chunkin" catapult or La Bella's Pumpkin Fest for the pumpkin hula toss and haywagon rides, the kids are sure to love to stagger out into that sea of pumpkins and pick their own.

So load up the cooler and go pick all the peaches, tomatoes, melons, cucumbers and chile that you please. It is something to behold, to stand in a field of green as far as the eye can see. The hum of far-off tractors, the warm earth beneath your feet and the far-off scent of water are all comforting. You can find yourself at the moment most gardeners strive for: the reaping of rewards. 'Tis sweet to enjoy the fruits of another's labors, but much sweeter by far is the water bill. The one that won't be yours.