How to Grow No-Spray Organic Apples

comments (13) September 22nd, 2011

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By choosing disease-resistant varieties and bagging the fruit to exclude insects, you can grow gorgeous, chemical-free apples like these.
Thinning apples to the largest unblemished fruit in the cluster allows the best fruit ample space to grow. Thinning also helps ensure an even crop from year to year.
An ordinary paper bag applied in a timely manner provides a physical barrier against apple pests. No spraying is needed..
By choosing disease-resistant varieties and bagging the fruit to exclude insects, you can grow gorgeous, chemical-free apples like these.Click To Enlarge

By choosing disease-resistant varieties and bagging the fruit to exclude insects, you can grow gorgeous, chemical-free apples like these.

Photo: Kim Jaeckel

Bagging the fruit eliminates the need for sprayed pesticides
Even though there are biological pesticides considered safe for spraying on fruit trees, getting the task done at the right moment can be difficult. Timing is critical. The temperature must be within the correct range, the air must be calm, and you must catch the target insects at the right stage. The window of opportunity is usually narrow and often occurs at inconvenient times -- like when you're at work.

My solution is to enclose the fruit in brown paper bags to keep insect pests from getting at them. Not only is this technique more environmentally friendly than spraying (even with an organic pesticide), but it also gives surer results. Bagging results in fruit that is 100 percent pest free. And if you get the bags on before diseases show up, you can exclude those problems, too.

I like to bag the fruit when it's 3/4 to 1 inch in diameter, usually 35 to 40 days after the blossoms drop. This is a convenient time because I'm already working my trees then, thinning the clusters to a single fruit (see Thinning apples). To be effective, bagging must be accomplished before the pests arrive to infest your fruit. You can use traps to let you know when the pests begin showing up, then hustle. There are pheromone traps for most of the universal apple pests -- codling moth, apple maggot, and leaf rollers.

The materials needed are plain old #4 brown paper lunch bags, a stapler, and a good supply of staples (I use four or five per bag). To prepare the bags, I staple the top together in four places -- just to either side of the little thumb cutout in the middle and also at either corner. If your apples are on the large size, it may help to cut a slit down the middle of each side, about 1 inch down from the top. Outdoors, slip a bag over the little apple and stem, slide the bag so the stem is snug up against one of the central staples, and put in a final staple close to the center so the bag won't fall off. Be careful not to damage the apple or the stem.

Bagging apples #1 Bagging apples #2 Bagging apples #3
Slide a pre-stapled paper bag over the fruit and pull the bag to one side so the stem is close to one of the central staples.   Add a fifth staple to close the central gap and keep the bag on the fruit. Be careful not to damage the stem or the fruit when putting in the last staple.   You can leave the bag hanging flat. As the apple enlarges, the bag will expand. Remove the bags two weeks before harvest to allow apples to redden.

Once you get the hang of it, you can bag three or four apples a minute. About a hundred fruits is a reasonable number to let develop on a mature dwarf tree. Remove all unbagged apples to prevent pest populations from increasing. That's all you need to do. Your fruit is now fully protected from both diseases and insects.

As harvest time approaches, I begin checking on the apples. If the variety is one that reddens even slightly when ripe, the bags do interfere with the fruit achieving its full color, so I remove them about two weeks before harvest. If the fruit is one that is fully green when ripe, I leave the bags on until harvest.

Occasionally bags fall off due to rain and wind. When that happens, I simply go out and put on another bag. If any bagged fruit falls, I pick it up right away and compost it, bag and all, so it doesn't become a magnet for diseases and insects.

The only potential insect problem on bagged apples is earwigs. Earwigs are omnivores; they feed on aphids and other small insects, plus plant materials. If earwigs take up residence in the apple bags, they may eat a bit of the apple. The way to counter that is to give them a better place to live. The easy solution is to stuff a clay flowerpot with straw and hang it in the tree. The nocturnal earwigs will go into the flowerpot to hide during the day. Gently pull the straw to see if you have any captive earwigs and move them to a location where you need aphid control.

Tips for keeping your apple trees healthy and productive
Just as a healthy human baby usually grows into a healthy adult, so it is for plants. I maintain good soil fertility and adequate soil moisture levels by keeping the trees permanently mulched. All plant health starts with the soil. Since apples, like most fruit trees, require mycorrhizal fungi in, on, or around their roots, I aim for a soil that has a lot more fungi than bacteria in it. You can enhance fungus dominance by adding brown organic matter, such as leaf mold, sawdust, and woody materials, to the soil.

The spores of apple scab live on fallen leaves and reproduce during the winter. To minimize the opportunities for scab, I rake up and remove leaves as soon as they've all fallen.

  More on growing apples in the backyard orchard, plus links to apple recipes...
I also try to increase insect predators on my trees by planting a ground cover specially designed to attract beneficial insects. You can achieve a similar effect by scattering plants within your garden or orchard. Select plants for a succession of blooms from spring through fall and include ones of different heights. Low-growing plants offer ground beetles a place to hide and lacewings a place to lay eggs. Taller plants provide nectar and pollen for hover flies and predatory wasps.

Before I started bagging, I relied on biological sprays and insect traps, but I still had fruit covered with disease and infested with worms. Now I harvest gorgeous fruit that is safe to eat and is produced in an environmentally sound manner. In other words, fruit I simply cannot buy.

by Ted L. Swensen
October 2000
from issue #29 

posted in: fruit, apples

Comments (13)

mickysingh writes: Very effective
Posted: 3:21 am on July 8th
ajayind writes: truly inspiring
Posted: 2:40 am on June 3rd
MaryamWasim writes: Truly Valuable
Posted: 5:36 am on May 26th
matthewtweedie writes: great Post
Posted: 5:04 am on May 25th
tradergordo writes: For my version of bagging using zip locks, see:

Posted: 3:44 pm on May 5th
JohnWBlair writes: Truly Inspiring..
Posted: 1:03 am on November 9th
AnissaGSimard writes: Really Inspiring Idea...
Posted: 12:27 am on November 5th
LatishaShank writes: Greattt information at all
Posted: 3:28 am on October 27th
BethReeves writes: really informative!!!
Posted: 5:01 am on October 26th
KizzyWalling writes: Greattt method
Posted: 6:40 am on October 19th
DavdH writes: I see that someone is selling bags especially designed for this on eBay. Search eBay for Japanese Apple bags. I wonder if they're very different? I think I'll buy and try some of both. I have plenty of apples in my tree!

Posted: 8:58 pm on March 2nd
314blessed writes: Thank you for explaining how to thin fruit. I was always afraid to do it before. Also, thank you for explaining why my columnar apple tree hardly produced any fruit last year, but was so loaded this year, some of the branches were bending out. I guess I can expect there not to be any fruit next year!
Posted: 3:21 pm on September 7th
twin_jet writes: this is great! does it slow the squirrels down too? also, could this method be helpful for peaches?
Posted: 1:44 pm on September 28th
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