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Archive date:  April 24, 2009

An Organic Approach to Apples

Make Johnny Appleseed proud…even with only a couple of trees!

Let’s face it. If you’re going to grow your own, it might as well be as organic as possible. Gone are the days of intensive chemical sprays for home fruit use. Don’t get me wrong, you can still get the chemicals, but if you’re going to grow it and eat it, well, it hardly makes sense to take the time to do all the work involved without gaining the substantial health benefits provided by organics. We’ve all heard, “An apple a day…” I doubt the person(s) who coined that phrase did so with any knowledge what chemicals that might lie ahead. Fortunately, chemicals have been “toned down” over the last twenty years with regard to human toxicity; perhaps growing apples can be done without chemicals.

The Safer® Chemical Company has a complete line of “safer” products, including insecticidal soap and lime-sulfur products for disease control. These are viable solutions to keep your fruit relatively clean, and they are organic alternatives to chemical based products, but they do require repeat spraying and you will likely have somewhat poorer control of the pests.

Even though these biological pesticides are 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 and no rain for 48 hours. The window of opportunity is usually narrow and often occurs at inconvenient times. Scheduling spraying in advance relies heavily on the ability to trust the weather forecast and whether your schedule will mesh with that.

An alternative solution to spraying 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.

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 you should already be working the trees, thinning the clusters to a single fruit. To be effective, bagging must be accomplished before the pests arrive to infest your fruit.

Use plain #4 brown paper lunch bags, a stapler, and a good supply of staples (usually requires 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.
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 un-bagged 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, begin checking on the apples. If the variety is one that reddens even slightly when ripe, the bags will interfere with the fruit achieving its full color, so remove them about two weeks before harvest. If the fruit is one that is fully green when ripe, such as Granny Smith apple, leave the bags on until harvest.

Occasionally bags fall off due to rain and wind. When that happens, simply go out and put on another bag. If any bagged fruit falls, pick it up right away and compost it, bag and all, so it won’t attract other pests.
Half of the battle of any plant’s defense against what nature deals out is in its overall vitality. Well cared for plants fare far better against pesky threats than do neglected plants. When planting, use amendments for the soil that add beneficial fungi and organic matter, such as what you will find in our EarthMix® line of soil products. Additionally, you should also keep the trees mulched year ‘round with composted hardwood bark mulch. I’ll speak another time as to why composted hardwood bark mulch should be your choice…I’ll say this for now, not all mulch products that look very similar are the same. Chipped-up pallets painted brown may technically be “hardwood mulch”, but it is a very different product than what we sell. It is vastly inferior and problematic to say the least.
For an up-to-the-minute listing of availability, simply go to "Search" and type “edible apple” in the search box (without the “quotes”).

Hopefully these tips will help you “keep the doctor away”

Best Regards,

David Bates