My neighbor says growing organic apples without using chemical sprays for disease and pest damage is impossible. Is it really that difficult? What are some methods for growing apples organically?
We beg to differ with your neighbor. Beautiful, organically grown apples are now widely available at farmers markets and supermarkets, and you can grow them, too! The organic approach always starts with the soil and selecting the right apple varieties.
First, be sure your intended planting site receives full sun, has good air circulation and is not located in a frost pocket. Work on improving the soil now so that it will be ready for planting next spring. Amend the planting area with plenty of compost, and plant a fall cover crop to add organic matter to the site. Also, test your soil to see whether you need to correct any major nutrient deficiencies.
Over the past 20 years, many excellent disease-resistant apple varieties have become available, but you need to know the best ones for your climate. Getting the right rootstock is important, too, because this influences the tree’s size, winter hardiness, disease susceptibility and drought tolerance. To find the most disease-resistant varieties and best rootstocks for growing organic apples in your region, check with your state cooperative extension office — many offer online publications specifically dedicated to this topic. Also note which varieties organic growers sell at your local farmers market — and which taste best.
To provide broad-spectrum protection against pest damage, many commercial operations growing organic apples rely on a spray regimen that includes timely applications of Surround crop protectant, which is a nontoxic, clay-based product that forms a thin film on foliage and fruit. The chalky barrier helps protect apples from plum curculio, codling moth, apple maggot, apple sawfly and other pests, as well as from sunburn and heat stress. Some studies show that it also suppresses powdery mildew and fire blight disease. Surround is the only product of this kind currently registered for horticultural use.
Sulfur fungicide sprays can also be used to control powdery mildew and scab disease. Other effective organic control methods include bagging individual apples soon after petal-fall to prevent pest damage (see Better Than Apple Tree Spray for more information), hanging sticky traps and lures to control apple maggots, growing certain flowers and herbs nearby to attract beneficial insects, and letting chickens hunt and peck soil-dwelling orchard pests.
For more information on growing apples organically, we highly recommend Michael Phillips’ book The Holistic Orchard. Another good resource is the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service publication Apples: Organic Production Guide.
— Vicki Mattern, Contributing Editor
Above: Choosing disease-resistant apple varieties that are suited to your area is one of the steps that will help you grow bushels of organic apples.
Photo By Jerry Pavia
Vicki Mattern is a contributing editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, book editor and freelance magazine writer. She has edited or co-authored seven books on gardening, and lives and works from her home in northwestern Montana. You can find Vicki on Google+.