Chemical-Free Home Orchards

Reader Contribution by Mary Lou Shaw

By planting our own fruit trees, most of us hope to have beautiful, nutritious and chemical-free fruit. But there are so many diseases and “bad bugs,” how can we grow organically and not end up with worm-infested fruit? I counted 26 viruses, eight bacteria, and 26 fungi that could damage our trees or fruit. And that wasn’t including the “pests:” maggots, moths, beetles, caterpillars, maggots and borers!

Before giving up or arming ourselves with dozens of chemicals, let me reassure you that it is possible to have healthy trees and beautiful fruit without poisoning our environment and our bodies. I’ll first explain why most “Integrated Pest Management” or even many “organics” won’t result in our chemical-free goal. I’ll then discuss two successful methods that work with nature to avoid chemicals; one method is reducing the level of disease and the other is boosting our fruit trees’ immunity.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

IPM is not an integral part of growing organically, but instead is used to reduce the amount of chemicals used. Commercial apples have 47 pesticide residues per USDA’s pesticide data program, (, so reducing chemicals remains a worthy goal for commercial fruit. But IPM doesn’t get us much closer to having chemical-free fruit.

An example of IPM is the use of phernome traps. These traps alert the orchardist when certain pests arrive so spraying can be done at that specific time instead of randomly. That reduces the amount of chemicals used and is an improvement for the environment, but not good enough for us and our families.

Growing disease-resistant cultivars of fruit trees should be helpful, but in the 15 years of growing both heirloom and disease-resistant fruit trees using methods listed below, I have not seen any advantage to the disease-resistant varieties.

Organic Insecticides

Just because something is labeled “organic” doesn’t mean it’s harmless. “Pyrethrum” is a chemical derived from chrysanthemums and can be used on certified-organic farms. It works by paralyzing insects. We keep beehives in our orchard as a constant reminder that honey bees are insects too, and we don’t want to kill them! Another chemical which is certified for organic orchards is copper sulfate. It is used for fungal and some bacterial infections, but is “highly lethal” to bees.

If something is labeled “insecticide,” it will kill pollinator bees, beneficial wasps and butterflies — even if it is also labeled “organic.”

Sometime pests are overwhelming but can be handled in ways that don’t affect other animals. A few years ago Japanese beetles were doing extensive damage to fully-ripened fruit. I spent many early summer mornings and evenings–when coolness made it more difficult for beetles to fly–knocking Japanese beetles into a bucket of soapy water. This diminished their numbers, but what also helped was “Milky Spore.” It is sold under the same name as the bacterium from which it’s derived. By staying underground, it kills the grub-stage of the Japanese beetle without harming beneficial insects or other animals. The product costs about $30 a can but is only put into the soil one time where it then multiplies itself.

Reducing the Amount of Disease and Pests Without Chemicals

If IPM and organic insecticides don’t allow us to grow chemical-free, what other things can we do?

We stay healthy by doing basic things like washing our hands and avoiding sick people. Likewise, if we want our fruit trees to stay healthy, we’ll reduce their exposure to disease.

Barriers are a simple method of keeping pests from damaging our trees without the use of chemicals. This includes tree guards around trunks that keep rodents from chewing bark and allowing other pathogens to enter. Nets over cherry trees keep birds from getting our harvest, electric fences keep out deer and even disposable shoe-store socks keep insects off our precious peaches! Placing these “footies” on early in a fruit’s development eliminates all pest damage.

Reducing the amount of disease your fruit trees are exposed to can also be accomplished by removing diseased wood, leaves and fruit from the orchard. At the end of each season, be sure to remove old fruit from fruit trees and the ground to keep disease-levels low.

Allow nature to help you reduce pests in your orchard by encouraging beneficials like songbirds and beneficial insects. There’s no better way to do this than by establishing a variety of plants which provide habitat for other creatures. To increase habitat, our orchard grass includes comfrey and clover and the orchard is surrounded by blackberries and hazelnuts.

Songbirds feed dozens of caterpillar to their young according to Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens. Having more wildlife to enjoy is a delightful way to decrease insect damage. Working with nature to restore balance in our environment also allows our fruit trees to better withstand disease.

Improving our fruit trees’ immune system is the second major way we can have healthy trees and fruit without using chemicals. Boosting their immune systems includes some of the things discussed in previous blogs such as proper pruning and improving fruit trees’ soil.

In the next blog I will discuss holistic sprays that will further improve your fruit trees’ immune systems and help them produce abundant and beautiful fruit.

Mary Lou Shaw is a retired family practitioner who is now homesteading with her husband in Ohio. Besides growing their own food, the pair help preserve genetics and knowledge needed by others to foster rare breeds. Buy Mary Lou’s book, Growing Local Food, through Carlisle Press at 800-852-4482. Read all of Mary Lou’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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