Growing Organic Apples Without Spraying

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Prune trees, defeat web worms and harvest delicious apples without the dangers of pesticides and herbicides.

Successful orchardists, especially if they’re friends and relations, are often super-squelchers of an organic gardener’s enthusiasm . “Fiddle around in your vegetable patch if you must,” they told me, “but fruit is serious business and chemicals are required.” I was given spray schedules, preparation samples and the irrefutable proof of perfect apples. Who was I to argue? I couldn’t even get my trees to grow to fruiting age. 

Then, when my husband took me to see the house he’d purchased for us in Iowa, the first thing I noticed was the apple trees. “Oh, yes, there’s a Golden Delicious and a Jonathan,” said the former owner’s wife. “We haven’t done much to them in years. Mr. K. can’t spray anymore.”

Mr. K., in fact, could no longer even go out in the fields without a face mask. As a typical Iowa farmer he’d used herbicides, insecticides and fungicides until his lungs rebelled. Now he was retiring and my chance had come to try for apples without poisons.

That first fall we pushed through the tall prairie grass to pick about a bushel of fruit . . . and pared around the worms to make applesauce. Clearly, I had my work cut out for me if I expected to get the trees in good shape for next season.

What my orchard needed first of all was nourishment, and I kept my eyes open for materials. When Mr. K.’s corn crop was shelled and his men set fire to the husks, I ran out shouting, “Don’t burn them! I’ll take ’em.” So they stamped out the flames, and the corn husks-mixed with wheelbarrow loads of manure-became mulch under the apple trees (not spread within a foot of the trunk where rodents might feed, but from that point out to a circle even with the tips of the branches).

Soon it was late winter and time to prune. This is a shake and shiver chore for me, more from insecurity than the chilly weather. One comfort was that Mrs. K. had cleared out the trees somewhat when they were younger, so they weren’t too tall and already had a fairly good basic shape.

I bought snips and lopping shears (a regular saw, though less handy than a pruning saw, did the job on the big branches). Thus equipped, I tackled my mini-orchard on the basis of a few foolproof rules:

[1] Remove dead, broken or crossing boughs.
[2] Open up the middle of each tree so the sun can penetrate.
[3] Take out spindly and crowding growth.
[4] Cut back on height.
[5] Trim off branch tips (where insects like to lay their eggs) and remove any noticeable egg cases.
[6] Carry away and burn the debris.

During a break in this activity, I drove past a local orchard and studied the pruning going on there. Mine wasn’t the best job in the world, it seemed, but it had to be some improvement over years of nothing.

Next, I bought a pump sprayer and visited a garden center in the nearest city for some dormant oil spray, simply an emulsified oil (be sure any you buy contains no added chemicals) that mixes with water for application. It kills insects by cutting off the air supply to the eggs and larvae hidden in the bark crevices and the crotches of the boughs. One non-windy Iowa day I applied the product according to directions, and found that-once I’d got on to the pumping, it wasn’t hard at all.

The trees bloomed beautifully and burst into leaf. Then the leaves began to disappear and web worms hung their ugly houses in the branches. I searched my books. “Spray!” they said . . . but I didn’t want to. Burn? It can hurt the trees. Besides, that’s a hard task to get around to doing and the worms were eating fast.

In desperation I came upon a simple, common-sense solution: KILL! I climbed the trees with a burlap bag and squashed all the pests I could reach. The others I knocked down with a broom and stomped on the ground.

Now, how to keep fresh arrivals out of the trees? I’d read that a band of stickiness around the trunk will prevent the crawlies from climbing, and there’s a product called Tangle foot that’s made expressly for the purpose. I didn’t happen to have any, however, so I made a ring of vaseline instead. It worked surprisingly well.

The next day there was a mound of web worms on each trunk just below the slippery band. They were quickly squashed. The day after that the number was much smaller. A very few did climb across one of the barriers and formed a small bunch in the first crotch, where they were easily removed. Within a week my trees’ branches were in full leaf again and the only insect infestation of the year was over.

The apples formed and, although I should have thinned them to at least three inches apart, they looked so beautiful I couldn’t bear to do so. The wind did remove quite a bit of the fruit, but still two branches eventually broke under the weight of the developing crop (and I used them to beat myself).

At fair time, while I was cleaning vegetables for the garden show, the children picked a plateful of the Golden Delicious to enter. They were so small and unripe that I almost left them in the basket, especially after I saw the size of some of the green summer apples on exhibit. “Put them out anyway,” said my son. “We don’t want to carry them home.” And, surprisingly, our immature fruit won second place among five entries. I wrote home to my orchard spraying friends about that!

By frost we had all the apples we could use . . . at least three bushels from each tree. (It’s hard to measure for sure with six children picking to eat and one of them passing the sack every day on the school bus.) The pigs, cows and chickens got all the drops (so there would be no spoiling fruit on the ground to attract insects or hide eggs) and I made sauce from the apples that had worms in the cores. Yet, besides all that there were still plenty of large, perfect apples to eat and store.

The K.’s were impressed: “Those trees never had such a crop,” they declared. Our success was just the final push they needed to become believers. “I often think,” said Mrs. K., “the mister’s allergies might never have developed if he hadn’t used all those sprays all those years.” I’ll trade a few worms for that chance any time.

We still have a lot to learn about growing fruit organically, but first we had a lot to unlearn about sprays, and we’ve done that already. No, the poisons aren’t necessary! We’ve grown great apples without them.

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