Organic Fruit Trees

Reader Contribution by William Woys Weaver
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I want to raise apple trees organically, and I’ve read that you can protect apples by enclosing them in sandwich bags. Does that really work? I’d love to harvest some bug-free, chemical-free fruit!

I have personal experience with this technique and it does work, although not perfectly, and I’ve found an alternative I like better.

I have more than 20 heirloom apple, pear and quince trees on dwarf rootstock in my garden, and I’ve been fighting a long, drawn-out and — until recently — losing war against codling moths, the insects that cause worms in fruit with cores.

By luck, an organic orchardist visited me last year and he suggested I stop my annual angst and respond to the problem with something simple and practical — bagging the fruit at petal fall, thus protecting it from all sorts of attacking insects. His simple advice was to use Ziploc sandwich bags, which seemed like a good idea.

The practical problem with using sandwich bags for this purpose is that, while you can zip them tight around a cluster of fruit, you must also snip off the bottom corners so moisture doesn’t build up inside. However, the open corners don’t drain water quickly enough after a heavy rain, and I’ve found that if too much water remains in the bag, the fruit starts to cook in its own steam on hot July days. The holes in the bags also provide access for curculio beetles, another obnoxious fruit pest. (They leave brown, smile-shaped scars on your apples, which means the apples have been impregnated with beetle babies.) By using plastic bags, I had some perfect, unsteamed apples, yet I thought there must be a better way, and, indeed, I’ve found a strategy that I recommend to small orchardists.

I decided to make drawstring bags out of row cover fabric, which is sold by garden supply companies. I sized the bags at 6 by 6 inches, which allows room for fruit expansion. This plan is better than using plastic bags because the fabric exposes the fruit to natural light that ripens it; the bags dry out quickly after a rain so the fruit isn’t subject to a contained, humid environment; and there are no holes for insects to exploit.

The success of such a bagging operation must include the successful control of wildlife, because raccoons and squirrels are extremely adept at destroying both the bags and the fruit. I’ve solved this problem by using Tanglefoot, a sticky, gluelike substance you paint on the bark of your fruit trees. After the critters touch Tanglefoot or a similar product (there are several), they won’t attempt to go up the trees.

William Woys Weaver, contributing editor

We’ve written about other effective methods for protecting fruit, including a technique using paper bags and one using nylon “footies.” — MOTHER

Above: Harvest bug-free apples by covering the fruit with bags that keep insects out. Photo by Rob Cardillo.