The News From 2Dits Farm: Time To Spray the Apples

No spray signAt just past 4 a.m., my gray friend starts whistling outside my bedroom window. Gracie hears him and raises her head, then looks at me. “Pavarotti’s singing for us. Isn’t it pretty?” I say drowsily. My cat, no connoisseur of music, yawns and stretches, then goes out to the screened porch off the bedroom to do her duty and protect our home against invasion by feathered ruffians. Undeterred by her stink-eye, the catbird sings on, giving us his entire repertoire of mimicry, from the alarmed cheeps of a robin to a faint but dead-on shrill of an osprey which is probably meant to scare the cat, but doesn’t. It’s just as well that I’m awake early. The day is predicted to warm up quickly, so it’s best if I get about my major chore for today while it’s still cool. I have apple tree spraying on the docket today.

Everything loves apple trees, and I mean everything, from the human who loves her cider and applesauce, to the occasional deer, to the birds that nest in the branches, to the plum curculios, European apple sawflies, and apple maggot flies. Never heard of those last three? Organic apple growers here in the northeast have them on “Wanted Dead Not Alive” posters. These three pests are the reason most commercial orchards cannot raise a strictly organic crop.

If you have never cut open an apple that looks like this inside


or seen this scar on the outside

sawfly damage

it’s likely you buy your apples from the supermarket. No, you won’t see insect damage on those glossy beauties, but neither will you see the heavy pesticide applications which make apples one of the most highly contaminated crops in American agriculture. Buying from a smaller pick-your-own operation doesn’t automatically equate with “cleaner” fruit, either, since many have thrown in the towel on managing their orchards organically. It’s just too difficult to raise cosmetically perfect fruit, which is what consumers have been trained by supermarket displays to believe is standard and normal. In fact, however, a wild apple free of of insect damage is a rare find. In our foremother’s kitchens, imperfect fruit was the norm, not the exception, and her apple butter, cider, sauce, and pies still tasted just fine. Fruit too damaged to be useful for cooking was fed to the pigs, chickens, or as a treat to the plow horse. Waste not, want not.

Over the years, I’ve gotten comfortable with imperfection. All I really want to do in my fruit tree care is to minimize the insect and disease pressure on my apples while inflicting the least possible harm on beneficial insects and birds. For that reason I use a method called Integrated Pest Management (IPM). Many family-owned pick-your-own operations use it, too. It relies on spraying the lowest amount of the least toxic substance at precisely the right time to disrupt a harmful insect’s life cycle. If an insect can’t lay its eggs, the larvae can’t damage the fruit. Commercial orchards which have hundreds of trees to manage with IPM do an impressive amount of science to figure out exactly when the insects are hatching out and exactly when the adult generation will be laying eggs. For me it’s enough to know that plum curculio, which is my Public Enemy #2, is active from the time the petals of the apple blossoms fall to just about the Fourth of July. Public Enemy #1, apple maggot fly, hits from July through August. European apple sawfly isn’t a huge problem for me, and most of them will be deterred by the same spray I use for curculio, so I don’t bother attending to them specifically.

Years ago I used to spray a combination of pyrethrin and rotenone, two insecticides derived from plants,surround-apple because back then these were approved for organic growers. Since that time, however, rotenone has been de-listed because it’s more toxic to a wide range of beneficial insects (especially honeybees) than was realized. Fortunately, a newer option works better and has no toxic effects at all. It’s an extremely refined form of kaolin clay which, when mixed with water and sprayed on plants, covers the leaves (or in this case, the developing fruitlets) with a fine coat of powdery clay. Marketed under the brand name Surround, the powder is so irritating to insects that they go elsewhere to lay their eggs. They may not die from coming in contact with the clay, but they’re sure not going to be shaking their booty much, either, not in my apple trees, at least.

For Public Enemy #1, apple maggot fly, there’s a different strategy. Here, I don’t want to chase the little bugger away. Instead, I want to trap it while it’s at its dirty work. First, I buy four apple-maggot-trapshiny red supermarket apples. (I’d use my own apples from last fall, but by this time they’re long gone from the larder.) Next, I take a length of florist’s wire, run it through the apple’s core, and twist the ends to make a wire loop from which to hang the apple. Finally I paint the entire surface of the apple with a gluey product called, appropriately, Tangle Trap, and hang two of these fly traps in each of my trees. Drawn by the scent of the apples, the maggot fly lands to lay its eggs and is caught in the stickum. This method isn’t 100% effective, because obviously not every fly looking for a place to lay its eggs is going to be lured to the trap apples, but the whiff of ripe apple they’re getting from the full-grown supermarket apples seems to be much stronger than that of the small developing fruit, so the method is surprisingly effective. I replace them with fresh bait whenever the trap apples are covered with flies. (The picture here is of a plastic ball trap covered with the same goo, but mine is far less expensive and I don’t have to scrape the glue and dead flies from a trap every time I want to reuse it.)

I don’t have much of a problem with caterpillars of any kind, thanks to the birds I’m protecting by choosing not to use harmful sprays. My catbird friend and his offspring should be safe to sing at four o’clock on many a summer morning to come. Who needs an alarm clock?






The News From 2Dits Farm: Time To Spray the Apples — 7 Comments

  1. Yesterday I happened to need to burn a (fictional) apple or pear tree, to hide a (fictional!!) murder. I selected canker as the disease that is the excuse for the burning.

  2. So just what causes the scar seen on the apple in the second photo? I’m used to seeing scars like these, or very similar to these, on the organic apples I’ve bought over the last few years. However, when I cut open my apples, the flesh beneath looks undamaged. The damage, if that’s what it is, is only peel-deep. By now I ignore these marks completely – I don’t try to remove them and I don’t even check underneath them before eating the apple anymore. Should I?