Growing Worm-Free, Spray-Free Apples

Over the years, I have experimented with alternate methods of controlling the codling moth and apple maggot fly in our apple orchard. It seems the traditionally accepted method of control is an application of spray every seven to 10 days, starting in June and continuing into September. Since I have a number of trees and used a three gallon hand carry sprayer, I found this method of control to be unsatisfactory for many reasons. I tried a number of organic methods of control, such as vinegar-molasses traps, pheromone traps and electronic bugzappers. I won’t dwell on the merits or shortcomings of these methods. If you have tried any of them, you know their shortcomings as well as I.

Four years ago I became interested in the Japanese practice of bagging apples as a method of insect control. As I became more knowledgeable about the concept I decided I wanted to try it. However, when I found a supplier and learned the bags cost over $10 per hundred, I lost enthusiasm for the bagging concept. Being one who doesn’t give up easily, I decided to experiment with other types of bags, preferably, something standard and “off the shelf.”

For several years, I experimented with both clear plastic and standard No.2 brown paper grocery bags. Both had their particular disadvantages. I also tried a few bleached white pharmacy bags. last year I purchased a bale of No.2 bleached white grocery bags and bagged about 3000 apples.

I have been very pleased with the results of the bagging practice. What a joy it is to make apple cider and not have to cut out the worm damage. We also store a winter supply in an extra refrigerator for fresh eating, pies, crisps, etc.

If you would like to try a different method of raising worm-free apples, I would like to share with your my experience with this concept.

Suggested Equipment and Material:

-Bags and Ties

Although I continue to look for improvements to the bag quality and design, I use No.2 bleached white paper bags. Most grocery bag distributors probably sell this type of bag. I purchase them from:

Merchants Paper
4625 SE 24th Avenue
Portland, Ore.
503-235-2171.

To secure the top of the bag around the stem of the apple, I use a plastic-coated wire, which can be purchased in 100-foot rolls from most stores with a well-stocked garden department. One name brand is “Sturdy-Twists.”

Although this product has a cutting device attached, it is advantageous to have the wire ties precut too uniform length. I use a simple jig for this purpose consisting of a piece of 2×4 about 18 inches long with two large nails spaced about 4½ inches apart on center line of the four-inch side of the 2×4 and spaced an equal distance from each end.

The end of the tie material is wrapped around one of the nails several times and then wrapped around both nails for 15 to 20 wraps. A wire side cutter or small tin snips can be used to cut the wires on opposite sides of the wrap. The results should be two bunches of wire ties each about 4½ inches long. Straighten the wires prior to placing them into the apron pocket for use.

A simple carpenters apron serves quite efficiently for carrying the paper bags and the ties in the orchard. The apron should have a large split pocket in front, and the type with the bib and neck strap is preferred.

The paper bags will be packed in packages of 500 with bundles of 50 packed with the bottom folds positioned in the same end. It works well for me to have the ties in the right hand pocket of the apron and the bags in the left-hand pocket. A left-handed person may want to reverse the arrangement. The bags should be placed in the apron pocket with the bottoms of the bags extending up above the apron pocket. For ease of retrieval, the bundle of bags should be positioned with the bottom fold forward. This arrangement facilitates removal of each individual bag by pulling the bottom flap forward and up. With practice it can be done without eye contact.

-Ladder

ladder requirements will vary depending upon the size of the trees. Although I have dwarf, semi-dwarf and full-size trees, I have adopted a policy that if I can’t reach it from a 6½ foot ladder, it gets cut off. Therefore, a 6½ foot ladder is adequate for my orchard, as I keep the trees pruned accordingly.

-Pruning Shears

A small pruning shears works quite effectively for thinning over productive fruit. I find it preferable to removing the excess fruit by hand, especially if the apples have short stems and are in clusters of two or more.

-Material Cost

It is assumed that the ladder and pruning shears would be common items in the possession of most gardeners. With this thought in mind, the cost of these items won’t be considered as a bagging expense.

When the bags are purchased by the bale (6,000 bags per bale), the cost is 1.4 cents each (1999 price.) If the purchase quantity is less than a bale, you can expect to pay a little higher price.

-Wire Ties

The wire be material costs about $3 for a 100 ft. roll. If the ties are 4½ inches long, the cost per tie is 1.1 cents. The ties can be straightened and used again the next season.

If one elects not to reuse the ties, the annual expense per apple would be:

  • Bag 1.4 cents
  • Tie 1.1 cents
  • Total 2.5 cents

The carpenters apron would be a one-time expense and the price would vary with the type of apron.

When to Start Bagging:

The timing will vary somewhat with the location and apple variety. In the Boring area where I live, I like to start installing the bags around the fifth of June and be finished with the process during the third week of June. If one could finish the task earlier, it would probably be better. Although, I have bagged apples the fourth week of June with very little worm infestation. If one lives in the Willamette Valley or lower elevations where the season is more advanced, the process should be started earlier, accordingly. last season I bagged a friend’s apple tree in the King City area the second week of June and there were a few bagged apples with worm damage at harvest time.

If the bags are installed too early, apples will be bagged that will naturally drop off later as part of the normal fruit drop. I found this to be a slight problem last year. It seemed that the fruit development was later than usual. Perhaps three to four percent of the bags were on fruit that dropped prematurely. When a bag dropped, I would place it on another apple that had not been bagged.

Bag Installation:

When placing the bag on the apple, the natural tendency is to center the opening of the bag on the apple and fold both ends of the bag top around to the same side of the apple and secure it with a tie. This procedure is not good, for as the apple grows the bag will not expand providing room for the fruit and the bag will split. The apple should be roughly centered in the bag opening and both ends of the bag top should be pressed in toward the stem and then secured with a tie. One and a half to two twists on the tie should be adequate to keep the bag in place and saves time when the bags are removed prior to or at harvest time.

last season I purchased the white bags from a different supplier. The bags didn’t seem to have as good of a quality of glue as the brown bags that I used the previous years. Some of the seams opened up later in the season. I found that this problem could be prevented to some degree by positioning the bags that do not hang vertically so that the seam is on the underside. Next time I purchase bags, I will discuss this problem with the supplier. They may be able to offer an alternative.

Some varieties of apples have very short and somewhat brittle stems, and it is difficult to apply the tie without breaking the stem. In such a situation, the top of the bag can sometimes be folded around the branch supporting the apple and secured to the branch with the tie. I usually bag all the fruit on a tree that I can reach standing on the ground, and then I use a ladder for reaching the remainder of the fruit.

Follow-Up Maintenance:

You will find that some of the apples and bags will fall from the trees soon after they have been bagged. Some of the fruit will fall be cause the stem was cracked or broken during the bagging operation. As mentioned previously, some will fall because of the normal drop. When this happens, I attach the bag to another apple. I usually leave a few unbagged apples on each tree for such replacement.

About the first of July or when bags are no longer dropping, I try to remove the remaining unbagged apples from the trees. They should be destroyed to prevent any insect eggs or larvae that they may be harboring from developing.

Last season when the bleached white bags were used, I found that a number of varieties of red apples colored up quite nicely in the bag. Some varieties seem to ripen a little later in the bag. If one desires to have the fruit to develop full color, then the bags should be removed several weeks before harvest and after the last insect cycle has passed. Here in the Boring area, I have removed bags after the first week of September without any indication of insect damage.

There is a real advantage to leaving the bags on the apples until harvest. The bag protects the fruit from becoming bruised or blemished as it is blown by the wind. This damage can be significant, especially, with late maturing varieties. This year I plan to leave most of the bags on the fruit until harvest.

When harvesting the fruit, I pick the apples in the bag and separate the two at a processing station. The ties can then be straightened and reused. The used bags are discarded.

Conclusion:

If you should become interested in the apple-bagging concept, I hope that you find it to be the same rewarding experience as it has been for me. After reading this report you may be thinking that it entails a lot or work. It does take some amount of time depending upon the number and size of the trees involved.

I have found when bagging the long-stemmed apples I can bag 120 apples or more per hour with a little practice. The shorter stemmed or heavier producing varieties will be more time consuming. I feel that the bagging process consumes less time than spraying with the frequency required for good insect control and with the equipment used by most home orchard growers.

The results, worm-free and spray-free fruit, leave little room for debate.

There is considerable room for improvement in the bagging concept. If enough interest can be generated in this concept, the bag man ufactures may be willing to use a more weather-proof glue and may also consider producing a bag with the wire tie an integral part of the bag. They may also have a more translucent bag material which would allow the apple to develop a full natural color. Although these improvements would undoubtedly increase the cost, they are worth pursuing.

Enjoy your spray-free and worm-free fruit!

Pome News, Spring 2000 Issue