Growing organic apples.

Growing organic apples with fruit bagging: The Experiment

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I’m all about experimenting in the garden. I love to conduct my own little “studies” and compare different gardening techniques and products to see which ones work best for me. As scientifically-casual as these experiments are, I often wind up discovering a good bit of worthwhile information. Case in point: growing organic apples with the fruit bagging technique.

If you’re interested in growing organic apples – or almost any other tree fruit, for that matter – then you’re going to want to listen up. I experimented with bagging fruit on trees on a small scale last year, but this year, I’ve gone all-out and developed a “study” of my own. Last year, I only bagged a few apples, just to see what the results would be, and I was blown away. Here’s what I’m doing this year.

An Experiment on Growing Organic Apples

Bagging fruit on trees is not a new technique. Fruit growers around the world have been growing organic fruit for decades using this method. Peaches, pears, apricots, and plums are among the easiest fruits to grow organically when fruit bagging is involved, but I think apples are the easiest of all. So, for that reason, I chose to conduct my experiment on one of my apple trees (though I couldn’t help myself, and I bagged a few peaches, too!).

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The idea is to block common fruit tree pests, such as plum curculios, coddling moths, and apple maggots, from attacking the developing fruits by covering them with a physical barrier; in this case, a “bag” of some sort. Bagging fruit on trees also deters many fungal diseases as well, such as fly speck and sooty blotch.

There are several different materials you can use as fruit bags… and that’s where my experiment begins.

Related post: Prevent squash vine borers organically

Materials for Bagging Apples

For 15 years I used a multitude of sprays for growing organic apples. Every year, I’d conduct a series of eight to ten yearly applications of kaolin clay-based products, dormant oil, soap shield, lime-sulfur, Serenade, and other organic fruit tree pest and disease controls. I ran a market farm for five of those years and sold my organic fruit to customers at two different farmer’s markets. It was a lot of work, and I got sick of being beholden to the backpack sprayer. When we left the farm and moved to our current house, I gave up on spraying so much, and my fruit trees suffered.

But, this experiment could change all of that. Instead of a backpack sprayer filled with organic pesticides and fungicides, I’m using plastic zipper-top baggies and nylon footies to grow organic fruit. I’ve done a lot of reading on the fruit bagging technique, and here are the steps I’m following for my experiment.

Nylon footies to protect young fruit.

Several different materials can be used to bag tree fruit, including nylon footies.

Step 1: Purchase your materials 

I know fruit bagging works because I tried it on a small scale last year. But, I didn’t experiment with different types of “bags” to see if one type is more successful than another. So this year, I used nylon footies over one-third of the apples on my tree, plastic zipper-top baggies over another third, and the final third are my unbagged “control” apples. I purchased two boxes of nylon footies from Amazon, along with 300 twist ties. Then, I bought two boxes of 150 cheap, zipper-top, sandwich baggies from the grocery store. I spent a total of $31.27 – waaayyyy less than I ever spent on organic pesticides and fungicides, that’s for sure.

You can purchase special Japanese fruit bags for growing organic apples, too, but I thought they were kind of expensive, so for this year, they aren’t part of the experiment.

Related post: Plant vs. pest: 3 ways to victory!

Step 2: Prepare your materials

There’s not much to be done for preparation here, except to cut the bottom corner off of each of the plastic, zipper-top sandwich bags. Condensation builds up inside the bag, and it needs somewhere to drain out. This does the trick, and you can cut a dozen bags at a time with a sharp pair of scissors.

Step 3: Thin your fruits

This is an incredibly important step in growing organic fruit trees, whether you’re bagging the fruit or not. If too many fruits remain on a tree, the branches become too heavy, the mature fruits will be small, and the tree will only produce a decent crop every other year. For good annual production, thin fruits to one per cluster for apples and pears, or one per every six inches of stem for peaches, plums, and other stone fruits. This should be done when the largest fruit in the cluster is about the size of your thumbnail. If you wait too long, fruit tree pests will be active and you may find your fruit has already been damaged.

Fruit thinning a tough process, trust me. I almost cry when I do it every year, but it MUST be done. Use a scissors to snip off all but the largest apple per cluster. I find a glass of wine is a big help.

Thinning fruit

Begin the process by thinning apples to one fruit per cluster.

Step 4: Bag the remaining fruits

Bagging apples and other fruits with zipper-top bags simply involves opening an inch or so of the zipper, right in the dead center. Slip the opening over the young fruit and seal the zipper around the stem. To use the nylon footies, open them with your thumb and forefinger, and slide the footie over the young fruit. Fasten it closed around the fruit’s stem with a twist tie.

Growing organic apples with fruit bagging.

To cover apples with a nylon footie, slide the open end over the apple and secure with a twist tie.

Pros and cons of my bagging fruit experiment

At this point, two-thirds of the fruit on my apple tree has been bagged for one week. I’ll be posting the results of this experiment after harvesting my apples in the autumn, but I’ve already noticed a few pros and cons.

  • If you think it takes too much time to bag tree fruit, think again. Yes, it takes some time, but according to my watch, it took me just under an hour and a half to put zipper-top baggies over 125 apples and nylon footies over another 125. It took me a few tries to get the hang of it, but once I did, the process was much faster than I’d expected. When I sprayed with organic fruit tree pesticides eight to ten times a season, it took me way longer than an hour and a half in total time.
  • Though the plastic zipper-top baggies were much easier to put on, and took less time, a good dozen of the apples inside of them have already fallen off the tree. But, not a single nylon footie-encased apple has dropped. I think this is because the baggies act like little flags and the force of the wind is snapping the apples off. Still, I’ll loose some of the fruits to “June drop” anyway, so this might not be an issue. Time will tell.
  • Condensation definitely builds up in the plastic bags on sunny days. It will be interesting to see if any rot problems develop as the season progresses.
  • I’ll be removing all the bags and footies three weeks before the apples are ready for harvest, to allow them to develop their full color. This will add more time to the technique, possibly making it more time-consuming than spraying. I’ll keep track and let you know if this is the case.
Bagging apples with plastic baggies.

Use a zipper-top sandwich bag to protect developing apples from fruit tree pests.

Final thoughts on growing organic apples with fruit bagging: 

I’ll be keeping track of the following items throughout the season and will issue a final “report” when the results are in!

  • Which “bags” stay on better?
  • Do the bagged fruits have less pest damage than the unbagged “control” apples?
  • Is there a difference between the plastic baggies and the nylon footies when it comes to preventing pest damage?
  • Does one fruit bagging technique yield more fruits than the other?
  • Does one fruit bagging technique yield bigger fruits than the other?
  • Does this method also deter squirrels and deer?

And one final note: If you don’t believe that this technique works, here’s some information from the University of Kentucky stating how effective bagging apples can be.

Do you already grow organic fruit by bagging apples, pears, or other fruits? If so, tell us about your results.

Update!

Now that the growing season has ended, I have a few items worth sharing and some great lessons-learned.

First, even with the bags and nylon footies in place, the squirrels will still find your apples. I lost several nearly full-grown apples to one crazy squirrel who figured out how to pluck the bags and footies from the trees and tear them open. We had to trap him in a live animal trap to remedy the situation.

Next, the earwigs found their way into the plastic baggies through the stem opening, but they didn’t get through the nylon footies. Next year I will put a strip of Tangle-Trap around the trunk of the tree to keep the earwigs from crawling up into the branches.

I lost nearly all of the “unbagged” apples to apple maggots and codling moths, but I managed to harvest a few dozen apples that were covered. Aside from the earwig and squirrel issues, the plastic baggies did far better than the nylon footies did at protecting the apples. BUT, the nylon footies worked way better on a few peaches I used them on. I harvested a handful of absolutely perfect peaches because they were covered with nylon footies. On the apple tree, however, the plum curculios had no problem chewing right through the nylons.

Next year, I will use all plastic baggies on the apples and all nylon footies on the peaches. I’ll use a strip of Tangle-Trap on the apple tree’s trunk and start watching for the squirrels a little earlier in the season. All in all, it was a very successful experiment!

Pin it! Use this surprising technique for growing organic apples without a single spray.

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33 Responses to Growing organic apples with fruit bagging: The Experiment

  1. Jen Young says:

    I am very interested in following along on this! Can’t wait to see your results. I do hope there is great success.

  2. Helen Opie says:

    This makes great sense: I know people bag grapes, with paper bags, I think. Paper bags last through a lot of rains, breathe slightly, and are probably easily removed.

    What I want is to stymie the racoons. Can hardly wait for blossoms to fall and fruits to set!

    • Yes, paper bags for grapes work great, but you have to put them over the cluster when the grapes are the size of peas. And, if the bag rips or disintegrates in the rain, it must be replaced. You can attach them to the cluster’s stem with staples.

  3. Erika says:

    We used paper bags last year and it worked really well. I’ll be interested to hear how your experiment turns out.

    This year we have had so much insect damage on the leaves and flowers that I don’t expect any fruit. I’m wondering if it is winter moth caterpillars. I live in Massachusetts. If you have an idea, I’d love some advice on this.

  4. Amy says:

    Thank you for this post! I’ve been researching apple bagging and I appreciate your scientific approach. We have a wheaten terrier who keeps our yard and garden squirrel free.

  5. James Binarao says:

    This has been very helpful. I’ll try it on our pear this week. Thank you!

  6. Minamii says:

    I have just moved to a house that has a beautiful fruiting pear tree. Unfortunately the cockatoos also love it and last year (when I moved in) they would eat a tiny bit of the fruit as it ripened and waste the rest by dropping it on the ground! So this year I have bagged the fruit as it developed. It seems to be working well in repelling birds, and the fruit looks fine. But all the pear leaves that have come into contact with the ziplock bag turned brown and died! Is the plastic somehow toxic to leaves? And if it is, will it affect my fruit?
    Minamii

    • Hi. This is interesting. I’m not sure why the plastic bag would affect nearby leaves. Perhaps the plastic bag is getting hot in the bright sunlight and somehow burning the foliage? It could also be that the plastic is holding moisture against the leaves and causing a fungal issue. Without the opportunity to see it in person or run a pathology test on an infercred leaf, it’s hard to say. People store food in plastic bags all the time so that shouldn’t be an issue. Sorry I can’t provide a more concrete answer for you.

  7. Luke Cranor says:

    Surround WP is a great product for similar results too. Check it out.

    • Surround is indeed a great organic product choice to help grow organic tree fruits. We used it on our organic farm for years. The only downside is that you need to reapply after every heavy rain which can be time-consuming.

  8. Hugo says:

    Thank you for your article. I inherited 6 apple trees and 2 pear trees when we moved into our house. In my canadian province, Surround WP needs a government pesticide permit (go figure; malathion and captan are available to the general public). My trees are mature and most are sensitive to apple scab, a big problem here. So i was wondering, how many trees would you say are too many to bag? How many times do you think the bags could be reused?
    Thanks!

    • If you had enough bags and the time, and you’re willing to do a good job of thinning the fruits, you could do all the apple trees. I’d suggest using the plastic bags instead of the nylon footies. I suspect you’ll only get one to two years out of them. I would’nt bother doing the pears as they’re typically not as pest-plagued as the apples. Maybe experiment with just a few trees this year and see your results before dedicating so much time to doing all of them?

    • Hugo says:

      Thank you for your answer. I will definitely rely on the wine technique for thinning 😉
      And I will bag with plastic as much as i can before the wine kicks in.
      Last year, codling moth got to the fruits before petal fall.
      Apple and pear scab was so heavy, a good percentage of the fruits never matured.
      I bow to those growing organic apples commercially in my region! I might also try my hand at top grafting resistant varieties.

  9. Cary says:

    Great article, Jessica! I am thinking of bagging my apples this year. I live in Utah and I’m wondering about a couple things and would love your input. The sun gets so hot in the summer here would the apple not cook? Also you mentioned cutting the corner off the bags for drainage. How much and wouldn’t this let in pests? Or since it’s on the bottom is that not an issue? Keep up the good work!

    • You’re smart to consider how hot your climate gets when using plastic to bag the apples. I’m not sure if it will be an issue in Utah, but here in PA, I’ve never had a problem with the apples cooking in the plastic, even on 100+ degree days. But, just to be on the safe side, the first time you try this technique, I would do it on a small percentage of the apples as a trial. See how it works and then next year increase the number of apples you bag if you’re successful. As for cutting off the bag corners, I basically cut a diagonal inch off of the lower corner of each bag. The condensation that builds up in the bag runs out the cut, but I haven’t had any insects crawl into it. However, I did have some earwigs that found their way into the bags that I didn’t close the opening around the stem quite tight enough.

    • Mike Judson says:

      I live in Utah and tried this method for the first time this year. My apples are beautiful, large, and nearly all are worm-free. I will put the bags on earlier next year to get ahead of the early moths. Earwigs did get into at least one of my apples but the damage was minimal. No problems with too much heat and from what I can tell, there were no problems with rotting from condensation. For the $4 I spent on double zipper bags at Walmart and the three or so hours I spent thinning and bagging, I’d say this is absolutely the best way to grow apples in a home orchard.

    • Great to hear, Mike! We’re so glad to hear you’ve had such amazing success with this method.

  10. Sandra says:

    I have been bagging apples (Honeycrisp & Haroldred) with zip lock sandwich size bags for many years and have had great results! I do have to spray 1 – 2 times just after petal drop in order to protect the apples until I get around to bagging them all as the plum curculio is a very early pest here in Minneapolis, MN and I work full time so can only bag evenings and weekends. I also prune as I bag and keep the center, “king” fruit of a cluster. To prepare the bags I just cut a slit at the bottom corners and they drain fine without bugs getting in. I use so many bags that I buy them at Sam’s Club and try to use them for two years. A few bagged apples that get a lot of direct sun on the south side of the tree may develop a “cooked” spot where the plastic bag magnified the sun beam. Very few are affected and it is easily cut out to when you eat it – just not pretty to give away! I have three apple trees and 1 pear tree that I bag and have so much beautiful fruit that I give it away to family and friends by the box full!

    • Hi Sandra – Thanks so much for your feedback! So glad to hear about your success! I can’t wait to bag my apples again this season; I’m hoping for an even greater rate of success. I just wish I didn’t have the squirrels to contend with around here. 🙂 Happy gardening!

  11. corin says:

    good article just one point do you really feel confident to say its organic fruit if you’re using plastic bags which WILL leach chemicals into the fruit? Thanks.

    • Hi Corin – Thanks for your comment. This is a great question. At this time, the National Organic Program’s standards do allow for the use of plastic in certain applications (weed control, packaging, etc) on certified organic farms. You can use plastic sheeting down crop rows to manage weeds, as long as it’s lifted and discarded at the end of the growing season. You can also use plastic in your packaging (ever see how the organic apples, lettuce mix, broccoli heads, and carrots are packaged at the supermarket? All plastic.). Right now, there are no specific rules in the handbook that I could find that reference fruit bagging specifically, but for a home gardener, this practice is certainly considered organic. A certified organic farmer, however, would have to check with their particular certifying agency for confirmation, but I do believe it’s allowed. Again, excellent question. And if it’s something that concerns you, opt for wax-coated or brown paper bags instead of plastic in your home landscape.

  12. Char says:

    Love this Story & will try this year. I have a question. Aren’t you suppose to thin the small fruit rather than the bigger fruit as noted? Anyone help with this??

    • Sandra says:

      I think you may have read it wrong, she wrote, “Use a scissors to snip off all but the largest apple per cluster.” You keep the largest fruit, usually the center one of a cluster, and snip off all of the others.

  13. judy says:

    Do you think you could use a brown paper bag to bag the fruit???

  14. Kevin Connaghan says:

    Dealing with plum curculio right now on my peaches, so I’m trying the nylon! Why do you think the nylon worked in your peaches but not the apples? Thanks for this article!

    • That’s a good question, Kevin. I think the nylons did not prevent the apple maggot flies from laying eggs on the apples because of the small openings in the nylon fabric.

  15. Tom Jordan says:

    This article is fantastic. Thank you for your diligent approach. Have you had any issues with some bugs getting to the fruit despite the bags? I am bagging for the first time this year and have found on a handful of bags that they still get bitten. Upon closer inspection I have found something bite a hole through the Ziploc bag near the stem. I have a picture if you want to see. I also noticed some earwigs getting in but realized they were coming in through the drain hole rather than by the stem. They seem to be able to walk on the surface of the bags. I am trying new bags with much smaller drain holes.

  16. Anna S says:

    Hi from Nova Scotia
    I’ve been using 6″ x 10″ white nylon gift bags to protect my apples from the apple maggot for a few years. It works well and they are easy to put over the apples because they have a draw string that you can pull around the stem. I bought the bags in bulk from u-line- a packaging company. And they can be re-used year after year.

  17. Wolff-Michael Roth says:

    This is the second year I use lunch bags. In some, I still have coddling moth, sometimes earwigs despite the traps on the trunk and even main branches. Moisture is a problem in some because it may condense on the bag but not be enough to run out the cut edges. But fruit damage is way down. To prevent the coddling moth larva entering along the stem, I might try next year some tape from each side to have a tighter but flexible seal on the stem. Earwigs through openings will still remain a problem. I also use some homemade traps (1 gal container with cider/molassis/detergent solution), in which I catch quite a few moths.

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