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!).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!