The apple trees are budding in Wallingford, and if you want a good harvest you should start tending to them soon. I’m not a fruit tree expert, but I am an avid backyard gardener and a nerd who reads a lot. It took me several years of research and trial and error to finally yield a good harvest from my own apple tree. Hopefully what I’ve learned can help you, too.
In my mind, I like to separate apple tree problems into three categories: (1) the apples have bug damage, (2) the apples are too small and don’t taste great, and (3) the tree is diseased.
Problem #1: My apples have bug damage. (Eww!) There are two main pests around here that destroy apples, the Apple Maggot Fly and the Codling Moth. They need to land on the apple in order to do their damage, so creating some sort of barrier system is the best and most organic way to minimize their destructiveness.
Depending on the size of your tree and your preferences, you can either bag each individual apple or net the whole tree. To bag each individual apple, there are two types of bags, one that is made of paper and one that is made of nylon (like pantyhose). In years past, some of the local hardware stores have carried the paper ones, and the nylon ones I have personally purchased at Swanson’s Nursery. This can work for smaller trees, and result in some very nice fruit, but if your tree has any size to it this method can be very time consuming.
My preferred method is to net the whole tree. You’ve undoubtedly seen this in the yards and parks of Wallingford. The netting holes need to be small enough so those little flying apple bandits can’t get through. City Fruit is a great, local resource to provide all the answers on netting your tree. I would start by reading this page and this page on their website.
Don’t net the tree while there’s still blossoms on it because the bees need to pollinate it first. According to City Fruit’s website, These techniques should be installed when “fruitlets” are the size of a dime and completed before the end of May. Bamboo poles come in very handy for putting on the nets, often if you ask around there’s a neighbor willing to donate a few. Start getting your supplies together now so you’re ready when they are (and by “they” I mean your lovely little apple babies, of course).
At harvest time, the nets have the added benefit of catching the fruit so they don’t sit on the ground and rot. The fruit is ripest and tastes the best when it falls on its own or comes off easily when you shake the tree. (I find it a general rule of gardening that most fruit and veggies taste the best if they come off easily when you try to pick them.) I usually just open a small hole in my net and pick in batches according to what comes off on its own or when shaken.
Problem #2: These puny, little apples taste blah. This is where a little apple sacrifice comes in. You want big, beautiful apples? You gotta pick off some of the little guys. Year to year you can play around with how much, but I’ve never regretted thinning a lot. Think about how much energy comes down each branch. Like a parent’s inheritance, the more apples, the less there is to go to each. If I have a cluster of ten baby apples, I usually take off six to eight. This was hard for me to do initially because I loved all of my little apple babies equally, but now I do it with gusto. Because thinning makes the apples that remain So. Much. Better. Look at each branch or cluster. Take off 60-80% or as much as you can bring yourself to do, leaving the biggest ones and the ones that are spaced further apart. I like to use hand clippers for this because I feel I have better control, but you can also snap or twist them off. Additionally, it may help to water your tree and give it some good compost. Play around with it year to year and see what works for your tree.
Problem #3: Disease. If you’re trying to garden organically, then regardless of the disease there are two basics I find pretty universal. Prune your tree to open up the inside so there is plenty of airflow. Damp leaves can lead to mildew and the like and pruning out some of the inside branches allows the air to dry the leaves. And clean up diseased leaves in the fall and put them in your city compost (not your home compost, it doesn’t get hot enough to kill the disease). You can also pick off diseased leaves throughout the year and dispose of them in the same way. Beyond that, I would consult your local experts. If you do decide on spraying them, just read the fine print to find something that doesn’t kill the bees. They’re important.
- I highly recommend reading through City Fruit’s website, they are a great resource for anyone with fruit trees whether you want to do it all yourself or have someone take the work off of your hands. And if you don’t have your own trees but want to volunteer, you can do that too.
- Cass Turnbull, who was a well-known professional gardener in Seattle for many years, wrote a surprisingly entertaining book entitled Cass Turnbull’s Guide to Pruning. The book includes good information on pruning fruit trees to maximize the health and appearance of your trees.
- One more reason to take care of your fruit trees, the local food banks will generally take home grown produce, just make sure it’s in good enough condition that you would eat it yourself.
- Netting also works good for pear trees. Personally I haven’t had to thin my pears, but if you have a problem with your pears (or any other fruit, really) being too small or tasteless try thinning them as well.