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Protection from insects for apples without using pesticides
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale


Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at

March 25, 2018

Above, a sketch of I. B. Lucas’s idea for controlling apple maggots; the plastic is bought as tubes about 5-6 cm (2”) in diameter. These are cut into 10 cm (4”) lengths and put around each small apple, and held in place with a single staple at the top. Below, commercial apple growers employ well-trained staff to cut off all the excess young apples (if you look closely you’ll see that the ground beneath the trees is littered with hundreds of cut off young apples). This grower was located in the Elgin Valley in the Western Cape province of South Africa. Author photos.




I.B. Lucas, author of Dwarf Fruit Trees for Home Gardens published in 1946 by A.T. De La Mare Company, New York City, and The Footloose Gardener, self published in the 1970s, died in 1988 at age 91. I knew him well. Mr. Lucas was a lawyer whose father had been attorney general of the Province of Ontario. His son Stuart still lives in the same Markdale, Ontario house of his father.

The following quote is from an article which, with minor editorial changes, appeared in several national publications in Canada and the USA including The New York Times Sunday Edition of May 15, 1966, and was reproduced in the appendix of I.B.'s The Footloose Gardener.

Four years ago, in spite of using insecticides, my Delicious apples were so badly infested with apple maggot that I buried the entire crop. Unless a solution could be found, I knew the trees would have to go. The following spring (1963) I tried an experiment. It succeeded. There was not a blemish on a single apple and no insecticides were used. My new method eliminated at least nine-tenths of the work of spraying, yet the fruit was protected from its worst enemy, the apple maggot fly. In the six succeeding years the apple crop was equally flawless. As a check, I left one apple unprotected; it was riddled with apple maggot.

The new method seems almost embarrassingly simple-but not so simple or obvious that anyone had ever tried it before. Basically, each apple is shielded by plastic, enclosed in a tube of polyethylene from its early stage of growth until harvest. The polyethylene is one mil thick. Each tube is approximately 10 cm (four inches) long and 5 cm (two inches) in diameter. (A thousand tubes cost a few dollars.) When the apple is the size of a walnut, a tube is slipped over it. The top of the tube is stapled around the stem of the apple. This closes it just enough to keep it from slipping off the apple. The bottom opening is left wide open.

In my area, near Toronto, trees bloom the last week in May and the apples are bagged three or four weeks after that date. Schedules would be earlier, of course, in milder climates. As the apple develops, it fills and then expands the tube. Eventually, the polyethylene film forms a cob-web-thin skin over the entire apple except for small but vital "breathing" areas at the top and bottom. This method may sound laborious, but with a little practice the grower should need only about three hours to slip and staple bags around enough walnut-sized apples to fill two to four bushels at harvest time.

Every grower to whom I mentioned this method dismissed it as worthless. What they asked, would prevent the apple maggot fly from attacking the apple through the two open ends of the tube? Having spent a good part of the last 40 years on my hands and knees in the undergrowth, working with my miniature fruit trees, I had become well acquainted with the habits of the apple maggot fly.

My method was based on knowledge. The apple maggot fly is not an explorer. If the object it lands on is not suitable, it will fly away immediately. This is what happens when the pest lands on the plastic "skin" of the apple. But what about the long list of other apple enemies-pests and diseases, including scab?

If my six consecutive years of flawless apple crops mean anything, the bagging method has solved these other problems just as decisively with one exception: the codling moth. The moth lays its eggs immediately following petal fall (or the calyx stage), so the codling moth must be controlled before the bagging method can be effective. A single dusting with a sulphur and lead arsenate dust (currently, use a good general fruit tree spray instead of the now banned lead arsenate) should give complete protection. A bellows duster is adequate for the ten-foot-high dwarf trees in my garden, and the operation takes less than two minutes a tree (currently, use a hose-end sprayer). In some seasons it may be necessary to apply dust to protect apple foliage and the small, not-yet-bagged apples from scab. A few applications of sulphur dust will do the job. However, three apple varieties-Astrachans, Yellow Transparent, and Delicious-are almost immune to scab, in my garden.

The annual June drop is nature's way of eliminating poorly developed or surplus apples. This however is seldom enough. The gardener should make sure that there is space of from 13-25 cm (5-10 in.) between apples, depending on whether average size or large size fruits are wanted. The old hand thins the fruit about twice as drastically as the novice does. He is influenced partly by his preference for quality over quantity and partly by the fact that even moderate over-flowering reduces the tree's resistance to everything from diseases and insects to winter-kill.


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