How to protect against apple maggots without spraying!

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Generally I am not one to recommend alternatives to chemical spraying for the control of pests. I do strongly agree on limiting spraying as much as possible, and as it happens, last year I did not have to spray my 100+ rose plants for aphids or similar insects whatsoever. 

Fruit trees are another story. I do not grow them, but over the decades have had contact with hundreds of gardeners who do, and literally none is able to grow them for fruit without at least some spraying. Obviously it’s now too late if you didn’t get an application of “dormant spray” on your trees. However, if you would like to try an experiment with a non-spray protective technique for an apple tree or trees, I can give you an idea that was developed by an old friend, I. B. Lucas, a way back in the early 1960s, and which I believe to be equally applicable now.

The following quote is from an article Mr. Lucas wrote, which with minor editorial changes, appeared in several national publications in Canada and the U.S.A. including The New York Times Sunday Edition of May 15, 1966.

“Four years ago [in 1962], 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.

Size and Shape. The polyethylene is one mil thick. Each tube is approximately four inches long and 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, as shown in the drawing. 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.

“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.

Effectiveness Questioned. 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 this 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 disease, 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 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.” 

[Note, lead arsenate no longer being available, my recommendation would be a dusting with Gardal Fruit Tree and Garden Spray or Dust. This was formerly a product in the Green Cross line, and has recently been taken over by King Home & Garden, and generally available from Home Hardware stores, or if it is not, it can be ordered by your local store from the Home Hardware warehouse.]

“In my garden, ‘Astrachian’ and ‘Yellow Transparent’, both of which have culinary and dessert qualities and ripen in August, are trouble-free without insecticides or fungicides. My choice for a winter-storage apple is ‘Red Delicious’; as I have already indicated, this variety must be bagged.

“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, the three apple varieties mentioned--‘Astrachian’, ‘Yellow Transparent’ and ‘Delicious’--are almost immune to scab in my garden.

Thinning. 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 a space of from 13-25 cm (5-10”) 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. He is influenced partly by his preference for quality over quantity and partly by the fact that even moderate overbearing reduces the tree’s resistance to everything from diseases and insects to winterkill.

“In conclusion I have, during my 40 years of crusading for dwarf fruit trees, left unsaid some things which I ought to have said and have no doubt said some things which I ought not to have said, but, casting humility to the winds, I now predict that so long as the female apple maggot fly continues in her present robust and well nigh indestructible state of health, her presence in home orchards of the future will be proclaimed by hundreds of little polyethylene sleeves gaily fluttering in the June breeze.”

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"This Michael ffolkes sketch of I.B. Lucas dates from the mid 1960s and illustrates I.B.'s travels. It's actually a very good likeness as I remember him in the mid 70s."

The author, I. B. Lucas, an accomplished lawyer whose father was a former Attorney General of Ontario, was an avid amateur gardener who obviously liked to experiment. In the 1930s he began experimenting with over a thousand dwarf fruit trees, and soon became a strong advocate of them for amateur gardeners. He died in 1988 at the age of 91. His son Stewart still lives in I. B.’s Markdale, Ontario house where his orchard was located.

© Art C. Drysdale
April, 2001