Organic produce is a delicious, healthy option for food you can have confidence in. But growing organic fruit can be daunting–especially when chemical solutions are so readily available and make gardening so much easier.
If you’re ready to embark on the journey of growing organic apple trees, we’re here to help! Read on to learn all about growing organic apple trees–including what that means, how to do it safely and effectively, and more.
Organic Apple Trees: What’s the Difference?
Organic apple trees are those which are not grown or treated using pesticides. This can be a tough subject to maneuver because, in some cases, apple trees are considered the last cornerstone of pesticide-treated produce.
While most other varieties of fruit have moved away from reliance on pesticide dependence, the cultivation of apple trees remains firmly rooted in this practice. Most commercial apple trees are sprayed up to 20 times a year with pesticides.
The same holds for homegrown apple trees. Many home growers struggle to find alternatives to pesticide spraying that won’t leave them at the mercy of chewed-up apples or apple tree diseases.
Every year, the push for organic apple trees grows and grows. But it can be daunting to meet that need. After all, it’s not sustainable to have diseased or bug-riddled apples, even if they are considered organic.
Luckily, there are many ways to grow healthy, organic apple trees.
How to Grow Organic Apple Trees Properly
Choose Your Varieties Well
The first step to growing organic apple trees is to be highly selective in which varieties you grow. If you choose a hardy, disease-resistant variety, this can sometimes eliminate up to half the problem! While this may mean reaching for a more obscure apple variety from time to time, the change-up is well worth it if it means growing sustainable, organic apple trees.
Consider the Height of Your Tree
It is important to go for a smaller tree to grow a sustainable orchard of organic apple trees–such as a dwarfing rootstock. Organic apple trees that you can easily maneuver around and care for will help you keep them healthy and happy without relying on pesticides.
Typically, you want to grow organic apple trees no taller than 16 feet. This is right around the sweet spot for growing sustainable organic apple trees.
Plan Your Irrigation System
Whether it’s a specialized drip irrigation system or a watering schedule you set up yourself, it is important to water your organic apple trees properly. You don’t want to oversaturate them, which can risk mildewing and attract more insects.
Organic apple trees thrive best with regular watering a few times a week once fully grown. Young organic apple trees, or those without a present crop, require watering about once per week.
How to Keep Your Organic Apple Trees Healthy
Feed the Soil Well
Maintaining a healthy, thriving soil bed is one of the absolute best ways to grow organic apple trees–without relying on even a drop of pesticides or chemicals.
To help keep your organic apple trees healthy in a natural way, you can feed the soil around them with things like worm feces (also called vermicast), aged manure, compost tea, or traditional compost made up of all organic materials.
You can also plant certain herbs and flowers around your tree bed, such as comfrey, chamomile, daffodil, and marigolds. Many of these will naturally increase soil health. Planting chives can also reduce the risk of apple scab, but they will need to be watched carefully, or else they might just overtake the garden bed.
Diversify Your Crop
Nature loves diversity. You need only look at places where weeds and trees grow untouched by human hands to see that monoculture planting (using only one variety of a plant type in a single place) is not the way of nature.
This is important to bear in mind with keeping your organic apple trees healthy. To help with pollination, soil health, and even the sturdiness of root systems, you want to plant at least two or three different organic apple tree varieties in your orchard.
As with many plants, it’s a foregone conclusion that you don’t want your organic apple trees to compete with an absolute invasion of weeds. Especially in the first couple of years, weeding regularly is crucial to the health and happiness of your organic apple trees.
Of course, you will also want to approach the weeding process using organic methods. Otherwise, this can also cause some chemical harm to your organic apple trees.
Once your organic apple tree begins to fruit, it’s important to weed with more care and intentionality. Certain weed varieties, such as red clover, actually amend the soil. They can help reduce the risk of pests and diseases encroaching on your organic apple trees if kept in check.
Make sure you take time to learn more about different common weed varieties, how to identify them, how to remove them naturally…and which ones might be useful to your soil health as well.
Rely on Pruning
It’s amazing how much regular pruning and keeping a close eye on your organic apple trees will help you eliminate pests and diseases!
Generally, you will want to remove any crossing or tightly entwined boughs from your organic apple trees. Be sure to eliminate dead or broken branches, as these can be a gateway for various diseases.
Pruning weak, spindly branches and keeping the center of your organic apple trees open to sunlight can also help reduce disease risk. In addition, it will create less of a haven for certain insects and help with your organic apple tree’s overall growth.
Carefully Space Your Apples
When growing organic apple trees, you typically want to thin your apple crop to about one fruit every three inches. This is considered a best practice for a number of reasons.
First and foremost is the issue of weight. Apples are not small, lightweight fruits. If too many grow on a single branch, the branch can break; not only can this cost you all the apples you were excited to grow, but in the case of organic apple trees, the wound in the broken branch can usher in disease.
Secondary, but no less important, is the matter of close contact. Too many fruits can attract more insects, and if those apples are close together, it creates a smorgasbord for insects to chow through. Having apples well-spaced can cut down on the amount of damage boring insects can do before you find and stop them.
Clean Up After Your Organic Apple Tree
Because many insects enjoy living in dark, dank spaces, it’s important to remove fallen leaves from around your organic apple trees. Be sure to rake them up and discard them before mold can set in.
No matter how well you space and prune your organic apple trees, you will eventually experience some fruit drop. While many commercial orchards leave these fruits to rot on the ground, you might consider cleaning them up or tossing them in your compost pile.
This is an important part of caring for your organic apple trees because the rotting fruit attracts insects. These insects can then move on from the rotting fruit to the fruit still on the tree in very short order. Picking up dropped apples and dealing with them quickly can help cut down on the insect attraction as the season goes on.
Address Issues As They Arise
Even if you do everything by the book when it comes to planting and caring for your organic apple trees, eventually, you are likely to find some evidence of insect activity or even of some apple tree diseases in less resistant varieties.
The key here is to not panic. Don’t go rushing out the door to purchase a chemical spray at the first sign of insects. Instead, address any of these issues with your organic apple trees as they arrive, using organic, chemical-free methods.
How to Address Pest and Disease Problems with Organic Apple Trees
Removing by Hand
When you first notice insects making themselves at home on your organic apple trees, you may be tempted to do a quick spray to remove them. However, in keeping with the organic methodology, sometimes a hands-on approach is much preferred…and even more accurate and sustainable.
You can remove insects from the tree using gardening gloves, a broom or brush, or other gardening tools. Squash them if you prefer, or you can move them off of the tree (just be aware they are likely to pop up as a nuisance elsewhere)!
Trimming Your Branch Tips
An insect infestation in an organic apple tree will often begin at the tips of the branches. This is where many insect types like to lay their eggs. You can often stop an infestation in its tracks by carefully monitoring your branch tips.
Trimming of branch tips regularly and removing any egg sacs you notice on the branches is a key method for preventing pest problems with your organic apple trees.
Bagging Your Apples
One fantastic method for protecting your apples from insects is to bag them. When done properly, this method removes 100% of pest problems from your fruit and can help vastly reduce the risk of organic apple tree diseases.
For this method, you will need a brown paper bag, similar to an old lunch bag, and a fully loaded stapler. Staple the mouth of each bag across, leaving only a small gap (two staples on each side of the mouth of the bag should do the trick).
Next, slide one bag over each apple once the apples reach about 1 inch in diameter. Make sure the apple stem is snug against one of the staples you have already placed. Then, add a final staple to the center of the bag, closing it off as close as possible to the stem without damaging the stem itself.
Your apple will continue to mature, snug and safe within the bag. You can peek at them to see how they are progressing, but typically you can harvest them near the usual harvest time.
For red varieties, they will lose some of their deep red color when bagged, so you have the option to remove them a couple of weeks before harvest time and let them fully mature off the stem.
Creating a Bug Barrier
Many pests of the organic apple tree variety are upward climbers. Having a sticky barrier in place can help stop most of them in their tracks. This will make it easier to identify and eliminate the few who do pass the barrier.
One great option is to use a product called Tanglefoot. You can also opt for something you might have on hand, such as Vaseline, to get the job done.
Using Organic Pesticides
As a last resort, such as if an insect infestation has already occurred, you might consider using organic pesticides or a homemade apple tree spray. These are less harmful to the environment and your organic apple tree.
Wrapping Up Growing Organic Apple Trees
Feeling confident about growing organic apple trees at home? Now it’s time to find the varieties that will work best for you!
Be sure to check out our Apple Trees page for apple variety information, care and planting methods, and more.