Bagging: How to get perfect fruit without pesticide

12, 2018

Bagging apple treesWe have an orchard of more than 300 hardy apple varieties which we use to test their hardiness, taste, disease and bug resistance in Canadian conditions. After 10 years of observation, we successfully identified many hardy, tasty and disease resistant varieties. However, bugs continued to be a problem.

We observed that some varieties were more attractive to insects than others. They were often so susceptible to bugs that the fruit was completely disfigured and inedible. Other varieties had some resistance to bugs, but even they would never be 100% bug-proof. This was a problem because they would not keep, and we had to can them, or make juice, as they would go bad quite fast (we heard some people talking about their cider made of 50% bug-juice in some years!). We spent years searching for a solution for the home orchardist.

Commercial non-organic orchards spray their crops with fungicides and pesticides on average, 24 times seasonally. Organic orchards have found one solution to the problem with kaolin, a very fine clay spray that produces an irritating barrier for the bugs. Kaolin is so irritating for them that they no longer lay eggs on the trees. While effective in eradicating the bug problem, the spraying equipment is expensive and the knowledge to use it correctly is not gained overnight. For the small home orchard, using kaolin is not an easy option.

In our search for an alternative solution, we found an article describing 'bagging'. The principle is simple; you wrap each fruit on the tree in a plastic bag to block access for the bugs.

Bagging apples in JapanStencil on applesBagging has been used extensively in Japan for decades to produce fancy apples. The apples are wrapped in a waxed paper bag, acting as a natural barrier preventing insects, pests and some diseases from damaging the fruit. As the sun does not touch the fruit, the skin of the fruit can’t develop any colour. Two to three weeks before harvest, the bags are removed and a stencil is added with a design, often a Japanese sign meaning « good luck », « good health » or « fortune ». During these two or three weeks when the fruit sees the sun, its skin develops a very bright colour, except under the stencil. When harvested, the stencils are removed and the apples are tattooed with the design! Such an apple will usually sell for around $10 each. The nicest ones with intricate designs and packaged in a gift box can sell for up to $150 each.  

In China, similar techniques are used to protect the fruit from bugs. They use a labour intensive technique by applying newspaper to cover the fruit. However, as the paper becomes damaged with rain, they have to replace it two or three times in the season.

The technique we are presenting to you has been adapted for a home orchard, making it efficient, cheap and simple! All you need is a pair of scissors and some Ziploc sandwich bags.

Here is how to do it:

  1. Take your sandwich bags. With your scissors, cut off the pull tab above the zipper and make a vertical cut in the middle of the zipper, on one side only. Cut the two bottom corners, 1 cm wide (Condensation will build up and has to escape through the corners. It seems like the bugs could get access to the fruit through these holes, but they don’t).

Ziploc bag ready for bagging

  1. In June, when the apples are only 2 cm wide (2-3 weeks after the flowers) keep only the king fruit (the fruit in the middle of the cluster) and cut off all of the other ones on the cluster..

How to thin apples

Warning: It’s possible that the plum curculio has already damaged some fruit. If the king fruit already shows signs of damage, keep another healthy fruit on the cluster instead.

Plum curculio dammages

  1. Place the bag over the king apple and close it, leaving the stem to go out in the vertical cut you made in the middle of the zipper.

Bagged apple on the tree

  1. The beauty of this technique is that you do not have anything else to do until harvest. Just watch them grow in the bag!

Bagged Googland apple on the tree  Bagged Goodland apples, after having removed bags  Non-bagged Goodland apple, on the same tree.

On the left: Goodland apples bagged on the tree. In the center: The same apple, after having removed the bags for a clearer photo. On the right: A non-bagged apple on the same tree!

When you keep the king fruit and cut off the other ones, you are thinning. Thinning allows the tree to produce bigger fruit as its energy will be used for a smaller amount of fruit. If thinning/bagging is done when the fruit are only 1 cm in diameter, it will also help bi-annual trees to produce annually.

It is possible that some of your bagged fruit will fall in June, soon after bagging. In June, apple trees produce a hormone to eliminate excess fruit. The king fruit will usually stay on the tree, but this hormone made by the tree might prompt other fruit to fall too. Don’t panic, they won’t all fall.

If the amount of plastic seems a lot for fruit bagging, take this into consideration: 100 Ziploc bags weigh 126 grams, which is equivalent to 2 empty shampoo bottles. Furthermore, most of the bags can be reused for one year.

Bagged apples on a treeIt is true that bagging requires time and work. However, when you perfect the technique, you can bag around 10 apples a minute. It probably wouldn’t be viable for a commercial production; however, it’s efficient for the home orchard, and it makes such a big difference to your fruit that it is unquestionably worth the effort! Consider this. Let’s say that you eat one apple a day from August to March. This makes 240 apples to bag, which is less than half an hour's work! It is not necessary to bag the entire tree - just bag whatever you need. Even if you do not have an apple tree at home or if it is too young to produce, you can go and bag those of your family and friends!

The Ziploc bagging technique can be used with pear trees as well (but pears are much less prone to bugs than apples). The technique cannot be used with stone fruit like plums because their high humidity rate will cause the fruit to rot in the bag. Some bagging fans have had success bagging plums and peaches in footies. Considering the price of footies, we are not sure if it is worthwhile.

We have been highly impressed with the bagging technique and it's results. Having searched for a technique of this type for a while, it’s apparent to us that this is the solution for the home orchard. It is easy and simple, and biting into a perfect home grown apple is fantastic!!!

Bagged apple on a tree, bagged removed  Bagged home orchard