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If you’re growing your apple trees organically, it’s important to protect them from pests and diseases and if you know when to spray your fruit trees, that job will be much easier for you. In episode 52 of The Urban Forestry Radio Show and Podcast, show host and fruit tree care educator Susan Poizner speaks to orchard consultant Mike Biltonen from Trumansburg, N.Y, about organic fruit tree sprays that you can use throughout the year.
Mike has horticulture degrees from Virginia Tech (BS ’86) and Cornell (MS ’92), as well as over 35 years of practical farming experience. He has a passion for sustainable orcharding and helps orchardists transition from conventional to organic practices with Know Your Roots, a small holistic company he owns and operates with his wife Debbie.
In interview below you will learn when to spray apple trees. The interview is condensed and edited for clarity.
MB: Well, sprays play a very important role. There are quite a few insect pests and diseases that vary throughout the growing season. Depending on what part of the world that you're in, pests and diseases can begin in late March or early April, say in the Great Lakes region, and last until October and November in some cases. Being able to understand what these insects and diseases are, and knowing how to help your trees withstand the onslaught, is really important. Doing nothing is not an option in our climate today. But by the same token, a spray schedule doesn't have to be super intensive. As long as we're choosing the right sprays for the right time of the, it really can help grow a healthy tree and healthy fruit.
MB: Well, probably the biggest thing that can happen from a disease standpoint is that apple trees, for instance, can get a number of diseases like apple scab, cedar apple rust, and there's a new one that we're dealing with called Marssonina leaf blotch. If these diseases get severe, they can defoliate the tree. If the tree defoliates, then it can't photosynthesize. And if it can't photosynthesize, then it can't create the sugars and the nutrients and the compounds that it needs to stay healthy as a tree or to grow good fruit.
On the insect side, there are insects that cannot just damage the tree, but can actually kill it. There are borers of different types that will bore into the trunk of the tree. Borers can girdle the tree and eventually cause the tree to decline. It could happen quickly, but usually it happens over the course of a few years to where the trees can just decline and die.
MB: Not every region has the same problems. In New York, for example, the issues that we have in the primary fruit growing region along Lake Ontario are different from the issues on the Ontario Peninsula. We don't all have the same pressures. And so, understanding what your pressures are from the insect and diseases is very important.
But the other thing is that once you've got a handle on those basics, understanding the ebb and flow through the growing season is important. You need to know when certain diseases or insects are problematic and when they're not. That can change dramatically throughout the growing season. Sometimes, very little intervention is needed. At other times it can be fairly intensive.
MB: The dormant season technically begins at the end of a current growing season. So as soon as the fruit has been harvested and the leaves the fully defoliated. At this point, all of the tree’s carbohydrate reserves have gone into the roots and the trunk and the branches of that tree. The tree is essentially dormant at that point.
Fruit trees need to achieve a certain number of chilling units or cold days before they can start to grow again. The dormant season can extend from the middle of November, all the way up until the middle of March. And then in the middle of March, it starts to accumulate growing degree days (GDD) during warm days.
At that point we won't see the trees start to grow and they will still look dormant and asleep. But in the spring, trees are slowly starting to wake up. And just like with maple trees, the sap starts to rise before the leaves come out. That sap is carbohydrates starting to rise again.
But we see the real end of the dormant season when the bud scales and the overwintering fruit buds start to expand slightly, and we can see a change in color in the bark and in the buds. And even though there's not a defined period per se of when the dormant season ends, that's really when we can say, okay, it's game on. The growing season has started.
The timing for the end of dormancy can vary from year to year. I've seen it in New York where we've had the dormant season end in or appear to end in early March only to have more winter set in. And other years it can stay relatively cool through March and the trees may not look like they're waking up until early to the middle of April.
MB: Well, just like the trees are sleeping and recovering during the winter, so are a lot of insects and diseases in their own way. They're going through a dormant period of their own and many of these insects and diseases will do their winter rest on the tree itself. Some examples might be mites, scales, or wooly apple aphids.
Some diseases, particularly bacterial diseases like fire blight, they will be residing on the tree itself. And so we want to be aware of that. And in order to reduce the pest pressure or the disease inoculum when the season starts, there are some treatments that we can apply that we need to think about that will help to reduce the population say of overwintering mite eggs or overwintering scale. And by getting a jump on the season, it reduces the potential for those pests and diseases to be bigger problems in season than they would be if we didn't do anything.
MB: One of the most classic options is just a horticultural oil. And the horticultural oil would be applied in a dilute spray. And by dilute, I mean maybe 1% to 2% oil in water, and that would be applied to the entire surface of the tree. What the oil does is it essentially smothers the mite eggs or the scale or the wooly apple aphids.
You can use some other sprays, copper being one of them, lime sulfur would be another, and also neem oil and Karanja oil which are seed oils from trees in India have also become very popular. They act differently than horticultural petroleum oils and they actually have some added benefits for the health of the tree, but in the dormant season, those are the basic options that we're dealing with to help with these overwintering insects and disease pressures.
MB: Well, so copper is very good against bacterial diseases like fire blight or bacterial canker. It's also a good fungal protector, but it's much better as a bacterial treatment. Lime sulfur is much better as a fungal treatment. So, if you have a history of fire blight in your orchard or if you've had a history of fungal infections in your orchard, you may opt for one of the other as a prophylactic. You certainly could apply both and at the appropriate rate. You could kind of cover all bases.
MB: Fire blight is a bacterial disease. It's of worldwide significance in pome fruit, which is primarily apples and pears, but it also can infect hawthorn and raspberries and other plants in the Rosaceae family. The scientific term is Erwinia amylovora. It was originally identified first and we think that it actually started in the Hudson Valley of New York. So that's our little gift to the planet.
And fire blight is a bacterial disease that actually moves systemically or in the vascular system of the plant. The most important point of entry is through the blossoms in the spring, but you can also get infections through leaves or branches say after a hailstorm or a heavy windstorm. So it can enter through any type of opening in the tree itself, but again, the most important entry point is in the spring time during bloom when it can enter through the flowers.
And then once fire blight starts to spread systemically, it not only could kill the flower, but it can kill the spur, which is what the fruit bud is born on. It can infect the branch, and in very severe cases, it can actually kill the tree. And there's some varieties which are much more susceptible to fire blight than others, and there are some apple rootstocks which are much more susceptible to fire blight than others.
MB: Neem is a very interesting material to use. Pure neem oil originates from the neem tree in India, and in its unadulterated shape it has the consistency of peanut butter and it doesn't begin to liquefy until it gets up above 60 degrees or so.
And so, what's happened is that manufacturers of horticultural products have started to strip out some of the constituents that create this very viscous texture at low temperatures. And what's left are products that are not referred to as neem strictly, but as Azadirachtin. And there are a number of different Azadirachtin products that are out on the market. Some are consumer, some are more commercial products.
MB: Neem oil brings a number of properties with it. Of course you get the oil. So like a horticultural petroleum oil, you're going to get the smothering effect on mite eggs and scale and the like.
You also get a number of constituents, fatty acids being one of them, that are really important for feeding the microbiome that's on the surface of that tree. And that's a good way to help build the biological robustness of the orchard that provides additional protective benefits to get benefits against diseases and insect invasions as well.
You also have this very interesting insect growth regulator characteristic from neem. Neem helps to debilitate and slow the development of overwintering insects that are on the tree.
So, with neem oil you get three primary benefits. You get the oil, which is an insecticidal. You get the fatty acids which feed the microbiome on the tree. And you get the insect growth regulating properties that help to reduce the success rate of certain insect species that might be overwintering on the tree.
MB: When it comes to oils or copper and lime sulfur, if those products are applied when there's foliage on the tree, you can get what's called phytotoxicity. So you can get damaged or burning of the leaves. And if it's even later than that, you could potentially get burning of flowers or roughening of the fruit.
And so, if you know that you have a mite problem or a scale problem, you need to apply those materials earlier in the dormant season. Maybe in mid-March, mid to late March or so. At that time, you can apply them in a higher rate and have a greater impact on those pest species populations.
The sooner we get to that bud swell, bud break, and what we call green tip, which is when you start to see the very, very first hints of green tissue emerge, we need to reduce the rates so that we don't cause any phytotoxicity problems in the tree itself.
And so, by reducing the rates once the buds start to break, we're obviously going to have less efficacy against some of those insects and disease pests. But as well, those pests are starting to wake up and they become more susceptible. So, there's a little bit of a sweet spot.
I don't like to recommend applying anything too early in the dormant season. I also don't want to apply it too late because then we have to reduce the rates too much. So somewhere right around what we call delayed dormant. So just as the buds start to swell, but before there's that green tissue, that's really the sweet spot of when you want to apply these for the most efficacy.
MB: When it comes to apple trees, the flowers that see in the spring were developed last June and July. So they've been sitting in the tree benefiting from the growth. When the tree starts to grow in the spring, that tissue will begin to differentiate into the various flower parts.
Now, if you have a compound microscope, you can see this at the various stages, but for your average backyard gardener, you're really not going to start to see the beginnings of the flower until what we call “half inch green”, which is a phenological stage. And at that stage, you can start to see the flower really begin to swell up. And it looks different from vegetative buds, which don't have any flowers attached to them simply because it's just bigger and plumper.
And the next stage after that is going to be a stage that we call “tight cluster”. And at that point, the leaves have started to unfold and the flower parts have pushed open. Now, it's still not a viable flower. It can't be pollinated. It can't begin to develop fruit because it's not fully differentiated. But depending on the weather, that could be anywhere from a week to two weeks when we start to get the first open blossoms. And that's when the petals and the sepals of the flowers start to open up and you can see the pistils and the anthers, which are the fruit bearing and pollen parts of the flower that are inside of it. When you start to see the flowers open it’s called “bloom time.”
So, bloom time is when this first blossom start to open. The petals are open. The flower can be pollinated. Fertilization can take place. Fruit development can begin. And then full bloom is when 90% of the flowers are open. And then bloom time ends.
Bloom time will depend on the weather. So, if it's really hot and dry and windy, it could be over in a matter of days. Or if it's relatively cool and the weather is very nice, that bloom period can last anywhere from two and even up to three weeks long. But once it's over, the flower will shed those petals. And that period, that phenological stage is what we call “petal fall”. At that point, we can really start to see the receptacle in the flower begin to expand and we can see the very first beginnings of fruit development.
MB: It's best if you can avoid spraying anything during bloom time because the flowers are delicate. If you spray the wrong thing - or spray the right thing at the wrong time - you can damage those flowers and really have a serious impact on your ability to grow a crop of apples.
Now, that said, there are a number of insects and diseases that need to be considered and that growers need to be aware of because they can be particularly nasty during the bloom period, fire blight being one of them. At bloom time the tree is at its peak susceptibility for fire blight.
And insect pests. Probably the most nefarious is the European apple sawfly, which can infest the flower. If the female lays her egg at the base of the flower below the petals, you get this larval development which kills it. Oriental fruit moth can be another pest at this time though it's not necessarily as serious as European apple sawfly.
So, if you can avoid spraying things, that's best, but you also need to be aware that there are things that can impact your apple crop and you may need to spray either right before full bloom or in the case of fire blight, sometimes you need to spray during full bloom.
MB: There are a number of options. Now, we talked about spraying copper during dormancy. There are copper sprays that you can apply during bloom, but they're not the same copper formulation that you would use during the dormant season. So they're going to be safer to use against the flowers. And the copper itself is a bactericide. It helps to reduce the bacteria that are on the surface of the flower particularly, but on the plant overall and can reduce the potential for infection. Bonide makes a copper spray which is a copper octanoate, a 10% solution. And if you used according to the label, it can successfully reduce your chances for getting fire blight.
Another product that I like to use is Double Nickel. There are a variety of off-the-shelf products, but Double Nickel itself is a combination of two bacillus organisms, bacillus subtilis, otherwise known as Serenade, and bacillus amyloliquefaciens, which is known by a number of different trade names.
Even though it's considered to be a fungicide, those two bacillus species are bacterial suppressants. So they may not kill the bacteria outright in the way that copper will, but they'll reduce the ability of that bacteria to grow and be successful on the surface of the plant.
And so if you've got a potential for fire blight infection, you can apply a light rate of copper and a light rate of these bacillus organisms to help reduce the Erwinia bacteria that's on the surface of the plant.
There are also some other more biologically driven options that are out there. One is called Blossom Protect, and these are yeasts and beneficial fungi. They'll grow just like any other type of microorganism well but they're beneficial in that they can act as bacterial suppressants. They can also out-compete territorially on the surface of the plant so that the Erwinia just doesn't have a chance to ever grow to any dangerous level.
The first 10 to 12 weeks of the season, from dormant until petal fall, is when we're seeing everything start to waken up and be present in the orchard. After petal fall and during those initial fruit growth stages is when we're starting to see more of the summer insects and diseases that come out.
Now, they're going to be different than the early season insects and diseases. Some will be the same, but the intensity from an organic standpoint tends to go down a little bit. You still need to be vigilant but it goes down a little bit.
And you can be fairly regimented in your approach. You can use granulosis for codling moths. DiPel or any bacillus thuringiensis product can be used to help control other larval organisms like oblique-banded leafroller, green fruitworms, oriental fruit moth, codling moths to some degree. And then there's also Entrust or Spinosad insecticide which is also an important part of that overall rotation.
When those are used in conjunction with a kaolin clay product like Surround, they can provide a very robust insect control program and keep everything at fairly low levels. When you get later into the season, and again, depending on where you are, it could be mid-July to early August, you're going to see something come out called apple maggot fly. And those can be controlled organically using red sticky spheres and lures and just trapping them out. But Entrust or a Spinosad insecticide and Surround will also keep any potential apple maggot problems at a fairly low level.
One final product that's out there are the pyrethrins or pyrethroids. PyGanic is probably the most common or popular of the organic pyrethroids products that are out there. They tend not to be as powerful as Spinosad, but when used in a rotational perspective, they can also provide a lot of protection against some insect, pests, aphids, leafhoppers, that kind of stuff.
And then from a disease control standpoint, unless there's specific issues that somebody is dealing with, again, I go back to the bacillus products plus a copper every 10 to 14 days throughout the growing season just to provide some fungal protection.
MB: There are some very highly refined horticultural oils. One brand's product is called JMS Flowers. I believe they're out of Florida, but it's fairly common on the market. It's a very clean horticultural oil that doesn't have the potential for phytotoxicity, again, unless it's misused, but it can provide some benefits for piercing-sucking insects like leafhoppers and aphids and mites. You can get some control with it during the summer. So horticultural oils or refined horticultural oil or a stylet oil as we call it can be also used in rotation with those other products.
Susan Poizner is an urban orchardist in Toronto, Canada and the author of Grow Fruit Trees Fast and Growing Urban Orchards. Susan trains new growers worldwide through her award-winning fruit tree care training program at Orchardpeople.com. Susan is also the host of The Urban Forestry Radio Show and Podcast and an ISA Certified Arborist.