I haven’t tasted many things better than a Honeycrisp apple at the peak of its tart, sugary ripeness, fresh off the tree in my yard.
I bought my Honeycrisp in the early 1990s when excitement over the new apple was at its height. It was only after I’d planted the tree that I started to think about how to get fruit I actually wanted to eat.
Apple growers in Minnesota must combat a host of pests intent on ruining fruit, including apple curculio and coddling moth. The biggest enemy, though, is apple maggot.
Commercial growers spray their orchards. But my tree was less than 20 feet from my neighbor’s kitchen window and door. The thought of spraying chemicals there was unacceptable, especially when I learned that to be effective they would have to be reapplied every few weeks and after every rain for much of the summer.
Looking for a better option, I came across the Japanese tradition of growing apples organically by bagging them. Organic growers slip the young fruit into double paper bags, securing them with wire ties. Later in the season, the outer bag is peeled off, leaving the remaining bag on the fruit until it is ready to harvest.
I found the bags on the Internet and ordered them from Washington state. One hundred bags cost me a small fortune. When my tree finally bore its inaugural crop of baby apples, I was out in the yard trying to master the art of bending the wires around the stem of the fruit without snapping off the little apples. It wasn’t easy.
When September rolled around, most of my poorly tied bags had blown away or been shredded. After all that work, I harvested a grand total of one perfect apple. One!
Clearly, there had to be a better way. That’s when I found out that apples could be bagged with the plain old plastic baggies that we store food in. I’ve been bagging my apples ever since. For a home grower with one or two trees, it’s easy, inexpensive and pretty effective.
All you need is a package of standard-sized, press-to-seal baggies, scissors and a stapler.
Here’s how it works:
1. Cut the bottom corners of the baggies off. This will allow moisture and rain water to drain.
2. Look for apples that have no scars or marks. If two or three apples are growing in a cluster, choose the best one and pull off the others.
3. Open a baggie, and slip the apple inside, taking care to keep leaves out of the bag. Press the seal on the bag closed from either side of the apple.
4. To make sure the baggie doesn’t fly off the tree over the summer, secure it by stapling the closed bag at the top on either side of the fruit stem.
In a couple of hours, I can bag 100 to 150 apples. Usually I get about 75 to 80 percent perfect fruit. Sometimes undetected apple maggots have gotten to apples before I bagged, and a few determined insects always find their way into the bags. Asian lady beetles and earwigs seem especially adept at creeping inside the bags as harvest approaches, eating away at the top of the fruit. But my real goal is to have apples that don’t have apple maggots in them, and if the apples are bagged at the right time, that pest usually isn’t a problem.
Bagged fruit isn’t always beautiful. Evidence of visits by plum curculio, which infect apples earlier than apple maggot but are never found in ripe fruit, is sometimes visible in brown scabs on the apple skin. Some of my bagged Honeycrisps have russeting — a network of fine brown lines on the skin of the fruit. But that’s just a cosmetic issue.
Timing is everything
If you decide to bag your apples, timing is crucial. In Minnesota, apple maggots usually appear around July 1. Bag your apples when they are at least grape-sized but no bigger than a walnut, and you should be safe.
There are other nonchemical ways to combat apple maggot, including hanging traps in trees, but for me, keeping the flies away from the fruit with bags is an easier and more effective way to have edible apples in the fall. Diligent fall cleanup of fallen apples also helps.
Here’s a University of Minnesota fact sheet on apple maggot.
Mary Jane Smetanka is a master gardener and a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.