Tree Fruit: Practical Guide for Organic Apple Production

Organic Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

General - Diseases - Arthropods - Pest Management Throughout the Season - Weed Management Strategies - Protecting Trees From Wildlife - Sprayer Calibration

IMPORTANT: It is the grower’s responsibility to ensure that any crop production practice or material used in the orchard is acceptable in their particular state’s organic certification program. Some materials deemed organically acceptable on the National List may not be acceptable in some states. Contact your federally accredited certifying agency to know what is acceptable and to ensure compliance with regulations in your state.


What is Organic IPM?

Organic Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an approach to managing pests that integrates organically-approved biological, cultural, physical, and chemical tools in a way that minimizes economic, health, and environmental risks.

What is a pest?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines pests as "living organisms that occur where they are not wanted or that cause damage to crops or humans or other animals. Examples include:


What is an organically certified pesticide?

The EPA defines a pesticide as "any substance or mixture of substances intended for:

Though often misunderstood to refer only to insecticides, the term pesticide also applies to herbicides, fungicides, and various other substances used to manage pests.

Under United States law, a pesticide is also any substance or mixture of substances intended for use as a plant regulator, defoliant, or desiccant."


The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) provides organic certifiers and growers with a product list of materials approved for use in certified organic production systems according to the National Organic Standards. A material approved for use in organically certified production is generally derived from natural resources: Directory of OMRI Approved Organically Certified Products

Pesticide Safety in Organic Orchards

Chemical tools will most likely be a necessary component of an organic IPM system in New England apple orchards and therefore, the proper training and safety precautions are essential. Anyone using pesticides, even organically certified ones, needs to be knowledgeable about their safe use and storage.

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It is important to be able to identify disease symptoms and understand disease life cycles before forming a management strategy. It is essential to find and eliminate sources of disease inoculum surrounding the orchard. Abandoned apple trees nearby can provide high levels of disease inoculum and arthropod pest pressure.

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It is a significant challenge to produce a high quality apple crop while minimizing spraying. A high level of knowledge of the crop, the various arthropod pests, the beneficial organisms, and how they interact and affect each other within the apple ecosystem is required.

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Pest Management Throughout the Season

We are in the process of examining Organic IPM using organically approved materials, reviewed and approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) and the state's certifying agency. Thresholds used in standard IPM orchards should be viewed as provisionary in organic apple orchards until more experience is gained.

It is the grower's responsibility to ensure that any crop production practice or material used in the orchard is acceptable in their particular state's organic certification program.

See also An Organic IPM Checklist for Vermont

December to March
March to Silver Tip Bud Stage
Green Tip through Pink Bud Stages
Petal fall through June

Photo credits: L.P. Berkett; Integrated Management of Apple Pests in Massachusetts and New England, Coop. Ext. Sys., University of Massachusetts. 1984.; Instructional Media Center, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI.; W. MacHardy; T.S. Sutton.

Weed Management Strategies

Preventing weed growth is critical during the establishment phase of an orchard when strong tree growth is needed to build a fruit bearing framework of trunk and limbs. Weed management following the establishment phase can be important for dwarf trees and for orchards planted in sandy soils. Orchards planted to semi-dwarf trees have been shown to be productive with minimal weed management, but fruit size and flower bud development are likely to improve where some weed management occurs. Weed management during the first half of the growing season will have a large impact on tree productivity because late spring into early summer is the time for rapid growth of shoots and early development of fruits.

Mowing, cutting back weeds, is commonly employed in established orchards with deeply rooted trees on semi-dwarfing rootstocks. However, mowing weeds is insufficient for trees on dwarfing rootstocks and newly planted trees with shallow roots.

Cover crops that grow in the tree row will act as weeds and compete with trees. No ideal cover crop has been found for orchards. Additionally, they create a habitat favorable for voles which can feed on trunks.

Mulching suppresses weeds by blocking sunlight. Different types of materials can act as mulch, but some types are detrimental to fruit trees. Hay, straw, plastic and fabric mulches encourage voles. Wood chips and bark mulch have been shown to effectively reduce weeds for one to three years depending on depth to which they are spread. A minimum depth of 3-inches is recommended to block out enough light to prevent weeds. Unless an inexpensive source can be found, mulching is a costly method of weed management.

Different Types of Weed Management

Herbicides are an option for weed management where organically approved products are allowed. Herbicides have a temporary effect particularly where weed pressure is strong and soil moisture is abundant. Corn gluten will not effectively manage established weeds, but works as a preemergent and must be applied as weeds are germinating. Weak acids and essentials oils act as "burn-down" herbicides and kill the above-ground succulent plant tissue, but will not effectively kill some weeds. Different materials that act as burn-down herbicides include concentrated vinegar (acetic acid), citric acid, clove oil and citrus oils. Because the weeds are not entirely killed by the herbicide, rapid regrowth occurs with these materials. Reapplication is needed for a sufficient duration of management in most years. Citrus oil (d-limonene) has been shown to keep weed growth in check for a period of two weeks at which time visible weed regrowth occurs.

There may be others in addition to these, and very little information is available on their effectiveness in apple orchards. Many products are available containing these compounds for use as organic herbicides, so contact your certifying agency to find out which are allowed for use in your orchard. These products can irritate and damage skin, eye and respiratory tissues so protective apparel should be used when applying them.

Flaming weeds can also temporarily kill above-ground weed tissue. It is typically accomplished with a propane burner, and works best on small weeds. It may be less costly than other methods, but potential damaging to irrigation systems and trees if fires start in the orchard and therefore is not recommended.

Shallow cultivation disrupts the surface weeds and roots and can be effective if performed early in their growth. Disadvantages of surface cultivation include the need for specialized equipment, the risk of damaging tree trunks, disruption of surface roots, and increased chance for erosion. To prevent trunk damage, adopt the "Sandwich System" which is a one-foot strip of weeds allowed to grow on either side of the tree with an area of cultivated soil in the rest of the tree row.

In a research comparison of alfalfa hay mulch, flaming and the Sandwich System, mulches outperformed other weed management methods during the establishment years, but not subsequent years.

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Protecting Trees From Wildlife

Voles, or meadow mice, girdle young trees when they feed on the lower trunk. To prevent feeding, protect trunks with hardware cloth so that it encircles the lower part of the trunk. It should be 12-18 inches in height, but not tight against the trunk. Plastic spiral guards can also be used, but should be removed in spring since they encourage trunk boring insects.

Deer feed on the new shoots of fruit trees and can severely stunt trees of short stature. An 8' fence is the most effective method of keeping deer away from fruit trees, but is also the most costly. A shorter fence is less expensive, but also less effective.

Birds become a problem when they peck small holes in fruit. In some years, this can be prevalent in fruit that are nearly ripe. Visual repellents, such as reflective tape, or acoustic bird deterents can help protect fruit from bird damage.

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Sprayer Calibration

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