I need to steel myself to tell you this: the bugs seem to be winning.
Not just the bugs, but also the black rot and fungi—the very plagues for which commercial orchardists spray the chemicals thought to be killing colonies of honey bees.
This time last year, we were wandering among our apple trees, picking a meager but healthy harvest of mostly heritage fruit. It had been a difficult season, but we were hopeful. Our attempts to tend the trees sustainably seemed to be working. We’d even found a good population of beneficial insects eating bad insects our trees.
But let me go back to the very beginning. Nearly two decades ago, we received the amazing gift of some family land on the eastern edge of the Virginia Blue Ridge. Most of it was covered in long-neglected apple trees. Slowly we cut out the oldest trees and began grafting and planting heritage varieties to take their place. Since he was taking care of a neighbor’s orchard, and since we live 300 miles away, a local orchardist kindly agreed to spray our trees. All we had to do was cut the grass and allow him to harvest whatever fruit we didn’t want. What could be better?
All went quite well for a long time. But two years ago the orchardist informed us, understandably, that it didn’t make sense for him to continue caring for our trees because we’d planted a hodgepodge of boutique varieties that he couldn’t sell. In fact, he really hadn’t sprayed our trees very much that season.
We’d already been thinking we wanted to move toward a more sustainable operation. So in the spring of 2015 we started learning about and spraying natural compounds.
Our lives quickly became like something out of a movie. A comedy.
Have you ever smelled an elixir of water, beneficial microbes, neem oil, and fish concentrate? Or the putrid liquid that comes from steeping five gallons of stinging nettles in hot water for a week? The odors—oily, fishy, sulfurous—clung to our skin for hours, sometimes days—or maybe I just imagined them.
And the schedule! Ideally we should have sprayed every two weeks, showing up exactly when the trees were in the correct stage of the bud, bloom, and leaf cycle. Oh, and we needed to spray in sunny, windless weather.
In April 2015, Jeff drove to the orchard when it was time for the spray that is scheduled for “petal fall.” He arrived to find that some of our trees were ready, with petals sifting down like pink confetti, but others weren’t even close. What should he do? He sprayed and hoped for the best.
We managed to apply the four critical sprays of spring, one quite late. After that we decided to spray less frequently. The travel was proving difficult. We couldn’t, we told ourselves, build our entire lives around the orchard.
In late June odd red spots, each with a spreading yellow corona, appeared on the leaves. Frog eye, a symptom of black rot. We sprayed stinging nettles and neem oil and again hoped for the best. Next Japanese beetles arrived. Everyone else was spraying chemicals. We sprayed more neem oil.
In July we arrived to find one of our little Magnum Bonum trees dead. Round-headed borers had eaten a ring around its slender trunk. We consulted a sustainable orchard guide. Apply mud packs laced with parasitic nematodes on the wounds of other affected trees, it instructed, and inspect carefully for other borers. Jeff spent most of that trip on his hands and knees, going inch-by-inch over every small trunk, probing with an ice pick for minuscule larvae.
All the while I imagined the commercial orchardists laughing at us.
On our next trip, we found another Magnum Bonum tree dead.
Fall finally came, the bugs and diseases abated, and we picked our spotted but tasty fruit. We sighed with relief and turned our attention to other parts of our lives. This was a mistake.
We should have sprayed one last time and put out milky spore to help knock down the Japanese beetle larvae wintering in the soil. We also should have—oh, there’s no sense listing it all. I continued to be too busy, and Jeff responded with silence whenever I mentioned going to the orchard. Later he told me he had lost faith that day probing for borers on his knees.
And everything we were learning pointed to our foolishness. Here’s what you want to do if you’d like to keep a sustainable orchard: Set up house close enough to tend the trees on at least a weekly basis. Not 300 miles away.
Plant hardy varieties that have a natural resistance to local pests and diseases—especially in the hot, humid South. This is a key rule of organic agriculture. The whole world seemed to know it except us. Our heritage trees were turning out to be susceptible to every blight and plague.
A local woman suggested that we might be able to use chemical sprays—not the worst ones—only two or three times a year. Commercial growers spray 12 to 14 times. Although we hated the idea, this seemed like a reasonable compromise. We decided to try a spring application of one of the least toxic chemicals.
Jeff went alone to the orchard last April to do the deed. In midmorning he called home. It was, he said, a cloudless, windless day. The forecast was for nothing but sun. “I’ve got the chemical mixed up and ready,” he said. He paused. “Jan, I don’t think I can do this.”
I groaned silently. We’d gone over and over this. Buying the chemical had set us back quite a penny. Still, I understood how he felt. “If you can’t do it, Jeff,” I said, “don’t do it.”
He seemed relieved.
But there was a problem. He had mixed the first five gallons. It was too toxic to dump. So he sprayed it on our trees.
As he finished, a cloud the size of an army appeared over the mountains. Within ten minutes the sky opened, washing all his just-applied spray off the trees
When he told me, I laughed in relief. He echoed my earlier groan.
In May I got word that I’d been approved for a summer teaching position in Alaska—and any thought of paying careful attention to our orchard this season dissolved.
You reap what you sow, as they say. Our poor neglected heritage are struggling. We don’t know how long they’ll survive. Our neighbors’ trees, sprayed with a conventional chemical regime, look beautiful.
I’m writing this with the hope you’ll get a chuckle out of our foibles. We have not been laughing. Not quite crying, not yet, but we’re close. Have you ever heard of two rubes with bigger, less practical ideas?
But at what point do we betray our convictions to save our beloved trees? All of us will face this kind of question at some point in our lives. Jeff and I know our answer. Our allegiance lies with the Earth, and with the beautiful creek that runs along the edge of our land. With the birds, butterflies and honeybees. The world just doesn’t need our heritage apples badly enough for us to pour chemicals on our trees, even though our neighbors do it many times a season.
Please don’t think of us as environmental fanatics. We don’t eat organically, not always, not even that often. But when it comes to producing chemically treated food from our own land, we’ve decided to draw the line.
What will happen now? We don’t know. We’ve discussed taking out our trees, rather than watching them slowly die. We’ve also discovered a few simple tricks that may help—using that milky spore to ward off beetles; painting the tree trunks with white latex to prevent borers from laying their eggs in the bark. Perhaps next season will be kinder than this one—which, according to a gardener friend, has been unusually plagued by pests. Or perhaps not.
I’ve said frequently in this blog that learning the art of selfless service is a spiritual journey. This is one of those times, I think, where my spiritual well-being demands that I stay true to my beliefs, even if the results are painful, as they are likely to be. How can I toe the line in other parts of my life if I fudge it here?
Wish me luck. I’ll let you know how things go next year. The fruit may be buggy, the trees barely clinging to life. But the harvest, whatever we manage to salvage, will be healthy. And so will our hearts.