How do you like them apples? Organic.
Delane Pennington is standing in her apple orchard, sharing the recipe for an organic way to keep coddling moths off the trees, when she stops mid-sentence.
“Little varmints!” she exclaims, bending down by a mound of dirt near a tree’s roots to pull out what looks like an industrial strength mouse trap. It’s empty. The trap is intended to catch the voles, moles, gophers and mice that routinely dig around the trees. There are about 200 trees here at Agape Organics, a certified organic apple orchard in Washoe Valley run by Delane and her husband, Al Pennington.
“If you’re not taking care of the underground pests, you might as well not even water the trees because they eat the roots, and a wind comes, and they just fall over,” says Delane.
The Penningtons bought the farm six years ago, not because they wanted an orchard but because they liked the house and property.
“Before, the only apples I was familiar with were the apples kids gave me as a teacher,” says Delane, who recently retired. The Penningtons decided to make it a u-pick farm, in part because Delane didn’t want to come home from school every night to pick apples, given that autumn is a busy time for teachers as well as for apple trees. The farm was already certified organic by the previous owners, so the Penningtons kept up the certification.
Usually at this time of year, the trees at Agape Organics would be loaded with Red and Golden Delicious, Braeburn and Gala apple varieties. But there are no apples at the orchard this year. It’s not due to anything chemical pesticides could have counteracted. The Penningtons blame the weather—specifically, the killing freeze in early June that accosted a number of local fruit trees. Getting cold-hardy fruit trees or dwarf ones that are easier to cover during a freeze could help with the weather factor. But there are also nontoxic ways of managing fruit tree pests.
Many people with fruit trees think they have to use fungicides and pesticides on them, especially if they want their trees to actually bear fruit. Chemicals on conventionally grown apples have caused the Environmental Working Group to name the apple among the top 12 fruits and vegetables consumers should buy organic. A big culprit among apple orchards is the codling moth, the larvae of which are the infamous worm in the apple. The Penningtons use a mixture of traps and beneficial insects to control pests organically. For aphids, they buy containers of ladybugs and spread them among their trees to eat them. Chickens and a number of toads on the property also eat pests. A neighbor’s bee farm just over the orchard’s fence helps pollinate the trees. And that codling moth recipe? Mix 1.5 cup apple cider vinegar with one-third cup molasses and an eighth of a teaspoon of ammonia. Pour it into a cut-out milk or soda bottle and hang it from the tree.
Arborist Michael Janik of Michael’s Apples in Paradise Valley raises about 110 varieties of fruit trees, including dwarf apple, pear and stone fruit trees. Janik says there are organic pesticides available to use on codling moth larvae as they’re hatching. He also recommends spraying dormant oil, which is an organic method, in the wintertime to control aphids.
The Penningtons aren’t against dormant oil. They just haven’t needed it. Delane says keeping the apples picked up once they fall—before the larvae get back up into the tree—have kept their incidence of codling moth low.
Now if they could just get the weather to cooperate.