Dealing with fruit pests

Homegrown fruits are so delicious that we aren't the only ones that like to eat 'em. If a certain kind of pest or disease is a common problem in your area, choose a variety that's billed as resistant. Your local Cooperative Extension agent should be able to help you with this selection.

And, of course, a healthy plant is a more resistant one. So take good care of your fruit plants, making sure they have the sun, space, air circulation, water, and food they need to thrive. In particular, water at the base of the plants so the foliage and fruit doesn't become wet; this method heads off at the pass all sorts of fungal problems.

In case these preventive measures fail, the following sections outline some tactics for warding off the competition.

Targeting birds, bugs, and beasties

No matter how healthy your plant is, you may still end up doing battle with the animal kingdom:

^ Birds: These flying scavengers adore berries and strike with precise timing, at the peak of ripe perfection. Don't allow this pilfering! Cover the plants after flowering is over (so you don't thwart pollination) but before green fruit begins to ripen. Use plastic netting, cheesecloth, or anything that covers the plants but still lets in light, air, and water. For larger berry patches, some gardeners rig a wooden framework over them and drape the protective cloth over this; then they can just lift one end to harvest, like raising a flap to enter a tent.

Covering the trees with netting may or may not be practical, depending on their size. At the least, you can try draping netting over the lower branches and letting the birds have the higher-up fruit, which is harder for you to harvest, anyway (see Figure 15-6). Hanging bright and noisy objects from the branches, such as pie tins, sometimes works.

Figure 15-6:

A fruit tree or shrub covered with netting keeps the birds at bay.

Figure 15-6:

A fruit tree or shrub covered with netting keeps the birds at bay.

i Rodents: Gnawing critters can do extensive damage to fruit trees. Wrapping the trees with a protective covering sometimes helps. Also, be sure not to pile mulch up against the trunk of the trees over winter. Doing so can provide a cozy hiding place for these creatures that may make a meal of the tree bark during the freezing weather.

i Bugs and other creepy crawlers: Sorry to say, you're up against all sorts of buggy threats, from ravenous caterpillars on apple trees to aphids, mealybugs, and spider mites that infest citrus trees. If you're already growing an allegedly resistant variety and you're genuinely giving your plants good growing conditions and good care, the situation seems so unjust! What can you do? You're not out of the fight yet:

  • Practice good sanitation. Remove all plant debris at the base of the plants and groom the plants often to get rid of any growth or fruits in poor condition or already affected. Get rid of all of this material — send it away with the household garbage!
  • Identify the culprit. You can't truly fight back until you know thy enemy. If you need help with identification, take an affected plant part and/or the suspect to your local nursery or a knowledgeable landscaper.
  • Try nontoxic weapons first. If practical, knock off pests with a blast from the hose or hand-pick the offenders. Spray with insecti-cidal soap (or a fungicide, if the problem is a disease and not a pest). Introduce beneficial insects that target this pest.
  • Spray pesticides only as a last resort and with an appropriate product for the problem. Always follow label instructions to the letter regarding dose and timing, and protect yourself with full-body clothing and goggles.
  • Inspect and wash off all fruit before eating or cooking it. You may learn to tolerate small imperfections rather than declare an all-out war.

The blanket effect: Spraying fruit trees

Well, it's a cold, hard fact, folks: Unless you don't mind finding tunnels in your ripe fruit, biting into a fat worm, or having to discard the crop you worked so hard to grow, you have to do at least some spraying. The spraying is preventive. Spraying controls both bugs and diseases that can harm your crop.

Organic or synthetic, the product you want for this job is an all-purpose mixture of fungicide and insecticide labeled for orchard use or a dormant oil. Buy these products at any nursery or garden center in the springtime. Follow the label instructions regarding application and timing to the letter, and be sure to wear protective clothing and to use a good, clean sprayer.

Part V

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