Down the Garden Path: Home orchard management

For fruit growers, nothing may be more disappointing than finding insect and disease damage on produce. It is bad enough seeing damage on the leaves, far worse on the fruits. When fruit trees are planted, you are starting with a clean slate. That is, the bugs have not found the tree yet, and unless you already have other fruit trees of the same species, your trees may have a season, or even two, free from disease. However, these pests will find you, and here are some ways to be prepared:

Understand what is being protected

While the trees are young and nonbearing, the primary concern is foliage. Being the food factory for the tree, healthy foliage means good strong development of the root system, trunk and scaffold branches. Once the tree begins to flower and bear fruit, the leaves must produce energy for fruit development, as well. As the fruit tree approaches maturity, keeping the scaffolding and trunk healthy is added to the list of foliage functions.

Plan your spray schedule

Getting a handle on how long you will need to make spray treatments is a good place to start for planning purposes. Spray schedules will vary from one species to another. The shortest will be for cherries, followed by early peaches and apricots, then later peaches and summer apples. Next to last are plums and pears. Finally, the longest spray schedules are for fall and winter apples.

Start with dormant sprays

Home orchard sprays should start while the temperatures are on the cold to cool side with the dormant sprays. These are applied to manage overwintering adult insects and scale insects that will impact foliage and fruit, as well as the general health of the fruit tree later in the season. The next group of sprays will focus on developing foliage all the way through fruit development. Depending on what species you grow, you will be spraying for the remainder of the growing season up to harvest.

Watch the calendar and the weather

Dormant sprays go on while temperatures are above 32 degrees for at least 24 hours. The early season sprays typically start at bud break, when buds (especially the flower buds) begin to show “pink tip.” Common intervals are shorter in the beginning of season when growth is rapid and leaves and fruits will need constant attention. Then things slow, moving to cover sprays as the leaves mature and fruits are developing. Depending on the label, sprays are stopped 10 to 14 days before expected harvest. Always read and follow label instructions.

Sound like a lot of time and effort? Here are some additional reasons to justify spending time and energy in the home orchard:

  • Bad fruit becomes a cleanup problem.
  • Appearance of tree and fruit.
  • Nobody wants to bite into an apple and only find a worm.
  • Neighborhood bragging rights.
  • Committed to the challenge.
  • If you don’t, you have plenty of apples for the local horse stable or maybe cider.

• Richard Hentschel is a Horticulture Extension educator with University of Illinois Extension, serving DuPage, Kane and Kendall counties. This column originates on his blog at To get more tips from Hentschel, watch his “This Week in the Garden” videos on Facebook and YouTube.