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How to keep worms from your backyard apples

Volunteers from L'Oreal Clarisonic net an apple tree at the Amy Yee Tennis Center Orchard to keep out pests.
KUOW Photo/Ann Dornfeld
Volunteers from L'Oreal Clarisonic net an apple tree at the Amy Yee Tennis Center Orchard to keep out pests.

There’s an old joke: What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple?

Finding half a worm.

For an apple-tree-owner, worse still is finding a worm – or worm holes – in every single fruit on your tree. That's a frustratingly common experience for Seattle homeowners.

Related: There are worms in the blackberries you just picked

Now City Fruit, a local gleaning organization, is trying to teach amateur orchardists how to protect their fruit from pests organically, in hopes they might contribute their fruit to the poor. 

On a recent sunny morning, Natalie Place, manager of City Fruit Program and Education, was teaching volunteers how to throw giant nets over trees in one of Seattle’s many hidden public orchards: more than 60 trees tucked behind Amy Yee Tennis Center in the Mount Baker neighborhood that date back to the 1940s. The goal is to protect the fruit from two common pests: apple maggot fly and codling moth.

"It looks like our trees here don’t have anything yet, which is good, because we have seen it in other places," said Place, inspecting an immature, green apple that was flawless aside from a bit of scab.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Scabs can leave marks and slow an apple's growth, but doesn't affect the quality of the fruit.", "fid": "127266", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201606/apple3.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Ann Dornfeld"}]]Last year, City Fruit harvested 36,000 pounds of fruit at homes and public spaces around town to give to Seattle food banks. Some of that fruit was in perfect shape. But pests had gotten to a lot of it, especially apples, which Luke Jesperson, harvest manager, says are more commonly infested than any other fruit they collect.

"A lot of the time, when we brought that fruit to the food bank, folks seeing damaged fruit would be a little hesitant to use it. So that fruit wasn't able to be donated all the time," Jesperson said.

That sparked the organization's Save Seattle’s Apples campaign, which started last year with volunteer crews working to pest-proof public orchards. This year, City Fruit expanded to home growers, giving out pest protection kits and teaching residents how to ward off worms in their apples. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "A volunteer crew prepares to wrap an apple tree in a net to keep out codling moth and apple maggot fly.", "fid": "127268", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201606/apple5.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Ann Dornfeld"}]]

[asset-images[{"caption": "Once netted, this tree is impervious to pests.", "fid": "127269", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201606/apple7.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Ann Dornfeld"}]]Back at Amy Yee in Mount Baker, some volunteers hoist nets over trees, while others thin apples to one per cluster so they get to be full-sized, and don't drop off early.

As their buckets fill up with little apples, one volunteer jokes that the thinning process feels like "Sophie’s Choice." Afterward, they’ll either wrap the whole tree in netting – or cover individual fruit with white paper sandwich bags. A twist tie around the stem seals the apple from parasites for the rest of the season.

It’s a lot of work. But Place says this is the only effective way to protect apples from common pests – without using chemical sprays.

Not far from this orchard is a wormy apple tree I know well. The apple tree in my backyard is prolific. So are the critters that burrow into the center of each apple.

But visiting the tree later that morning, Place said it looked OK so far this season. "I don’t see anything yet – these actually look beautiful," she said.

I told her that every fall, when I pick them – or, more accurately, they pick themselves – they not only have holes, but cores filled with what looks like coffee grounds.

"That is definitely, definitely codling moth," Place said. To keep the worms at bay, she recommended I net or bag at least the lower part of the tree, and make sure to pick fallen apples off the ground quickly to keep the moths from re-infesting the tree later in the season.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Pulling most of the apples off of a tree 'feels wrong,' one volunteer said, but it keeps the tree producing year after year.", "fid": "127271", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201606/apple2.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Ann Dornfeld"}]]Place says Save Seattle’s Apples is about more than preserving the fruit – it’s about preserving people’s trees. Unlike lettuce or zinnias, apple trees tend to be inherited by unprepared homeowners.

"They move into the house, and they’re not sure how to take care of the tree, and the tree always drops its apples, and has a lot of pest damage, and it feels overwhelming. There are a lot of people who just want to cut it down," Place said.

[asset-images[{"caption": "City Fruit teaches people to thin apples to one per cluster to allow the fruit to fully grow.", "fid": "127272", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201606/apple4.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Ann Dornfeld"}]]City Fruit was created to help those overwhelmed tree-owners get their unwanted fruit to the poor. The organization will send out volunteers to harvest even damaged apples. They've started turning apples unfit for food banks into hard cider with Seattle Cider Company.

That could be the perfect thing to sip while you thin and bag all those apples.

Year started with KUOW: 2008