An Intractable Problem Meets An Elegant Solution
The Japanese Apple Bag1 is one of the
most elegant inventions I've ever seen. It's an almost perfect solution for an
intractable problem, and that's a pretty rare bird. If only they were a solution
to World Hunger, rather than just a cool way to grow perfect organic fruit
without much effort. *sighs*
Managing a small orchard is a balancing act between going to war with nearly
every other living thing in your neighborhood, or....accepting the yearly loss
of 98% of your fruit to fungi, bugs, birds and other critters. This July for
example, a gang of thieving raccoons stole every single peach on the night
before harvest. The idea of over one hundred huge juicy peaches being snatched
in the dead of night still causes me pain!
In any event, the orchardist's quest is to find solutions, that sweet spot, and
the Japanese Apple Bag is one of the sweetest. In a nutshell, rather than
attempting to murder every pest in the orchard, these bags simply hide and
protect your fruit, individually, from bud to harvest. The upshot is that there's
nothing much for the bugs to eat, so they move on to greener pastures over time.
That's what they call a virtuous circle.
The Japanese Fruit Bag was developed in the 1970s in Japan as an extension of
the local fruit industry practice of treating each apple or pear as an
individual rather than a bulk product per the western orchard management style.
The original bags were made of a single layer of waxy plastic, about the size of a
sandwich bag, with a thin piece of wire embedded along one edge. They had a short
slit in the center of one side of the bag where the stem of the bagged fruit
Next in the evolution was the addition of a very mild insecticide embedded in
the waxy substance used to coat the bags. This was followed soon after with the
modern Japanese Fruit Bag as we know it today. The final step in the process was
the addition of an outer bag made of a medium weight paper bag surrounding the
waxy inner bag. This step increased the physical toughness of the bags,
which are subjected to many months in the full sun, with the constant rubbing of
branches and leaves and the odd bird or animal attack. An added bonus was that
the bags, if used carefully, could be used for multiple seasons, reducing the
overall cost by up to 2/3.
The small fruit are bagged after fruit pruning, when they reach about 25 mm in
size. I guess I should take a stab at trying to describe the clever little bit
of origami that secures the bags over the fruit. On reflection though, for both
of our sakes, I think I'll just reiterate that it's clever and kind of fun.
Rumor has it that the little Japanese apple orchard ladies can bag a dozen
apples a minute, but I find it hard to believe. My best effort to date is five
apples and I think it permanently damaged my fingers!
Once the fruit are bagged, you're set for the season. Really. The bags
typically protect your fruit from all the usual suspects: fire blight, apple
scab, plum curculio, codling moth, San Jose scale, rosy apple aphid, flyspeck,
and sooty blotch are all barred from entry. Most importantly however, the
dreaded Apple Maggot Fly can be almost perfectly controlled using the bags
without the use of any pesticides at all.
Fruit bagging has seen some limited adoption in commercial orchards in
America, but in general their use here has been most enthusiastically adopted by
small orchardists2 and hobbyists. These
groups often focus on hierloom fruit varieties and minimal impact growing methods. The
timing for these upscale varieties is excellent and small orchards are enjoying favor and a
lot of business from the growing Slow Food movement. The net result has
been a growing supply of interesting fruit that can be delivered in a virtually
perfect condition. Minor revolution in small scale fruit production.
But wait, there's more!
An interesting side effect of the Japanese Fruit Bag method is that the fruit
doesn't see the sun all summer. This gives the orchardist a delightful option:
One can leave the bags on right up to the harvest, resulting in beautiful Snow
White apple with a pale and tender skin; OR, you can unbag the apples a bit
before harvest, and enjoy a lovely sunburst of color that changes each
additional day as the sun does its work. I'm often delighted to find apples in my orchard that have been imprinted with a small "shadowgraph" where the surrounding leaves have blocked the sunlight and left their image on the skin of the fruit.
1 Source for Japanese Fruit Bags:
Wilson Irrigation & Orchard Supplies, http://www.wilsonirr.com/catalog_i4342079.html?catId=272951
2 The Home Orchard Society: http://www.homeorchardsociety.org/