Green Tip is Here – Are You Prepared for Early Spring Pest Management?

Orchard Sanitation: First Line of Defense

The first line of defense for pest management in an orchard is prevention. There is no silver bullet to eradicate something like disease once it becomes well established. This means management is a year-long process to reduce inoculum in the orchard and prevent the spread to healthy trees or fruit.

  • Prune out dead or diseased branches and rotten or mummified fruit that often habour overwintering pests, such as fire blight, black rot or bitter rot.
  • Get rid of wood or cull piles and stumps that may have provided overwintering sites for insects, such as codling moth and plum curculio.
  • Clean up the orchard floor of leaves, branches and fruit.

Fire blight

Pruning cankers

If you haven’t already, early spring is a good opportunity to clean up any remaining infected limbs, cankers or – in the case of rootstock blight – trees that will act as sources of inoculum and get as much fire blight out of the orchard as possible. These overwintering cankers will be the source of disease in the coming year as the bacteria is sitting in vascular tissue in the canker margins. As the tree begins to push in the spring, these cankers become active and the bacterial cells start to multiply. Generally, as temperatures increase above 18⁰C, the enlarging cankers start oozing bacterial-laden sap that may or may not be visible. The bacteria are then carried by insects or rain splashed to developing tissue – whether that’s blossoms or shoot tips. 

Dormant pruning is effective for many reasons. Firstly, the fire blight pathogen, Erwinia amylovora is not active in the cold temperatures and therefore will not spread on pruning shears, tools or infected tissue. This means there’s no need to disinfect tools between cuts like with summer pruning. Secondly, the cankers are easier to see in the orchard without foliage blocking or shading your view. 

Spend some time to thoroughly scout for cankers while pruning. Try to do this more than once during the early spring and at different times during the day to have different light direction. While this does take additional time, that extra work may save you trees down the road by removing inoculum sources.

For more information on what to look for when pruning fire blight infected trees, see the February 2023 Orchard Network Newsletter article, Dormant Pruning for Fire Blight Management.

Plan ahead

It’s time to also start thinking about in-season fire blight management as bloom can come quickly. Having products ready and at your fingertips will allow you to act fast should conditions for infection occur. Don’t get caught unprepared!

  • Consider an immune-boosting product such as an SAR (Systemic Acquired Resistance) like Lifegard or Regalia Rx at late tight cluster to pink.
  • Have enough control product – antibiotics (Streptomycin, Kasumin), copper (Cueva) and/or biologicals (Blossom Protect, Serenade, Buran, Double Nickel, Oxidate) to cover all rows of susceptible blocks every 2-3 days during bloom.
  • Become acquainted (or refresh your memory) with forecasting models such as Cougar Blight or MaryBlyt if you will be running these for your farm. Otherwise, bookmark the Ontario Fire Blight Prediction Maps in your browser for quick reference during bloom. These maps are updated 3 times per week with a 7-day predicted risk forecast.
  • Make a plan for management
    • What products you will use? Consider your options including product rotation for resistance management: antibiotics, copper, biologicals, Apogee/Kudos, etc.
    • How will you use them? For instance, prebloom SAR? Biologicals early bloom? Antibiotics full bloom to petal fall? King bloom petal fall Apogee/Kudos or could timing be sooner? Understanding how the product works (preventative, systemic, plant response, etc) will help determine appropriate application timing.
    • Don’t forget to consider your action plan in case of trauma blight.

But first and foremost, be prepared to apply a dormant copper spray at silver tip to ½” green to help protect the spread of bacteria from any oozing cankers that were missed during dormant pruning.

Dormant copper

The effectiveness of a dormant copper spray really comes down to how it is applied and post-application weather. Copper provides an unfriendly environment over the bark and bud surfaces of the tree, preventing bacteria from getting established or spreading. Thus, it must be applied as a high-volume spray to ensure sufficient coverage.

Dormant copper such as Copper Spray, Copper 53W, Cueva, Parasol and Kocide can safely be applied up to ¼” green (possibly ½” green) without risk of phytotoxicity. However, the use of a softer copper registered for season-long control such as Cueva could be extended in those early spray timings to ½” green or tight cluster in blocks with low scab inoculum (ie., free of scab last year) to provide some scab protection.

Residual activity typically last about 7-10 days under ideal spring conditions. However, once rainfall exceeds 2” from last copper application, it should be assumed all residue has been washed off. Using 1-2% dormant oil, unless the label states otherwise, will act as a sticker/spreader to help with copper as well as provide efficacy on scale, European red mite and suppression of powdery mildew. However, Cueva is formulated with a fatty acid so there is little benefit to adding oil as a sticker for this product. Keep in mind if using dormant oil, do not apply captan, folpet or sulphur products within 14 days of application since oil can enhance penetration of these products into sensitive tissue, resulting in phytotoxicity issues. There are other cautions around the use of oil, which will be discussed below.


Reducing primary inoculum

Practical and inexpensive, inoculum-reducing strategies such urea and mowing can be an important component to an effective scab management program and contribute to the reduction of overwintering ascospores that will infect green tissue at the start of the season. This is especially important given the reduced arsenal of available fungicides effective against scab Ontario growers now face. Table 1 summarizes research from New Hampshire that looked at the impact of inoculum pressure on primary scab infection the following spring. An orchard with 20% overwintering leaf scab has the potential to produce 7,000 times more ascospores than an orchard with less than 1% overwintering leaf scab (Gadoury and MacHardy, 1986).

Table 1. Primary scab infection activity based on overwintering inoculum levels, New Hampshire1

Leaf scab in fall (%)Ascospore production the following spring
Total ascospores produced/acre (‘000)Ascospores/acre released at green tip (‘000)2Potential lesions/acre from green tip infection period3
1 Adapted from Gadoury and MacHardy (1986) 2 Assuming 2% of ascospores released. 3 Assuming 1% of released spores cause infection. Actual infection will vary depending on climate and spraying conditions.

You can save time and money usually invested in fungicide applications by reducing the initial scab pressure going into the season:

  • In a typical year, only a small proportion of ascospores are actually mature early season. Therefore, reducing (or eliminating) the risk of infection, and potential need for chemical control, at green tip.
  • Scab spores do not travel far and most infections start from within the orchard. Again, getting the inoculum out greatly reduces the risk of infection.
  • Most fungicides tend to work better in low-inoculum orchards, particularly when dealing with our Ontario spring weather.
  • The trend in new product registrations is towards single-site fungicides which have high resistance potential. Reducing scab inoculum means less selection pressure placed on these products (ie., longer life of these products).

Applying urea

Urea works in several ways:

  1. It directly inhibits the development of ascospores,
  2. It stimulates the growth of naturally occurring organisms that are antagonistic against the scab fungus, and
  3. It facilitates the breakdown of the leaves.

Since the early 2000’s, research has shown this practice to be effective in reducing over-wintering spores. Research from the University of New Hampshire showed a 97% reduction in ascospore productivity in leaves sprayed with 5% urea just before leaf-fall, 50% reduction when urea was applied to the leaf litter when approximately 95% of the leaves had fallen, and 70% reduction when urea was applied to the leaf litter in spring (Sutton et al., 2000).

For the later areas of the province, if you haven’t already done so this spring, apply 45 kg of agricultural urea per 1,000 L of water/ha to the orchard floor before bud break.

Leaf shredding

In addition to a urea application, scab inoculum can be reduced 80-90% by shredding overwintering leaves (Sutton et al., 2000; Vincent et al., 2004). Rake or blow leaves from under trees and shred them using a flail mower. This helps encourage leaf decay and may re-orient the leaves to prevent spores from discharging up into the trees.

Flail mowing in the orchard.

Early season management

Consider the following:

  • Leaves are susceptible to infection as soon as green tissue is present, especially if you had scab in your orchard last year.
  • Green tip to tight cluster is a period of extensive new growth. Keep covered with a good protectant fungicide program and re-apply every 5-7 days during periods conducive to disease development or following heavy (greater than 1”) rain.
  • During cool, wet springs, protectant fungicides may not be enough. Consider using post-infection products that perform well in cooler weather such as Syllit, Scala, Inspire Super, Luna Tranquility or Buran.
  • Ascospores mature slowly early season and infection takes longer, peaking over bloom period so plan to save your systemic scab products (eg., Group 3, 7 and 11) for when there is more leaf area and infection risk is greatest.
    • For example, more than 20 hours of leaf wetness are required for primary ascospore infection at an average temperature of 5⁰C. This goes down to only 6 hours during average temperatures of 15-25⁰C.
  • For more details on disease management with reduced Group M fungicide use, see the article Planning for a Season with Limited Group M Fungicides in this issue of Orchard Network Newsletter.

Powdery Mildew

Dormant buds infected with powdery mildew are typically feathered, pointed or shriveled and usually break dormancy later than healthy buds. This means susceptible, green tissue may already be present when the first conidia are produced. If conditions are ideal, even a small powdery mildew population can quickly explode if not managed properly. With the mild winter we’ve experienced, be prepared for early season management of this pest.

Healthy (left) and powdery mildew infected (right) apple buds.

Protectant fungicides used for early season scab management do not have activity on powdery mildew. Tank-mixing a low rate of sulphur (3-5 kg/ha) with captan, folpet and/or an EBDC, beginning at ½” green, will provide good activity on scab while also suppressing powdery mildew. This early season program will help free up other chemistries such as Group 3, 7 and 11s for later use when plenty of new growth is present.

Some key points for effective powdery mildew control this year include:

  • Maintain a tight spray schedule with high rates during primary scab infection period. Powdery mildew does not invade mature leaf tissue, so spread of mildew ceases when trees stop producing new terminal leaves.
  • Rain deters powdery mildew development by washing off spores. Instead, mildew thrives in dry weather and high relative humidity. So, protectant sprays may still be required during dry periods when there is little risk from apple scab.
  • Getting good mildew control following an outbreak will take several seasons. Mildew infected white shoots from last year’s failure will persist through the season, but does not indicate current fungicides are failing. The current season mildew program is designed to prevent spread that would lead to primary infection for next year.
  • Include a mildewcide, such as sulphur in all sprays beginning at ½” green until temperatures are greater than 25°C or when applying oil. Sulphur lacks post-infection activity, so must be applied early season. A tank-mix that includes captan/folpet, EBDC and sulphur provides excellent protection against scab, rust and mildew.
  • If pressure was low last year, oil applied for mites may provide suppression of powdery mildew. Use a 2% solution (20 L/1,000 L water) for dormant sprays or a 1% (10 L/1,000 L water) solution for summer sprays. Do not use captan-, folpet- or sulphur-containing products within 14 days of an oil application.
  • Where they are working, include fungicides from other groups, including Group 3, 7 and 11s during the critical infection period, generally at pink to first covers.

Dormant oil

Spring-applied dormant oil can seem at times a risky game to play, hoping the right growth stage will align with the right weather conditions. However, by preparing early for this spray and following the forecasted weather, dormant oil can be an effective tool for managing some rather difficult-to-control pests. Insect development and activity is driven by temperature; the milder it is, the faster the insect matures. This improves the efficacy of how oil works as well as ensures a lower risk of phytotoxicity concerns.

Over the years, there has been some question whether oil may reduce the overall health of the trees. To date, there is no scientific evidence to support these claims. Oil has been used for many years across apple growing regions of the world to control various overwintering pests with no ill effects on the health of the tree when properly applied.

How Does It Work?

Oil sprays work mainly by suffocation. Coating the insect – which means in a high-volume spray to reach all the cracks in the tree bark – prevents normal respiration from the air holes (spiracles) where they breathe. This works best on the immobile and immature stages where:

  1. the insect can’t move away to avoid the spray,
  2. the scale coverings have still not hardened and oil can penetrate, and
  3. respiration rate is the highest.

However, oil can also interfere with egg development, prevent settling of scale crawlers and deter feeding by pests such as aphids which is why summer oil programs are also worthwhile.

What Pests Does It Target?

There are several species of scale insects affecting apples; San Jose scale (SJS) is the most common in Ontario orchards. This insect overwinters as an immature scale under bark and emerges just prior to bud break. As the immature scales feed, they exude a waxy substance that forms a protective layer. Dormant oil sprays are the best timing for this pest before they develop that waxy covering.

Without the foliage to block the spray, dormant oil applications can get reasonable coverage of limbs and trunk where the overwintering SJS population is located. Targeting individuals at this stage will help reduce the population that will produce the summer generation crawlers. Postbloom management targets these crawlers which move from the infested area to maturing fruit. These sprays can be very effective at reducing the amount of fruit damage; however, they do not always provide good control of the crawlers that move elsewhere such as to new branches, a different spot on the trunk or to an adjacent tree. In other words, you could find yourself in a continuous cycle of managing fruit damage if the SJS population is not suppressed. While it may be hard to find time and good weather early season, an oil application is well worth it.

European red mites overwinter as eggs on roughened bark around the bases of buds and spurs, or in the inner parts of the tree close to the main trunk and branches. Oil sprays should be applied before egg hatch, between half-inch green and tight cluster.

Overwintering European red mite eggs.

While delayed dormant oil applications primarily target scale and mites, you may see some additional efficacy against other pests at this timing including impeding egg hatch and movement of aphids and some spring feeding caterpillars, interfering with egg laying and development of apple leafcurling midge and preventing release of overwintering powdery mildew spores as infected buds open.

Is It Too Late for Dormant Oil?

Depending on the target pest, the term “dormant” oil can be rather misleading as sprays can be applied from the true dormant state prior to bud break up until pink. Unfortunately, optimal dormant timing for scale is not necessarily the same for mites.

If monitoring indicates scale is a bigger issue in the orchard, oils need to be applied before or shortly after bud break. This efficacy against scale is significantly reduced with later oil applications for European red mite as they develop a waxy protective layer that impedes the oil from effectively penetrating and preventing respiration.

However, if European red mite populations are the problem, sprays can be delayed. Ideal timing is half-inch green to tight cluster but can be delayed to pink; however, blossoms can be quite sensitive to oil under adverse conditions so consider using a lower rate at this timing.


Original precautions around the use of dormant oil were developed prior to the refinement processes that are carried out now with the commonly registered products. Most impurities that were associated with phytotoxic effects with some of the older “heavy” horticultural oils are removed through extra filtration and distillation. If you have concerns with using oil, especially with sensitive varieties like Red Delicious, Empire, Mutsu and Ambrosia, consider the newer generation oil products such as Purespray Green Spray Oil 13E, Suffoil-X or Vegol as these are registered for both dormant and summer use.

However, even highly refined “summer” oils can cause crop injury when they are applied:

  • when temperatures are consistently below 4C
  • within 48 hours before or after a freezing event
  • in slow drying or prolonged wet conditions
  • with or too close to products containing sulphur, captan or folpet
    • do not apply oil within 14 days before or after these products
    • restrictions also apply to Vegol Crop Oil with copper compounds
  • above label rate
    • higher labeled concentrations can be used for dormant applications vs summer applications (e.g., 2% solution vs 1% solution of Purespray for dormant vs summer use, respectively)
    • High water volumes are essential for good coverage
  • to plants are under moisture stress
  • when temperatures are very high (above 25°C)

Always read the product label for additional instructions and precautions.

Prebloom Insecticides

In recent years, with the changing spring climate, new or emerging early season pest issues, challenges with immediate post-bloom control and the varying bloom times of different varieties, relying on a petal fall management program alone does not always provide full protection from insect damage. More discussion is happening around the benefits of a prebloom program, which is a practice many growers have tended to move away from. Without prebloom insecticides, natural enemy populations can build, there is less risk of exposure to pollinators and it’s money saved on input costs. However, rosy apple aphid, leafcurling midge, European apple sawfly, tarnished plant bug, spring-feeding caterpillars, mullein bug and plum curculio are just some of the pests that can cause extensive early season damage and are strongly dependent on the temperature prior to and during bloom.

Consider the following factors when deciding if a prebloom insecticide is worth it:

  1. Presence of insect pest(s) in orchard that has historically caused injury to developing flowers or fruitlets – Has the particular pest caused significant economic damage in the past such that injury is anticipated again this year? Understanding the biology and period of activity of the target pest will help determine if control at pink will reduce populations compared to an early petal fall application. For instance, in Ontario:
    1. Monitoring of apple leafcurling midge has found pre-bloom adult activity typically beginning tight cluster.
    1. Rosy apple aphid activity starting at tight cluster can be common in cool, wet springs.
    1. European apple sawfly adults emerge pink through to bloom, laying eggs in the flower base.
    1. Plum curculio activity generally starts moving back into the orchard at bloom, with the greatest migration occurring within 14 days after petal fall.
    1. Mullein bug hatch is typically synchronized with peak emergence at early petal fall, but a cold snap during this time may result in split hatch.   
  • Whether a pink application of a particular product may deter a beekeeper from bringing hives into the orchard – It might be worthwhile to speak to your beekeeper about your prebloom control considerations. Some may not bring their hives into an orchard that has used a particular product or group of products despite the insecticide being applied prior to the bees coming in.
  • Likelihood of making a timely petal fall application – Do your blocks have a mix of early and late blooming varieties that may delay a petal fall application? Is the bloom period predicted to be cool, wet and therefore prolonged? Has there ever been a time that the hives were not removed early enough? Any delay to a petal fall application can have serious implications in an orchard block with high pest pressure such as sawfly, plum curculio, mullein bug or oriental fruit moth.

A number of prebloom insecticide options are available depending on the target pest. Refer to the Ontario Crop Protection Hub for a full list of registered products, efficacy on early season insects as well as toxicity to beneficial insects.

Do not apply insecticides while apples are in bloom. The Bee Act makes it an offence to do so in Ontario. Time any prebloom or immediate postbloom applications to minimize exposure to any native pollinators that may be active in or around the orchard. Under normal circumstances, spraying after 8 pm allows spray to dry before bees are exposed to it the next day. Spraying during early morning is the next best time, when fewer bees are foraging, but spraying should be completed well before 7 am. Always read the most current product label for guidance. 

Kristy Grigg-McGuffin

Horticulture IPM Specialist, OMAFRA