Helping Trees Help Themselves
by James Davidson, conference blogger
“I am a community of one trillion,” Michael Phillips said.
Even though he looked to be one six-foot-something bearded man wearing a gray vest, Michael Phillips, author of the popular orcharding book The Apple Grower: A Guide for the Organic Orchardist, insisted he was part of a community of bacteria and fungi and countless other microscopic creatures, and it is this wider view that he brings to growing fruit.
During an inspiring full-day pre-conference presentation, Phillips discussed the idea that fruit trees are also parts of multi-faceted vibrant systems. Learning more about these living communities and how to support their health allows orchardists to use nature’s own power to avoid chemical culture and get beyond even standard organic practices. A holistic approach is not only better for the environment, Phillips said, it also leads to healthier trees and more nutritious and flavorful fruit.
Phillips himself grows fruit on his two-acre Lost Nation Orchard in New Hampshire. Inspired in part by his wife Nancy’s holistic approach to human ailments, as well as a desire to spray less sulfur on his fruit trees, Phillips came up with some practices designed to enhance a tree’s natural defenses.
A large part of it comes down to fungal duff management. Fungal duff refers to the decaying organic matter and fungal community living beneath a tree. Whereas many standard agricultural practices, even in the organic world, tend to tip the balance toward a bacteria-dominated environment, the best spot for a fruit tree is one that mimics forest edge conditions, where the fungal biomass in the soil outweighs the bacterial biomass by a factor of 10 or more.
Standard substances in the organic toolbox, including copper and sulfur, are okay, Phillips said, if used sparingly and for the right reasons. But the rest of the time, orchardists should focus on keeping the trees in optimal health by fostering the natural defense systems of the trees, particularly on a microscopic level.
Phillips says this is best done through “biological reinforcement,” including applications of nutrient-rich organic materials that in turn enhance beneficial fungal communities both on the tree and in the soil. Phillips proceeded to explain some of these new practices, many of which are detailed in his new book, The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way.
I spoke with some of the attendees afterwards to get their reactions to the program. David Sullivan and Julianne Kellogg of Little Rock, Arkansas, said the main reason they decided to come to the sustainable ag conference was to see Phillips, and they were not disappointed. Both are interested in holistic livestock management practices, and they enjoyed seeing how a holistic outlook could be applied in an orchard setting as well.
Elizabeth Beak, an agricultural consultant from Charleston said, “It was absolutely fantastic.” She enjoyed hearing about how better plant nutrition ultimately can improve human nutrition. She hopes one day to plant some peach and pomegranate trees of her own.
Meg Smith spoke for many of the attendees when she said afterwards, “My head is full!”
It was indeed a lot of information to take in, but Phillips emphasized that as overwhelming as it may seem at first, each orchardist would settle in on his or her own set of issues and would not have to be an expert on every pest and disease. The main point was to do everything possible to help the trees help themselves, thereby avoiding pest and disease problems in the first place.
“It’s really all about biodiversity,” Phillips said.
SAC 2012 Workshop: Fungal Dynamics Underlying Plant Health
by Apoorva Srivastava, conference blogger
With a background in public health, understanding the concept of the human body and disease comes naturally to me. The intricacies of plant health and the infectious modes, explained by Michael Phillips, was a humbling reminder that all life forms are essentially functional and interact with the environment in similar ways.
When it comes to plants, Phillips pointed out the four fungal groups, distinguishing between the beneficial and the disease causing ones. Essentially, in order to tackle the specific disease causing fungi, it is imperative to make sure that the target approach does not also eliminate the beneficial fungi. For instance, the use of heavy metals like copper for eliminating a pathogen also means killing the beneficial ones as well.
When battling with fungal diseases, it is primarily important to know the timing of the infection season, since the visible form manifests only once the plant has been infected and the fungi has reproduced in a large enough numbers to act have a detrimental effect on the plant. This highlights the importance of understanding that, in order to enhance a plant’s immune system, techniques that create a competitive fungal environment – meaning they prevent either kind of fungi from colonizing dominantly – should be employed to keep the plants healthy.
In this light, the right mix of probiotics for trees can provide the right kind of balance, keeping the unwanted fungi from reproducing and damaging the plant in large quantities. Some of the essential components of the right brew are fatty and oleic acids that create an inviting atmosphere for certain microbes. These can be introduced through liquid fish or ground up fish. Alternatively, milk or whey can also be used for keeping infestations of powdery mildew in check.
From what seems like a never-ending list of natural remedies, the probiotics can be targeted either towards the systemic immune system or to the superficial defense of plant cuticles. For instance, salicylic acid from willow trees activates the systemic acquired resistance (SAR) by altering what otherwise may have been optimum pH levels for certain microbes to survive. Oil from the neem tree can repel insects from laying eggs and feed competitive colonization, and the turpenoid components support the SAR as well. Cuticle defense can be acquired through the help of things like coconut soap, horsetail plant, or garlic scapes.