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.