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.
An Interview with Michael Phillips, author of The Holistic Orchard and The Apple Grower
Editor’s Note: Michael is making a rare appearance in the Carolinas at this year’s Sustainable Ag. Conference happening Oct. 26-28 in Greenville, SC. There are still a few seats available for a full day workshop on Holistic Orchard Applications taught by Michael! http://www.carolinafarmstewards.org/sac/
CFSA: We usually hear the word “holistic” used in connection with alternative health or wellness. What does it mean in the context of growing orchard fruit? For instance, how is “holistic” fruit growing different from “organic” fruit growing?
Michael: Working with nutrition allows body systems the right resources to heal from within. Add the ecosystem component and all sorts of natural advantage can be provided for fruiting plants. Good organic growers have always known this. Yet those intentions of ‘never using chemicals’ doesn’t quite break from the notion of addressing disease pressures solely by toxic means. And thus organically-approved mineral fungicides like sulfur and copper are often used to excess to counter disease. The holistic grower knows that tree immune function and competitive colonization can be reinforced to defeat disease from within. Similar choices on this allopathic/holistic divide speak to how we deal with insect pests. It’s simply so much more fun to choose the healthy route.
CFSA: Most orchardists try to limit their chemical spraying, for both environmental and cost reasons. But in this book you actually promote biological sprays. Can you explain what these “good sprays” are and how they benefit the orchard ecosystem?
Michael: The holistic spray program is totally about deep nutrition and competitive colonization. The spring applications straddle the primary infection period of many diseases and therefore are necessary universally. Dealing with summer rots and sooty blotch is where the fermented herbal teas fit in. Basically, the phytochemical immune response is that much stronger in a robust fruit tree. Couple that with biological reinforcement on the leaf and fruit surface. . . and scab spores and blight bacteria will find “no room at the inn” to establish diseases. I look at this as our part of the stewardship pact with the trees by which we grow healthy fruit despite the vagaries of the season.
CFSA: You mention “community orchards” throughout the book. Could you describe what that means in practical terms of orchard size and marketing? Is it similar to the concept of Community Supported Agriculture? And can you make a profit selling fruit locally?
Michael: I hold to the creed that our culture needs to grow food in all the places that we live to the extent that we can. Growers have too long been daunted by not having the ideal site. . . which seems to suggest that much of our fruit should come from the east side of the Cascade Mountains in Washington and Oregon. What I see is serious home orchardists excited to plant more than the family needs. This in turn leads to selling fruit at market or creating a fruit share component for local CSAs. All such efforts are community orchards. The emphasis is now on tree-ripened fruit grown in a living soil. . . and the taste benefits of that simply can’t be brought in from afar. A community orchard can be anywhere from 20 productive trees to several acres in size to up to 10 acres. Pricing needs to account for all the labor involved but more and more, people are willing to pay this as they understand that nutrient density in our food matters. And that’s why ‘fresh and local’ tastes so extremely good!
CFSA: As a group, do you think insect pests or diseases pose a greater challenge to the person who wants to create a holistic orchard?
Michael: Insects are definitely easier to get a handle on. All sorts of biodiversity in the surrounding ecosystem helps tremendously here. Plus we have some very effective options in our organic tool box to nudge things back to balance. Disease on the other hand starts off as an unseen force of spores and bacteria. Growers are often not quite as far along on their learning curve to grasp that certain things need to be done at very prescribed times in the growing season. And it’s such a long season. . . giving various afflictions more than enough time to gain a foothold. And the weather is always different every year. All this makes dealing with disease the bigger challenge no matter what your approach.
CFSA: There’s a lot of information in your book on “understory” planting of herbs and flowers, like comfrey and sweet cicely. What kinds of benefits do these companion plants provide for fruit trees?
Permaculture people speak about dynamic accumulator and beneficial accumulator plants. The first group includes tap-rooted herbs like comfrey that draw minerals up from the subsoil to replenish the nutrient profile of the topsoil. That’s a boon for tree feeder roots. The second group of flowering plants serves as adult habitat for beneficial insects. Such as the tiny parasitic wasps and syphid flies whose larvae consume foliar pests. Plants like Sweet Cicely and Queen Anne’s Lace are nectary sources for the adults. . . which are thus on hand to find moth larvae and aphids and the like for their own young.
CFSA: So much of the orchard’s “business” seems to take place either underground or up in the tree canopy, often at a microscopic level that we humans can’t even see. How do we begin to change our perception of what’s really happening in our orchard, and how can we turn that knowledge to our advantage?
Michael: I love the electron microscopy shown in Holistic Orchard. The first image shows the cellular surface of a tree leaf. The next zooms in to show the microbe colonization on a single leaf cell. Just imagine being a disease spore landing in the midst of all that competition! We steward this biological scene as growers. Visualize this action again and again as you do orchard tasks, knowing this is how things work as nature intended.
CFSA: How much of what commercial fruit growers do in terms of spraying (whether chemical or organic) is dictated by the perceived demand for “perfect,” blemish-free fruit in the marketplace? Can we ever get beyond this?
The majority of my fruit looks pretty darn perfect too. But my customers also know that a small dimple caused by an insect sting is harmless. That sooty blotch fungus can literally be rubbed off the apple’s skin. That a couple of small scab spots represent an active phytochemical response to disease presence, and thus more antioxidants and other secondary plant metabolites that our bodies in turn utilize to stay healthy. A good third of the sprays being applied in fruit orchards are about upping the ante around appearance. How much better to understand that nutrient density and thus flavor results in part from a fruit tree standing up to environmental stress. Ultimately, that’s the ticket, isn’t it? Getting people to taste how fruit is really meant to taste when picked off healthy trees.
CFSA: Looked at from a holistic perspective, do we need “pest” species in our orchards to ensure a healthy ecosystem?
I use the term ‘balance’ for a reason when talking about insect pests. Biodiversity happens in part because food resources are available for all sorts of species. You may think life would be far better off without the yellowjacket, for instance, but did you know that all summer long these wasps gather moth larvae to feed their young? We’d lose ladybugs if no aphids whatsoever were to be found. I teach that we need to honor all species, including ultimate pests like the plum curculio. Just remember we have integrated strategies to keep the balance in our favor.
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