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Articles on Holistic Orcharding

Honoring the Orchard Ecosystem

by Michael Phillips

A deep-felt appreciation for the astounding diversity of life in the orchard -- and just what that means for true system health -- is where every holistic orchardist gets a proper handle on management choices. That which we focus on as paramount can and does drive the philosophy from which we steward our land and trees. Maximizing yields with chemical input produces one kind of apple; recognizing the fascinating interrelationship of natural cycles produces an entirely other kind of apple. The full reality of insect pests, disease pressures, and the nutritional merit of the apple itself follows from this simple launching point of understanding.

Seeing the Big Picture

Intuiting the "whole of orchard ecology" means we must perceive the complexity involved with even seemingly benign tasks. One can go out and mow six or more times, for instance, because that's what Americans do with grass. Or we can understand how apple roots interact with mycorrhizal fungi beneath a haphazard mulching plan that encourages flowering meadow species in the aisle ways which provide nectar for adult parasitic wasps that lay their eggs in codling moth eggs. There's a full day's course in that statement, of course, but the point is we affect everything in the orchard when we do anything.

The revised and expanded edition of The Apple Grower goes to great lengths to stress the importance of "wood's edge ecology" and just what that means for the apple tree. Those teachings about haphazard mulching, the making of orchard compost, herbaceous root interaction, and abetting fungal dominance in the soil are essential concepts to grasp. Supporting diversity in a living soil provides answers we too often fail to recognize as growers. The symbiotic organisms which feed and protect our trees are the best of allies. The untapped minerals in almost any soil-once accessed by this healthy humus complex-are more than sufficient to revitalize every sensible orchard, year after year after year. What follows are additional insights about understory management that I consider especially profound.

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The Fungal Curve

The growth cycle of feeder roots reveals the best timing for a number of orchard tasks. In a nutshell, the apple tree experiences two flushes of root growth that follows on the heels of observable green tissue growth above ground. The "spring flush" corresponds with soils warming up and the garnering of nutrients for fruit development and the formation of next year's flower buds. The "fall flush" kicks off terminal bud set, the expansion of the tree's permanent root system, and the all-critical storage of nutrients in bark tissues for spring.

Those wonderful drawings by Elayne Sears that show all this in the revised edition of the book are reproduced here so we can add yet another rhythmic layer to our understanding. The "Fungal Curve" is really a series of fungal happenings in the orchard that fruit growers need to recognize.

The Fungal Curve is a series of fungal happenings in the orchard that fruit growers need to recognize. Drawing by Elayne Sears.
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Bioactivity of numerous decomposers on the orchard floor is represented by the color brown -- many of our practices aimed at reducing fungal disease inoculum in the understory are really about supporting the decomposers, which includes numerous species of beneficial fungi.

We address our "fungal fears" when we consider the red portion of the curve. Biodynamic orchardist Hugh Williams rightfully calls this space the "fungal zone" when describing how fungal disease spores arise from the ground surface to infect tender apple tissues. The primary infection period for diseases like apple scab, rust, and an assortment of rots corresponds perfectly with this red curve. Beneficial fungi and bacteria also arise and establish on the foliar surface during this outreach time of the "fungal being." The successful employ of compost tea, induced systemic resistance, and minimal sulfur (on susceptible varieties) in holistic disease management all tie in directly to recognizing our allies.

The intricate interactions of the soil food web are what make animated life above the ground possible. Drawing by Elayne Sears.
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The intricate interactions of the soil food web are what make animated life above the ground possible. The green portion of the fungal curve amounts to celebrating and abetting the role of mycorrhizal fungi in the orchard ecosystem. The fall flush of feeder roots is trumped a hundred times over by the hypha reach of these symbiotic fungi. Nutrient balance for the apple tree very much depends on the health of this life-support system.

Priming the Pump

The ability to get the juices flowing in such soil communities just when we most need bioactivity for decomposition and nutrient uptake comes to us in the form of "pulsing agents." This is a tool that biological farmers need to understand!

Too often organic orchardists think of compost as a renewal source of major nutrients when in reality it's more about enhancing diverse biology. Aged compost with high lignin content meets many orchard requirements. Incorporating rock dusts and azomite clay into such piles (a few weeks before spreading) heeds Nature's dictum that mineral nutrition for plants come by way of microorganism transfer. The addition of humates will specifically benefit fungal dominance. Spreading such compost in early fall is one way we have of priming the great underground pump of nutrient uptake. (Take note: the well-aged compost that I'm describing for orchard use is not especially high in nitrogen, and thus not going to invigorate growth as we head into winter.)

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Similarly, aerated compost tea can be applied directly to the ground in late spring and again just before & after harvest to prime the system. Fish hydrosylate has great merit here as well, whether as a ground spray or soaked into the waiting compost pile prior to application. A premium liquid fish fertilizer is different from "fish emulsion" in two respects: It consists of genuine fish parts and not just squeezed run-off, and, most importantly, it has not been pasteurized. Heat destroys the fatty oils that act as biostimulants to the soil food web. Molasses proves useful as a ground spray catalyst where soils are making that all-critical transition from bacterial dominance to a greater fungal presence (such as recently planted ground or where light tillage alongside the tree rows is part of a high density system).

A number of companies offer pulsing agent products to optimize metabolic function of the microorganisms and thus the soil food web as a whole. I'm listing the homegrown ways that I know of in preference to spending high dollar on products. But whatever you do, please keep in touch so I can report actual results on the Research Pages of this holistic orcharding website.

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