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Articles on Holistic Orcharding

Priming the Pump

by Michael Phillips

The ability to get the juices flowing in soil communities just when we most need bioactivity for decomposition and nutrient uptake comes to us in the form of "pulsing agents" applied to ground and trunk alike. Similarly, understory management timed to the feeder root flush of fruit trees correlates directly to mycorrhizal action in the soil. These are concepts that biologically-minded farmers need to honor.

Spread woodsy compost after harvest to "seal the deal" on effective leaf decomposition. -- photo: Stacey Cramp
Spread woodsy compost after harvest to
"seal the deal" on effective leaf
decomposition. (photo: Stacey Cramp)

Orchard Compost

Too often organic orchardists think of compost as a renewal source of major nutrients when in reality it's more about enhancing microbe diversity. Aged compost with high lignin content meets many tree requirements. Incorporating rock dusts and azomite clay into such piles (4 to 8 weeks before spreading) heeds Nature's dictum that mineral nutrition for plants come by way of microbe consuming microbe. The addition of humates will specifically benefit fungal dominance. Spreading such compost in fall is one way we have of priming the 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 heading into winter.)

Ground Sprays

Aerated compost tea and/or effective microbes can be applied directly to the ground in late spring and immediately after harvest to prime the system. Fish hydrolysate has great merit as part of a holistic spray mix too. Always use unpasteurized liquid fish as heat destroys the fatty acids that act as biostimulants. Rates for both microbes and fish are typically doubled for ground application. Saturating compost piles with holistic sprays throughout the season will stimulate the compost food web as well. Molasses proves useful as a biological catalyst where soils are making that all-critical transition from bacterial dominance to a greater fungal presence. This applies where cover crop rotations alongside the tree rows are part of a high density system (to abet decomposition) and to improve the uptake of surface-applied lime. One very important nuance whenever spraying biology is using a larger nozzle size at lower pressure settings so as not to overly put the squeeze to friendly microbes.

The Holistic Orchard: Growing Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way -- click for book summary
The Holistic Orchard: Growing Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way by Michael Phillips

DVD: Holistic Orcharding with Michael Phillips
Michael's Holistic Orcharding DVD guides you through the orchard year.

Mycorrhizal Ascendancy

The symbiotic relationship between feeder roots and mycorrhizal fungi brings about balanced nutrient exchange. This is the foundation of orchard health. An underground economy arises because many mycorrhizal fungi latch onto the roots of many plants, and many different plants are connected to each fungus. Scientists can approximate the exchange rates in these rhizosphere economies, calculating how many micrograms of phosphorous, for example, a fungus must provide to a tree in exchange for a microgram of photosynthesized sugar. All this action pulsates in sync with feeder root outreach.

This delightful two-minute animation captures the action to be found in this underground marketplace perfectly. Marvel away!

Simple acts like mowing have biological ramifications: The first flush of tree feeder root growth begins just as grass gets scythed down following apple bloom. -- photo: Frank Siteman
Simple acts like mowing have
biological ramifications: The first flush
of tree feeder root growth begins just as
grass gets scythed down following apple
bloom. (photo: Frank Siteman)

Biological Mowing

A fungal sweet spot awaits when understory plants in the orchard start to set seed. The timing here is when farmers traditionally make that first cut of nutrient-rich hay . . . right after trees bloom . . . in those weeks when the spring feeder root flush comes into its own. A sharp blade is the perfect tool to further pulse nutrient availability, be it a scythe or a tractor-mounted sickle bar. Cutting knee-high meadow plants essentially opens up the humus layer for tree feeder roots, as this singular mowing sets back companion root systems until taprooted plants initiate regrowth. The carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of the resulting mulch is on the order of 40:1, ever so right for fungal utilization.


These are the means we optimize the metabolic function of the soil food web. I'm listing homegrown ways in preference to spending high dollar on products. But whatever you do, please keep in touch so I can report promising ideas to our grower community. All of us can be pulsed to think more comprehensively.

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Organic Orcharding Articles


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