Here we go with the first edition of the Community Orchardist without Michael Phillips at the helm. We are (in the midst of a busy Spring in the orchard) still reeling from Michael's too-early departure.
In this edition you will find some thoughts from Michael's Memorial and Work Day, thoughts about the Network's future from Michael's advisory group, and preliminary plans for the Network's operation from its new executive committee.
The Memorial itself was a wonderful coming together of family, friends, neighbors, herbalists, and apple growers. I thanked Michael for bringing us all together in one place. These folks have made it a little easier to accept Michael's passing for me, and I thanked them. The three books he wrote himself and the one book with Nancy have left us all with a treasure trove of information and
A tree was planted, and Michael’s ashes gently scattered around. The apple tree, a Black Oxford, was planted next to the apple barn door. This is a place well travelled on the farm and will be very present for all who are there (sorta like Michael was). The hole was dug by Abby Straus (my wife and partner) and Todd during one of the many rain showers the day of the Memorial. After the Celebration of Life under a large open-sided tent, everyone walked over to the barn and Nancy said a few words. Todd read a short statement from John Bunker (FEDCO Trees ~ Maine) about the Black Oxford's history. What John left out of the statement Todd read was that he was responsible for saving the mother tree by grafting and selling the trees through FEDCO Trees. To the tune of several thousand trees. And then people like me have grafted even more Black Oxfords so who knows how many trees are out in the world.
Thank you for the invitation to summarize the memorial to Michael Phillips held this past May 28-9, just a few weeks ago. I've known and followed his work the past 35-40 years and have attended the Stump Sprouts annual meeting on organic apple orcharding in the northeast for most of the past 30 years. Needless to say, Michael was the dynamo who quietly but insistently pushed the culture of organic apple production all these years.
On Saturday May 28th, Brian Caldwell (West Danby, NY) and I left Potsdam in a constant steady rain which continued all day, crossing northern NYS, Vermont and finally into NH. It seemed to me that all of nature was weeping over our loss for this dedicated orchardist. A gathering of nearly 80-100 people; friends and neighbors, apple enthusiasts, and others including his publisher were there to say goodbye. Alan Surprenant, described Michael as his 'soul mate'. a term many of us hold dear in our heart from years of growing apples, sometimes succeeding and more often failing as we attempted year after year to try new and innovative methods to grow better apples every year.
Nancy’s and Michael’s, “herbal and apple eden”, nestled in a tight small vale complete with running brook was exactly as I had imagined it to be. In remembrance , between herbal garden beds on the corner of his barn a young grafted Black Oxford was planted, watered and dusted with michaels' ashes.
As the day melted away, the rain slowed to a drizzle then finally fell quiet. The love for this man pervaded the entire group and, if not tears a deep reverence was felt by all from Nancy and Gracie, her herbalist support group, their neighbors and close friends, family from near and far, and friends new and old.
Michael was an inveterate worker , not just the patient quiet writer who constantly dug into the complexities of holistic tree growth and health, but an excellent carpenter, stone mason and all-around builder.
Sunday dawned clear and beautiful. The work party divided into three groups: the siding carpenters (putting new wood siding onto the house), renovation and rejuvenation of several gardens and the scything of understory vegetation in much of the orchard. Steep slopes form the orchard landscape and Michael loved cutting the understory by hand. The diversity of plants from fading narcissus, to vigorously bolting comfrey, from healthy orchard grass to acid loving dogbane fell under the blades of our scythes while discriminating blades left others uncut. It felt good and whole to spend some hours in Michaels orchard, the orchard he had planted and had spent hundreds of hours working to constantly improve.
It is my understanding that Michael was working on another book, the root basis toward understanding tree growth and health through plant sap analysis. Unlike many approaches , he always tried to bring it all back home. Michael had a strong hesitation to constantly bringing something new into his orchard. I believe his growing understanding of apple tree biology intended to lead the farmer into using on farm plants to better the health of his trees and their crops of fruit. His love of nature from the wassailing in late fall to wholistic orchard sprays in spring is tapping into the energy of life. Energy runs the biotic cosmos and all life is cooperative . That cooperation very literally defines the strong love felt in the close communion of this get together from the wonderful food, the stories and discussions and the vibrant growth taking place all around.
Some years ago a friend of mine passed away at his camp in the Adirondacks. This man wrote his own epitaph, the last 2 lines I find singularly appropriate: Life doesn't die, people do,so
When all that's left of me is love, give me away.
The day after Michael’s memorial, several of us met to scythe under the apple trees in his orchard. A second work party at the same time put siding on the house, and another group worked in the extensive gardens. Wonderful ways to say thank you to Michael, his wife Nancy and daughter Gracie.
Scything in Michael’s orchard seemed profoundly right to me. It embodied Michael’s human-based, intimate approach to growing fruit and was a way of interacting with a deep imprint of his personality still shining in the world. It was the next job that he would have been doing there. On a more selfish level, I wanted to learn—to see what was going on in that orchard!
Stepping into the trees and making the first pass with the scythe, I knew that this was profoundly different from my own orchard. The scything was so easy! There was almost no grass growing under the trees, but instead great masses of Sweet Cicely, (I think) Golden Alexander, and other herbaceous plants. As we moved down the rows, other species mixed in, and toward the back end, I did encounter some grasses mixed in with various clovers, yarrow, goldenrods, etc. An occasional solitary giant lupine plant stood out. The Sweet Cicely and Golden Alexander, in full bloom, made for great foraging for pollinators and parasitic wasps. We made sure to scythe only under the trees, leaving the alleys full of blooming plants.
I don’t know how Michael established those specific plants in the orchard, but the intent of creating a rich habitat for beneficials was clear. The other thing that was clear was the rugged terrain. Occasional bedrock outcroppings on a fairly steep slope with treacherous switchbacks. Areas where it was plain that the “roadway”/spray alley had been shored up on one steep side. Random piles of tires marking outcrops and other obstacles. I had trouble imagining how one could get out there are spray many times each season. Gracie said that Michael was the only person allowed to do that job.
He loved to spray the plant-positive concoctions he made up. The trees showed good fruit set and foliage was healthy, in spite of no care so far this year. The semidwarf trees were not very vigorous, due in part to the shallow soils and short growing season. I was surprised that most trees, obviously not pruned this year, were still not overly bushy. They looked almost like my trees after pruning. Was this the result of perfectly “calm” trees, balanced away from vegetative growth and toward fruit production? Or again, simply the result of a shallow soil? I could not tell.
We talked as we scythed, moving through the orchard. A strong young woman from a couple towns away was fully aware of the value of the place and made plans with Gracie to return over the summer. We older folks laughed at the way our backs felt. We paused and drank at a small insertion of plum and cherry trees among the apples. Finally, it was time to finish and start the long trip home.
Thank you Michael.
Still reeling, on the last Monday of February, a request came to me through Holistic Orchard Network channels from Francisco Vio, asking if he could bring his Patagonian orchard team to Lost Nation to meet with Michael. I had to tell him that meeting with Michael had become unexpectedly impossible, but that I would try to arrange for a visit. With help from Alan Surprenant and the ever gracious Nancy Phillips, a welcome was extended.
For me, this is an important testimonial to HON's enduring reach – all the way to the far tip of the Americas – and to the importance of keeping the Network thriving, vivid, and available around the world.
I met Michael Phillips in a Youtube video where he did a masterclass for 3 hours in a row. Instantly I knew that was the path in fruit production. So I bought the books and planned a trip to visit that and other farms in the US. Travelling from Patagonia to the US is not easy for us.
I always felt a special connection with Michael, a mix of rebel, jokes, science, admiration of nature and simple things. All just by reading him. So when I knew he passed away, I felt as if a friend was gone.
My dad passed away 12 years ago. He was a fire-combat and crop dust pilot. He had an accident with sulfur in avocados and crashed his plane. So I know how it feels for a family to lose their pillar. The hardest part comes when life goes on and then you just have to go without him, everyone else has their one lives and things to solve.
I think we came in the precise moment. 12 Young farmers willing to help a little, probably more to the spirit than the farm itself, but we did some things and received Nancy’s Love and Energy. And we also felt Michael’s energy there.
So it was like sad and happiness at the same time. Life goes on and our work stays. Even as far as Patagonia, because we brought knowledge home.
For many years from the late 80’s on, I relied on sulfur as the main control product for my main disease, apple scab. My basic method was to apply sulfur as a protectant, before rainy scab infection periods. After a sulfur spray, I figured I had 5 days of protection unless a big rain of over 1” intervened and washed the sulfur off. I used micronized sulfur (brands approved for organic production) at about 8 lb/100 gal. I covered my acre of semidwarf trees with about 200 gallons, sometimes a little more.
If I missed a spray I would rely on lime sulfur, said to have 48-72 hours of kickback. I skipped sulfur sprays on immune varieties like Liberty, Redfree, Enterprise, etc and often also skipped resistant ones like Akane, King, and Sweet 16. However, most of our trees were very susceptible, including Golden Delicious, Jonagold, Idared, Paulared, Etc.
I would do this during the primary scab season, add another sulfur spray for good luck, then not spray for scab for the rest of the season. Typically I would put on 5-7 sulfur sprays from early April through early June. It worked well most years, though occasionally I’d see pinpoint scab on Golden Delicious at harvest, and there were a few major breakdowns in control due to multiple-day rain events.
In the 90’s I planted a second block in a valley location that was very subject to sooty blotch and flyspeck. In addition to the scab sprays, I began applying low rates of various organic fungicides on a bi-weekly basis in that SBFS block only, starting after primary scab season and going until 2 weeks before harvest for each variety. A couple years later I noticed a strange thing. When I skipped spraying some Jonagold trees in that block after bloom because they had no flowers, they didn’t get scab. I was leaving them unsprayed before the end of the primary season, so in theory they should have gotten some.
I had been using potassium bicarbonate and oil for many of the biweekly “later season” SBFS sprays, alternating with sulfur and lime sulfur at very low rates. It occurred to me that these sprays were also suppressing any low amounts of scab that may have crept in after primary season. So inoculum in this block was very close to zero.
In 2010 a remarkable article came out of Romania by Viorel Mitre et al. called “New Products against Apple Scab and Powdery Mildew Attack in Organic Apple Production”. One of the successful treatments they tested was a combination of potassium bicarbonate and potassium silicate. Where they got the idea for that combination I don’t know. However, one school of thought on potassium bicarbonate is that it can be an effective fungicide, and even has some kickback activity to kill infections already underway. The big problem, though, is that it is so soluble that it washes right off the leaves with the slightest rain and is thus of no use. Perhaps the silicate helps “stick” the bicarbonate to the leaves, solving this problem.
Meanwhile, I started getting bitter pit in the first block. I had not done a soil test in many years (big mistake!) and when I did the pH was 5.6 and calcium was low. I suspect all my sulfur sprays had contributed to that—sulfur tends to acidify the soil. I started applications of gypsum and high-calcium lime. I also wanted to get off of the sulfur bandwagon and try something else. So for years I tried several approaches that didn’t quite work. But by 2018, I was spraying the valley block with Milstop (potassium bicarbonate) + Silmatrix (potassium silicate) during the non-peak primary windows and then during the SBFS season. Scab control was good. In the other, more productive hilltop block, I continued with sulfur.
Then Marssonina Leaf Blotch (MLB) made a fearsome appearance. It’s infection season starts about June 1, then continues through the rest of the season. I was having to apply “later season” sprays to both orchards—to control MLB as well as SBFS.
The upshot is that now I rely heavily on potassium bicarbonate + Silmatrix through the whole season in both blocks, though I still spray sulfur from pink through bloom, the time of strongest scab pressure. Scab control has been very good, and MLB is down to a dull roar.
But there is more to the story. In the next newsletter, I’ll talk about what I mix the bicarb with, and how I time the sprays.
I’d love to read about any other experiences with bicarb in future pages of this newsletter or in the HON forum.
thanks so much for keeping this going!
It is hard for me to wrap my head around how or if HON should grow or morph.
I appreciate the three of you keeping HON alive, and I'm happy to continue to pay dues and be an active member of the forum. I also think the 3rd option to fundraise and proceed sounds like a wise move. I continue to point almost all of the people who ask me orcharding questions to the forum for reading and discussion.
thanks for continuing the work!
Overall, learning how to look after fruiting plants in and earth-friendly manner is the most satisfying project I have ever undertaken, regardless of how successful we are.
thanks so much for keeping this going!
It is hard for me to wrap my head around how or if HON should grow or morph.
Since the first of March, three 'principals' (more about us below) have been working together to develop a strategy for keeping the Holistic Orchard Network alive and lively – more about us below. In late May, we sent an email to a group of folks Michael identified as his 'core advisors' describing our thoughts about how to regroup and carry on. Interesting ideas came back, these among them:
I'm sure I speak for many silent voices when I say thank you for taking up this and working toward a strong future.
being introverted and an artist, I am not sure how to be of service except with my stories and my experience bridging apple wisdom with 'normal' civilian lives.
this community is so important so I would like to be able to help keep it together in ways that I'm suited for.
Again thank you guys for taking it up.
I am fully supportive of moving in that direction. I expect as things develop and evolve there will be additional options to consider and decisions to make.
For my part I will continue to contribute membership dues support and continue to be active in member forum discussions. I’m also willing to contribute to any capital campaign that is put together to fund HON activities. In addition, I know several orchardists whom I might persuade to become active members and I will work on that.
Carol Gudz and Brian Caldwell identify an important schism in the Network's work. She writes, 'it may be useful to think about a simplified protocol for truly backyarders who won't have the capacity or patience to undertake the full 'Michael monty', This limited protocol should be accompanied by advise on the challenges in growing fruit this way, to manage expectations.'
In counterpoint, Brian writes, 'I hope the focus can stay on commercial/community orchards. Somehow I hope we can also provide valuable information for homeowners and permaculture growers like her. I understand when she says she can't do the full Michael Monty! I would guess that most of the HON site visitors are folks like her. Somehow, we should accommodate them. Perhaps we can recruit someone to head up that effort, however, it is almost a separate undertaking.
'Meanwhile, the group Michael was really trying to foster is small scale community orchards and cideries, mostly in the NE US, but worldwide.'
Looking at our emailing list and records of web visitation, I see several ways to segment our web audience, and Brian and Carol pinpoint an important one. Michael the Networker was very good at navigating this gulph: he could simplify complex science and interpret it in ways that informed his professional readers without making his home orchardists' eyes glaze over. Obviously, this is one BIG challenge for us going forward.
We don't know for sure, but I think Brian's right: well over half our subscribers are home orchardists with a few trees, and we want to be able to give them information they can use, somewhere short of 'the full Michael.' We think we can do that without forsaking the truly (even if New England-centric) community of small scale, professional enterprises.
With your help . . .
At left, the three guys who have assumed responsibility for the day-to-day operation of the Holistic Orchard Network: Mike Biltonen is taking on administration, Todd Parlo is moderating the forum, and Michael Potts continues as webster.
The Network was organized as a sole proprietorship and operated by Michael Phillips at his expense for a long time, but in his absence, and in order for it to survive and thrive, we feel a need to move the organization into something more closely resembling a nonprofit. Why not a nonprofit? Because (1) it costs a bundle we'd rather see spent on research, and (2) we don't see any angel donors lurking in the wings requiring a tax break. Feel free to change our minds!
With help from the Network's long-time advisors -- see samples above -- we believe that the Network's principle function is the promotion of holistic fruit production across a broad range from the homesteader with a couple of trees in the backyard to the community orchardist with several hundred trees. Under Michael Phillips' guidance, it also promoted what we call 'the Phillipsian Method' (and some call 'the Full Michael Monty') that included his three fine books. The 'Monty' continued -- continues -- to evolve, as more is discovered about how fruit trees want to grow.
Considered as a business, the Network enterprise needs to pay its way, and that means paying expenses, some compensation for those who keep it working, and a fund for the research that keeps the Network relevant. Memberships, in the past somewhat catch-as-catch-can, will need to become more orderly. The Network's accounting must become completely transparent. Some Network benefits -- access to some threads on the forum and the 'Secret Tattoo' -- will be available to members whose donations will be used to make these benefits more than worth the price of admission.
We propose to formalize what has been a freestyle membership structure, along the following lines:
|Subscriber -- periodic newsletter||$10/year|
|Member / Forum participant||$100/year*|
* Note the asterisks: the amounts shown are 'money only' but the Network will express its gratitude for in-kind contributions. For example, a business member, who receives an enhanced Resource listing, will be able to sustain membership by offering a discount to Professional (“Secret Tattoo”) members. Forum participants whose contributions add notably to the dialog will be awarded credits by the forum's moderators. Articles shared in the newsletter and research papers posted on the website will earn membership credits for their authors.
For a more thorough discussion of what we are proposing that the various levels of membership mean, please visit the HON website's Membership page.
We envision the Network as a consensus-based organization, and welcome your feedback on these proposals. Likewise, there's more than enough work for us three, to grow the Network, keep the website and newsletter useful, and develop the special programs that will benefit backyard growers and larger scale orchardists. If you want to help, please let us know.
We welcome feedback, positive, negative, constructive and otherwise. It all's grist for the mill, and right now we're milling up a better Holistic Orchard Network. Let us know who you are and how the Network can help you.
If you haven't renewed your membership recently, please consider doing so now. Running the network continues to cost money, and its viability can only be judged by your generosity. As always, the membership contribution page is
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