Deep cold this winter in northern zones has many of us waiting to start pruning in earnest. Sub-zero temps up to a week later can affect callusing of pruning wounds. Meanwhile growers on seemingly another planet—from California to the Carolina highlands—are hard at it. Power pruner options and miniature chainsaws fill the bandwidth on our grower's forum. Thinking of topworking? Ordering supplies? Gearing up for the first spray? All this and more engages our community as we shift gears into the next exciting installment of growing healthy fruit for our families and communities.
The first time I sent Michael an email, I spent hours composing it before nervously hitting the “send” button. I had discovered him, like many people, via his books, which blew me away with their combination of encyclopedic knowledge and skillful, warm, and witty writing. I already considered him an apple grower/writer icon, and thought chances were slim to none that he would have the inclination or time to respond.
When I received a comprehensive reply the very next day, I was ecstatic. It was immediately apparent that here was an icon that wanted to connect with other orchard-loving humans. Over the following years of email correspondence, his dedication to educating, encouraging, and engaging people of all stripes to explore growing healthy fruit became clear. What an inspiration.
The beautiful tributes to him posted on the “In Memoriam” page are full of other folk who had similar experiences to my own. Michael was always generous with his incredibly valuable time and wisdom, engaging in a non-judgmental (and very well-written!) way with whoever wished to explore the holistic-growing knowledge base. “Maybe that was his actual super-power – so many people feel connected to Michael in some special way, myself included.” says Tom Rosenfeld in his tribute on the Memoriam Page.
This super-power helped him to create and maintain the Holistic Orchard Network and Phorum, a community of like-minded growers who are committed to growing healthy fruit, and who are striving to find new, sustainable ways to do so. He was frequently a provoking presence on that forum, spurring us all into action, challenging us to push boundaries and to contribute more to the cause.
Of course, he was constantly researching and furthering the topic of holistic growing all on his own as well, and among the many things we lost when we lost him is that further research and work. A devastating loss for the world indeed. The folk that are part of his Holistic Orchard Network hope to honor his work by continuing on without our fearless leader. As Mike Biltonen said in his tribute on the Phorum and Memoriam Page, “It is up to us to honor and carry on his legacy – the earth, the people and the apples demand it. He is listening, floating in the stars and taking notes.” We invite you to join us by contributing in any way you are able.
Though I only met Michael in person once, I counted him as inspiration, mentor, and friend. We will be planting a Michael Phillips memorial apple tree in our orchard this spring, and my guess is that the understory comfrey will be particularly lush under that particular tree.
Heartfelt wishes of love and peace to Nancy and Grace. My orchard family holds you in our hearts. And Michael, Was Hál in perpetuity. We will be raising a glass to you in orchards across the world.
In preparing to write an introduction for the last edition of the Community Orchardist newsletter written by Michael Phillips, I spent some time revisiting earlier editions from over the years. It was poignant to read him write as far back as 2007 his oft-expressed wish that he had more time to write to us all about orcharding. He certainly did his damnedest and left us quite a written legacy in the form of books, articles, newsletters, online chat, emails, etc., but here I am in 2022 wishing that he had indeed had more time to share his thoughts with us.
For the first part of the year, Michael was busier than ever, engaged in facilitating Holistic Orchard Network forum conversation, organizing a grower meeting, stewarding his own orchard and farm, but he still managed to find time to work on the latest installment of the Community Orchardist, which presumably would have been sent out sometime this month. His family and friends wish to share this work with you, with the understanding that the newsletter that follows was a work in progress and will remain unfinished. Where sections were merely outlined or barely begun, we preferred not to attempt to put words in Michael’s mouth in an attempt to complete the work on his behalf, but rather to remove them entirely.
In terms of what might have been, as always, encouraging microbial diversity was at the top of Michael’s list, and the first section of this newsletter was to have been a discussion of how growers might “keep it local” with regards to harnessing indigenous microbe populations on-farm in the service of holistic orchard health. Many of us work particularly hard to promote microbial diversity in our orchards, whether we’re brewing our own bacterial blends from mother culture, or abstaining from regular anti-bacterial sprays, or applying fatty acid blends of neem oil and liquid fish. Indeed, this effort truly constitutes the ground floor we all build from in our holistic orcharding endeavors. However, even the most active do-it-yourselfers among us tend to rely at least somewhat on off-farm products to promote on-farm biodiversity. In the past few months, HON members addressing various issues have raised the idea of better utilizing native populations of microbes “in pursuit of healthy fruit,” and this seems poised to be the next frontier in holistic orcharding. For those of us experimenting this season, let’s keep this conversation going!
Another key newsletter article that had yet to be written concerned plant sap analysis, and it is a particular shame that Michael did not get to compose it since his particular “goal this year [was] to take all this complexity and make it simpler... and not even necessarily dependent on plant sap analysis once certain rhythms in tree growth stages and the impact on consistent yields are more fully understood.” His exploration of plant sap analysis as a valuable addition to the holistic orchardist’s toolkit was to have culminated in another book. Several members of the Holistic Orchard Network have expressed an interest in picking up this thread and moving ahead with plant sap analysis this growing season. Stay tuned to the plant sap analysis thread found under “Grower Research” in the online HON forum for more information on possible opportunities for collaboration.
Also within the newsletter draft there was a delightful heading that read “Comparing Holistic Apples to Holistic Oranges.” Michael’s intention seems to have been to highlight the holistic orcharding practices of Brad Turner, a Florida citrus grower. To most of the apple folks in this group, the idea of finding much common ground with a citrus grower must seem a tad exotic. But do yourself a favor and plug in an internet search for articles about Brad and the EM-1 he’s been brewing down in the Sunshine State. The intersections are there, and serve as yet another reminder of how good Michael was at bringing together like-minded orchardists from around the world for the purpose of learning from one another.
Amongst the regrettably incomplete jumping-off points within his working draft, Michael had included a link to a mind-blowing high-resolution image that reveals the bi-directional flow of nutrients within fungal hyphae (https://tobykiers.com/). It’s fun to imagine where Michael might have taken us textually along this biological highway, and it seems like the perfect visual segue-way into what we can offer of Michael’s last Community Orchardist newsletter: his writings were always an inspiring synthesis of wonder, science, and stewardship, and lifting the lid on something as basic, yet elusive, as understanding exactly how fungal hyphal networks function is just one stepping stone on our greater holistic orcharding journey.
Tissue analysis has been a valuable tool for fruit growers for many years. It can reveal that in spite of seemingly adequate soil test results, sometimes plants show deficiencies or imbalances. In more recent times, “plant sap analysis” (PSA) has been promoted as an even more valuable tool by several labs.
Michael Phillips was researching PSA at the time of his death, with his unique deep holistic approach. I’ll try to reconstruct his thinking through my own lens, based on communications with him and others in recent months.
As I see it, PSA labs offer 3 innovations:
Let’s take a look at these one by one.
The labs are reluctant to explain their methods, so the word “sap” has a vague meaning. According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica,
sap, watery fluid of plants. Cell sap is a fluid found in the vacuoles (small cavities) of the living cell; it contains variable amounts of food and waste materials, inorganic salts, and nitrogenous compounds. Xylem sap carries soil nutrients (e.g., dissolved minerals) from the root system to the leaves; the water is then lost through transpiration. Maple sap is xylem sap, containing some sugar in late winter. Phloem, or sieve-tube, sap is the fluid carrying sugar from leaves to other parts of the plant in the summer.
For fruit, the samples are leaves sent overnight with cold packs. The question is, what do the labs do with them after they receive them to extract sap or some other fluid that they then analyze?
Apical Crop Science, one of the several labs in the US that offer this analysis, claims that the fluid they analyze is cytoplasm. This means the cell contents not including the nucleus. Since it is hard to see how they would exclude the nucleus, or why, I suspect they mean to say “protoplasm”. That would be all the cell contents, without the cell wall and possibly cell membranes. From their pictures, one could guess that some sort of vacuum technique is used to extract this fluid.
The Cornell Nutrient Analysis Laboratory also offers sap analysis. While I consider them latecomers to PSA and thus not experts, they do share their methods. They freeze the undried leaves and squeeze juice out with a garlic press. This would also yield leaf cell protoplasm plus the other sap outside the cells, but would not include cell walls. One source said that Cornell’s results don’t jibe with those from other labs.
We are not talking about the same kind of xylem sap that our maple syrup friends are currently boiling down. We are talking about the cell contents of the leaves. How is this different from using a dried leaf tissue sample? It would not contain cell walls, which contain lots of carbon and some minerals such as potassium. Since the pictures of post-extract leaves shown by Apical are still green, not all of the chloroplast material is extracted. Also, a different type of analyzer is used, an Inductively Coupled Plasma (ICP) analyzer. I am not an expert on this, but it is different from the methods used on dried leaves, which involve combustion and then analysis of the ash.
Thus, it appears that cell contents are being extracted and analyzed with different equipment than for leaf tissue analysis. Michael was not so concerned as I am as to exactly what is being analyzed. His interest was what it could teach us about plant status, regardless.
To me this is a real improvement. The idea is that some nutrients are easily mobile within the plant and some are not. So, for instance, if a mobile mineral is lower in the old leaves than new, it is reasonable to think that its overall supply is low and the plant is scavenging it from the older leaves. Perhaps applying more of this nutrient would help.
Could tissue testing of old and young leaves tell us the same thing? Or is PSA somehow more accurate or targeted to assessing plant needs in real time?
Reliance on foliar feeding (or sometimes “juiced” irrigation) is a bit problematical. It seems to go against the ideal of “feed the soil, not the plant”. This is where Michael was getting into some heady stuff. Michael was keenly focused on the “phyllosphere”, the community of microbes on the leaf surface. He felt that plants were obtaining many more nutrients from this community than is commonly thought. So he felt that augmenting the mineral supply of the leaf surface was warranted. It gives faster results which could affect trees and fruit in the same season. Perhaps soil tweaking could also happen over the longer term, but I did not discuss that with him.
Michael was very interested in using farmer-made microbial/herbal fermented brews in these foliar sprays, as opposed to chemical mineral products. This is what much of his on-farm research was aimed at—could his brews alter PSA nutrient balances into the desired ranges? Michael was working on a plan for pulsing needed nutrients to the trees via sprays and the proper points of the season. This builds on his previous work with prime times for mowing and sprays to enhance mycorrhizal allies.
The labs make money by doing the lab analysis, interpreting the results, and then selling you products according to their recommendations. This is all fine if the recs are on target, and the results in your crops more than pay for the cost. Sometimes, the recommendation might even indicate that a currently used product is unneeded, saving money.
The labs have ideal ranges for all the various nutrients, in addition to determining whether they are different between the old and new leaves. An important question is, how are those ideal ranges determined? Again, looking at an Aprical presentation, one goal seems to be getting large, glossy leaves on your crop plants. I am not impressed with that. As fruit growers know, this can often be accomplished by adding soil nitrogen, and is not always a good thing.
Typically, the concept of maximizing leaf photosynthesis is used. While this is attractive, it is pretty nebulous and we need to remember that results lie in fruit quality and recurring good yields. An interview on the Advancing Eco-Ag (also offering PSA) website features an apple grower casually talking about stratospheric yields. Pretty enticing if accurate. Michael might ask, what is the quality of those apples?
Lots of questions arise. One of mine is, can plants produce such heavy yields that the soil and their roots are simply not able to supply them enough nutrients? Maybe we are already getting to this point. How does that relate to “natural” and “balanced”?
Another, more practical question is, can PSA be used to solve specific problems such as bitter pit or susceptibility to disease?
The organic/holistic community has always been about sharing information. Hopefully we can overcome the proprietary mentality here to see if PSA is a valuable tool. Several growers will be testing out PSA labs this season. Please join in the Holistic Orchard Network Phorum discussion if you’d like to participate, and to share results!
The ability to trap ambrosia beetles, bark, and boring beetles is coming into its own. The multitrap platform you see here becomes viable with the right combination of lures and kairomones. Start by going deep into beetle trapping dynamics on the Synergy Semiochemicals website.
I was made aware of all this by Deidre Birmingham in Wisconsin. She's working with these Canadian researchers to nail down the siren call of the roundheaded apple-tree borer. Yes, you read that right. According to Deidre, RHAB is now the biggest threat to the sustainability of her cider orchard. It all comes down to the labor required to protect 16,000 trees on trellis.
Those of you caught up in borer karma should know a number of us have had good success with the 'direct neem plan' for borer on young trees. The idea being to paint undiluted neem oil on the lower eight inches of small diameter trunks—even allowing it to puddle up at the soil line—sometime in May/June before female adults begin to oviposit. This preemptive treatment does the job for the full season ahead.
Whether or not visiting the trunk of each tree once a year is too much is the question. Going the route of dwarfing trees on acreage means it takes far more labor to get to each and every tree. Nor does ongoing trunk susceptibility of dwarfing rootstock help … whereas freestanding vigorous trees eventually gain enough roughened bark and girth that a trunk spray of diluted neem serves, mostly. Traps on the other hand will need to prove alluring throughout at catching nearly every beetle that crosses the red line.
Q: I found out yesterday how frustrating it can be to spray pure neem oil. Even though it appeared to emulsify nicely—when added to the tank mix, it clumped and formed butter sticks. Yikes! At least the compost tea, fish hydrolysate and kelp got sprayed and hopefully a homeopathic dose of neem.
There's no mechanical agitation on our current sprayer. The diaphragm pump gave out on me as well but admittedly this Agri-Fab has been rode hard. Please tell me the mechanical agitation on the Pak Tank we're ordering will take care of this problem!!!
A: Travails with pure neem oil take one of three routes.
You just experienced flocculation where the emulsified oil droplets stick to each other forming small clumps. This can be reversed by agitation and/or increasing the concentration of the emulsifier. Some of the neem goodness definitely makes it to the leaf regardless. Another version of this problem manifests if not fully liquefying the neem thereby introducing fat chunks into the mixing bucket itself.
Sometimes you might notice creaming where the less dense oil droplets rise to the top and a fatty cream appears. Think non-homogenized milk. I see this occasionally in summer applications when I forego use of liquid fish. Reliable agitation as found in Rears sprayers (such as that Pak Tank) seems to take care of potential residues by the time the spray tank gets emptied. Backpackers must remember to shimmy!
The real trouble lies when coalescence occurs. Discovering a spray tank lined with greasy fats after application is when that holistic investment in pure neem oil truly did not reach the trees. The emulsified oil droplets have merged to ever larger droplets until the oil and water phase are completely separated. Coalescence is irreversible and makes for a hell of a mess! The most common causes of coalescence are:
insufficient amount of emulsifier
precipitation of water-soluble emulsifiers by chemical oxidation
pH extremes (too high a concentration of base or acid in the spray tank)
Emulsifiers like liquid dish detergents contain both a hydrophilic (water-loving, or polar) head group and a hydrophobic (oil-loving, or nonpolar) tail. The soap surrounds the oil droplet with its nonpolar tails extending into the oil and its polar head groups facing the water. I'm told a solution of potassium silicate can be used instead of soap but have not given this a try.
So-called “hard water” is especially challenging. Excess calcium, magnesium, iron, and other metal salts in the water can form insoluble precipitates with long‐chain fatty acids. Discussions centering on adjusting water pH downward with citric acid can be found in our grower's forum. Too much acidity (below 5) in the spray tank, on the other hand, pops up as an issue on occasion. Unfortunately, using baking soda as a buffering agent to raise tank pH is not advised as bicarbonates make neem equally ornery. Divvying up certain intentions may prove necessary… depending on management priorities being directed through the end of the spray nozzle.
The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.
Hearty thanks to our Network’s growers and sponsors.
Generally speaking, it takes twenty or so names donations to finance a Newsletter. That goal was met for the first three issues of 2021 but we indeed came up short as of last fall. The growing season demands attention; I get that. Equally apropos, it helps to have contact from headquarters to serve as a reminder that this work has value.
If this content matters to you, , indeed if anything you have gleaned from the Holistic Orchard Network’s website in the last year, please consider doing your bit right now. Sharing these holistic insights 'freely' actually requires real time support.
Stay in touch,
and treasure those venerable trees!
Those of you who check the online Forum were among the first to know of Michael’s death. Michael was among the first to recognize the power of the internet in the building of like-minded communities and the sharing of information, and he will always be a presence behind these pages, both in his many encouraging articles, his ability to simplify the complex, and his near-obsessive dedication to putting his learning into a place where you could find it.
As his wife Nancy wrote in a bio, he had an uncanny ability to enlist others in the development of the Network, the building of barns, the convening of groups. With his voice silenced, a number of supporters have stepped in to keep the Network alive and fresh.
A consultant table has formed, and will be picking up Michael’s disappointed clients and offering consultancy “in the Phillipsian Method” with, of course, their own personal discoveries and insights. There will be more about this service on the Grow Organic Apples consultant page soon.
Todd Parlo has taken on Michael’s work in moderating the Forum, but that doesn’t mean Forum participants should step back: to the contrary, please, when a question is asked, don’t wait for Michael to answer, but step right up.
continues on the right
Several literate members have stepped in to rescue this Newsletter from the somewhat incomplete Michael notes left behind. Michael, ever questing, had committed to a major change in the Newsletter, including a move away from his old word processor, and we hope you’ll help us debug and refine this new format.
Most concerning of all, Dear Reader (who has persevered to the bitter end of this letter) is the fact the Michael was selfless and heroic in his belief and support of the Network and this newsletter. I know there were times when he stayed up late and started out early to get his findings and insights written down in a form you could read, and did so without any more compensation than the knowledge that his work was useful and appreciated. Without his energy, the only way the Network will keep going is if you help. Here’s an incomplete list of ways you can support the Holistic Orchard Network:
In Michael’s memory, let’s keep this going. Thank you for getting this far.
And so, after the untimely passing of the HON’s founder, the forum and its mission continues. What began as a clever idea in Michael’s head goes on because of the collective efforts of its members. The question now arises, where do we go?
This is the moment when we can all voice our opinions. A good place to start is to chime in via the Just Talk category (Brittany began a thread called The Future of HON and the Forum). Don’t be shy. And if you are shy, members are welcome to chat with me through PM. This is a group effort, and group vision is part of that. Not all ideas will see the light of day, but the discussion should begin.
Now, as moderator and general apple curmudgeon, I will give my opinions: I have already stated elsewhere that we should be collectively committed to the holistic growing philosophy that Michael Phillips had envisioned. That means a great many things, but generally this is intertwined with sustainable agriculture, organic and biodynamic principles, and ecosystem preservation. It means being principled in the way we act. And some nettle tea.
The dialog here has always been a step above what one may encounter in the dumbed down world of internet blogging. Posts are generally mature, intelligent, and helpful. It often does not take long before a lull in response triggers a vet to come in with a response. Folks here have been respectful, sometimes funny, and show appreciation. This has been a life raft for many of us so called apple nerds. And I mean nerd in its heroic sense.
I have some ideas that I will discuss with members in the near future. For the moment though, there are some things that we should all consider, and some things we can all do:
The first step is in addressing the volume of activity on our little forum. What can we do?
I know everyone is busy. Trust me I know, I am in spring at a nursery and fruit orchard. I also know that I like reading these posts with my morning coffee. It doesn’t take much time every few weeks to make that a post rather than just a read. Here is a fun fact, there are currently 581 “users” on the forum. Many have at made at least one post. 360 have not. In fact 10 users have made about half the total number of posts. Now, this is not intended to scold the audience, but rather to show how much more fulfilling we could make the forum if a few more current members participated.
I think we are right on the edge of making this site something truly special.
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