Community Orchardist January 2015

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I was up this past night stalking spirits. So it seemed. Out in the dark, chasing deer from my apple trees. Three of them run a short ways into the woods to stare back at me, less than a hundred feet from where I stand, spotlight in hand. I’m now carrying a big gun (along with a hard-earned depredation permit) and through the scope her chest looks like the side of a barn … but I lower the gun, and whisper ‘one last chance, you.’ Sadly, we will meet again as this family trio has learned to leap between hot wires of the hi-tensile fence without being shocked. Our crop has been severely thinned across the lower scaffolds as a result. Still, a hearty optimism beats in my chest as the days start to lengthen. Biological insights from this past season are downright exciting. That’s what you will be reading about in this issue of CO. Meanwhile, out there, this coming summer, good fungi and feeder roots and braconids and competing bacteria will somehow abet miracles.

All this will go unseen … like me and those deer in the light of the night.

Holistic Overview

Winter conference season is here, and that means a guy needs to find his stride again as teacher. A quick overview of holistic management sets the stage:


Ecosystem Health is achieved through stewarding biological connections, investing in mineral balance, and encouraging outrageous habitat diversity.


Crop Production keys to a healthy tolerance for disease. Plant metabolism points the way to enhanced immune function and competitive colonization as the means to keeping pathogens at bay. What results are apples and other wonderful fruits that indeed keep the doctor away.


A spot of science launches us down the green immunity highway. Keep in mind that this is totally different thinking from conventional agriculture, be it chemical or old school organic. We will come to the other side with an appreciation for plant defense mechanisms that frankly have kept this planet humming for ages.

Systemic Acquired Resistance & Induced Systemic Resistance

Fruit trees resist disease through engaged phytochemistry.  Growers working with plant immune function produce nutrient dense fruit with more medicinal oomph as a result. Our fruit always tastes over the top. Systemic acquired resistance (SAR) and induced systemic resistance (ISR) are the underlying scientific principles behind holistic recommendations for nutrient sprays packed with biological reinforcement.


Some outright blasphemy right off should certainly get thinking caps in gear:

A tad of disease presence is good.

Some pest activity needs to be appreciated.


Plants react to a broad range of insects and microbial pathogens having different lifestyles and infection strategies. Each intruder commences a series of phytochemical responses by the plant in turn. One fascinating part of this story involves warning neighboring trees and associated plant friends (communicating via the mycelial network) that so-and-so is back in town.

The specific defenses being activated consist of an array of small-molecule hormones. (Not unlike our own innate immune system using enzyme signaling to bring on the phagocytes!.) These signaling pathways cross-communicate in an antagonistic or synergistic manner, depending on the situation at hand.


Systemic acquired resistance (SAR) is activated in the plant tissues where localized infection occurs. Upon detecting a pathogen trigger, a mobile signal fueled by an oxidative burst travels through the vascular system to activate defense responses in other plant cells. Salicylic acid is the essential signal molecule at the onset of SAR, as it will be activating a large set of genes that encode pathogenesis-related proteins with antimicrobial properties. Defensive phytoalexins accumulate as well … being the phenol, terpenoid, and alkaloid compounds that attract the attention of herbal orchardists like moi.


Induced systemic resistance (ISR) can be activated upon colonization of plant roots by beneficial microorganisms, but just as often, its insect chewing or actual fungal or bacterial disease infection triggering this phytochemical cascade. Like SAR, a long-distance signal travels through the vascular system to activate systemic immunity in above-ground plant parts. Jasmonic acid and ethylene are the primary signals behind the ISR call to action. More than 350 known secondary plant metabolites are phytoalexins that accumulate as a result.


Making Things Happen

Orchardists can introduce specific triggers to engage ISR defenses. Fatty acids, polypeptides, inorganic salts, and even some fungicides will do this. Activating multiple mechanisms with an assortment of foliar inducers is key.  Inducing elicitors include the terpenes found in pure neem oil, the flavonoids in karanja oil, a host of indigenous herbal remedies, compost teas, effective microbes, ionic minerals (like Sea-Crop), kelp extracts, and humic acid. Sounds much like our core holistic spray mix, eh? Only then some!


Effectiveness of holistic applications in the field stretches as long as 10 days to as much as 14 days in greenhouse trials. Being able to count on a known residual factor from a ‘green immune boost’ helps in determining appropriate spray intervals at different pressure points in the orchard year.


Keep in mind that balanced mineral nutrition is necessary for plants to synthesize this full range of compounds. All the underpinnings of a living soil system must be in place.


It should be noted that pathogens in particular can adjust to plant defensive mechanisms by tolerating accumulated phytoalexins, suppressing production of same, detoxifying by means of counter enzymes, and by avoiding an eliciting response all together. Nature will continue to evolve in both directions.


Prolonged lack of sunshine radically alters phytochemical oomph as well. Disease can run amuck when plant defenses are radically toned down, as in the six weeks of continuous rain and cloud cover experienced in New England in early summer of 2013. Resorting to organic mineral fungicides in such scenarios can be considered.


Herbal Tea Compounded

Fermented teas of nettle (two distinct stages), horsetail, and comfrey are recommended in The Holistic Orchard as sources of homegrown calcium and silica. This last season it finally dawned on me to make powerhouse brews from these basic green teas. Both the newly-named Calcium Tea and Silica Tea come teeming with biological and nutritional wallop that radically improve leaf vigor and overall tree health. Yeah, mon. Last year’s apple crop here saw limited scab, sooty blotch and flyspeck, bitter pit, brooks spot, and other assorted spots come harvest time. Many more trials need to be done as weather is ever so relevant on the disease front – and the “recipes” can and should be tweaked to feature local resources– but what follows is something I hope all holistic growers are inspired to give a try.


Calcium Tea ingredients: comfrey leaf, green nettle, effective microbes, garlic scapes, raw milk (5 gallons), gypsum, humic and fulvic acids


Silica Tea ingredients: horsetail, seeded nettle, effective microbes, Azomite clay and/or soft rock phosphate, granite meal and/or basalt dust, humic and fulvic acids


The basics of these brews work as follows: Cut away the top of a 55-gallon plastic drum. Gather approximately 20# of green herbs and loose pack into drum. Fill drum two-thirds of the way with unchlorinated water. Add 2 gallons activated effective microbes, along with raw milk in the case of the calcium tea. Add 5 to 10# of available rock powders, stirring into solution at the top of the brew. Top off drum with water, using cut-off tops anchored by bricks to keep herbs in suspension. Stirring is probably good to enhance breakdown of rock powders but I did little of this. Fermentation lasts approximately 10 to 14 days, which when complete is marked by a rather through breakdown of the herbs and an engrossing smell, to say the least. Roughly remove plant debris using a garden fork. Add two quarts of humic/fulvic acids per drum. Brew is ready for use but can also stay in drum for subsequent sprays. A loose cover lessens evaporation.


Up to eight gallons of each tea gets applied per acre. Absolutely run these teas through strainers (two stages even) before adding to the spray tank. This is perhaps a generous rate, in my case per 100 gallon spray tank, but the goodness seems spot on. A minimum dilution would be on the order of 3%, no less. Last season I applied both teas in the fruit sizing window, from 1st cover through 4th cover at 7 to 10 day intervals. I continued with the calcium tea in the fruit ripening window, now at 10 to 14 day intervals up till harvest. These were tank mixed with seaweed, neem oil, and other ingredients in my ever evolving spray plan.


Some of you may want to add 10# of compost or worm castings ala Jerry Brunetti to each batch. Epsom salts will benefit trees needing supplemental magnesium. Molasses feeds bacteria during the breakdown phase. The rules here are not hard and fast, other than adding the humic and fulvic acids after fermentation to help chelate released minerals.


Lastly, a sludge note. A goodly charge of the rock powders probably won’t dissolve into solution. This keys to the fineness of the grind. Don’t worry … any remaining mineral-rich sludge can be added to a compost pile … which eventually finds this investment in amendments returned to the soil.


A Plug for Holistic Aesthetics

A series of green men on my barn wall “speak to customers” throughout the fall harvest time. This particular guy challenged the notion that an occasional spot or two indicates a bad apple. Geez, boys. You haven’t heard? Fruit that responds to environmental reality, being various fungal diseases, develop secondary plant metabolites that are good for our bodies to fend off human woes. It’s a complicated message needing to get out as a quick sound bite … but coupled with great tasting samples … drives the point home that how we grow food matters. Amen.

Cidermaker in the News

Andy Brennan of Aaron Burr Cidery in the lower Hudson Valley of New York advocates for pressing naturally grown apples to make cider. The same principles apply: add a little scab, a pinch of blotch, this is the basis of constitutionally rich fruit. Put another way, overdosing apple trees with fungicides will not gain one an edge on the flavor front.


Read more about how Andy is inspiring people to rethink our connection to the earth through the apple at


And stay tuned. Andy tells me he hopes to put together a natural cider summit in the near future. If that happens, you will see this event listed on the online community pages of our website.

Question of the Month

You use effective microorganisms both as a holistic spray and also as a ground spray. I am wondering how often and under what circumstances you would use microbes as a ground spray. Is this something you would do regularly? Or only if the soil had been damaged and you wanted to increase soil microbial populations?  In a similar vein, do you use aerated compost tea also as both a holistic spray and also as a ground spray?


My first application of spring in the orchard is as much directed at the ground as the tree structure. Same is true for the fall holistic spray. Reinforcing microbe diversity is just as relevant for thriving ground as damaged soils. That spring app should be looked at more as a “pulsing agent” to get activity going after the cold of winter. Similarly, the fall app is engaging feeder root uptake at a critical time as well as getting leaf decomposition underway to reduce scab inoculum levels. I use the holistic core recipe in the garden as well. Such sprays definitely complement the soil food web as well as the arboreal crowd.


Compost tea can certainly be used instead of effective microbes. You simply need to understand the basics of aeration to achieve a desirable microbe mix. Either/or works as long as you’re including the deep nutrition component (in the form of fatty acids) in these biological sprays. I’m not currently set up to brew proper compost tea – it’s a goal. So working with effective microbes is simpler for me right now. I’d actually apply the two together as both sets of microbes have great value. The real skinny here will be revealed by collective experimentation by growers over time.

Apparently one needs to do everything right to grow marketable fruit organically. Getting 9 out of 10 things right is almost as bad as getting only 1 out of 10 things right. One has to get 10 out of 10 - or maybe it's even 20 out of 20! - depending on where you are.

Chris and Michelle McColl, Kalangadoo Orchard




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Network Support

Hearty thanks to the growers and business sponsors listed here. These are the folks who stepped to the plate with financial support for this network throughout 2014.


Donations were slightly down this past year (as can be seen in our annual financial statement) but then my efforts to pump out newsletters ran behind as well. Accomplishments worth noting were important curriculum articles got posted and biological discoveries in the growing season are now being shared.


Our funding mechanisms are much like public radio: You decide a pledge amount that works for you. Click that link and then do your part to help us move ahead. Sharing more holistic research is a significant goal for 2015. And then there’s that “next book” now just taking root.


We do all this together, dear friends.



Stay in touch, think deeply, and treasure those venerable trees!

Michael  Phillips





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