Community Orchardist June 2016

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Cruising time begins in the orchard around now. The work of spring—from spreading wood chips to a steady holistic spray schedule to scything green mulch—now finds fruit on the trees gaining in size. Pest pressure was light here this season, with sawfly kept to an effective thinning force and even plums left untouched by curculio. Scab contained itself to three wetting events where ascospore release could readily be met. That leaves hanging sticky ball traps for apple maggot fly and a few more applications of fermented plant extracts to keep rots in check. Borer continues to raise its ugly head and I’ve accordingly upped the dose. Botanical trunk sprays of neem oil (applied at 1% concentration) average over half a gallon per tree. Timing here is middle of June, early July, and again at the very end of July. High-dose saturation at the trunk base deters the RHAB female from laying eggs. Any borers-in-progress are impacted by the azadirachtins in the neem readily absorbed by the bark. Be sure to “visit your trunks” to stay up on such happenings and scrape away loose bark where moth larvae like to hide. What follows are insights from the season so far.

This Microbial Life

Competitive colonization by microbes of plant surfaces works best with a short amount of lead time prior to an infection event so that new microbes can get up and running. Aerated compost tea accomplishes this as a matter of course: The fungi and bacteria in compost rapidly multiply in this active brewing process, filling the tea with hungry microbes eager for more. Effective Microbes (EM) call for nuance of their own in coming out of a dormant state, more often than not, depending on the challenge at hand.


The facultative organisms in EM have the ability to function in both anaerobic and aerobic environments, which lends itself to a passive brewing process. Photosynthetic bacteria, lactic acid bacteria, and yeasts are the primary organism groupings in commercial mother cultures. These microbes can be activated to increase spray volume (approximately 22 times over) thereby making EM a good economic choice for maintaining surface biology. The holistic premise here being that friendly colonization of the plant surface—on the order of 70% or more—will be sufficient to close the door to pathogenic organisms that cause disease.


Mother culture comes filled to the brim with organisms, so to speak, as there’s no more room per unit volume for even another bacterium. That’s a bit of an overstatement, perhaps, yet similar to what herbalists think about in making a tincture. The menstruum (be it water or alcohol or vinegar) is capable of absorbing only so many extracted molecules from the healing herb. The right balance point is enough plant material per volume of menstruum to get maximum medicinal oomph . . . and so it goes with microbes as well. That 22X figure has been calculated based on putting ¾ cup of effective microbe culture into one gallon of water (along with ¾ cup of blackstrap molasses to feed the masses) because that volume can handle the resulting population boom. Activation involves waking up dormant microbes to create more microbes. This pulse of activity has a metabolic upside followed by a slide back into the dormant state once sugars are consumed and the brew becomes far more acidic.


Understanding what it means to be an “awakened microbe” can be important in applying biology effectively in the orchard. That slight lag time on the leaf works in sync with stimulating green immune function in a plant. The solution is straightforward: Make holistic applications a day or two before an infection event, knowing this will prime both fronts for the next 7 to 10 days.


Silica and calcium plant extracts feature herbs like horsetail, nettle, and comfrey.

Now for the nuance. Activated EM is quasi-awake for a few weeks after a batch is ready before going fully back to sleep. I’ve taken to filling the spray tank the afternoon before, adding the proper rate of EM (typically 2 gallons per 100 gallons) along with a cup of blackstrap, and running the pump briefly to stir the works. The other spray ingredients go in the next morning when the spray gets applied to the trees. One tank only gets this treatment, as any subsequent tank mixes require additional barrels of water to be filled ahead of time. I might just do that.

The so-called “purple haze attribute” of EM will best be galvanized by 12 to 24 hours of aeration prior to application. Elaine Ingham has stated that she has seen photosynthetic bacteria in activated EM only as a result of processing these microbes like compost tea. Stir, baby, stir is another way of going about this, which is easy enough to do when passing by the pre-filled spray tank. We currently don’t know which organisms in EM are especially relevant when dealing with fire blight concerns on open blossoms. Otherwise those photosynthetic bacteria should come up to speed on the leaf surface in due time.


These notions shift when working with fermented plant extracts in the fruit sizing and fruit ripening windows. Effective microbes enhance the breakdown process involved in brewing “herbal teas” for silica and calcium content. This takes from 7 to 10 days during which time the brew barrels are out in the warmth of the sun and getting the occasional stir. No microbe remains at rest long when this sort of action is taking place.

Introducing the Mighty Phytolith

Silicic acid delivered to the plant by means of groundwater irrigation and/or through spray application of fermented plant extracts will be deposited in the walls of epidermal cells, just beneath the cuticle. As water is lost through transpiration, silicic acid concentrates and polymerizes to form “phytoliths” that buck up plant tissues and close intercellular gaps. That’s surely one cool word to add to the holistic lexicon!

Certain fungi invade plant tissues aggressively, killing host cells immediately to obtain nutrients. Such necrotrophic organisms cause rots and molds on fruits and vegetables. These diseases often enter the crop through cracks in a weak cuticle or sting wounds from insects. Necrotrophs do not produce specialized penetration structures but rather rely on secreting toxins to degrade the cell wall beyond the cuticle. Once inside, rots readily declare game, set, match.


Healthy plant metabolism results in a lipid-rich cuticle. Calcium strengthens cell walls and silica fills in the gaps between cells. That is the essence of the “cuticle defense” to fruit rots to be gained by using fermented plant extracts.

Trace Mineral Lowdown

Making sure the full range of trace minerals is available at critical points in crop growth cycles promotes green health. Biologically-robust soils go a long way towards providing this. Yet balanced nutrition for crop plants often calls for a bit more daring. Foliar applications of trace minerals to promote complete biosynthesis are a glad alternative to fungicides of whatever persuasion. We are now talking about directly working with Nature’s way of fending off disease.


The science works like this: Enzymes increase the rate of plant metabolic reactions by lowering the energy threshold for activation to occur. These catalyst proteins attach to one compound and then zip . . . the subsequent compound exists. This is what makes photosynthesis “efficient” with respect to plant defenses. The biosynthesis of complete proteins and essential lipids prevents insects with simple digestive systems from feeding and pathogens like rust and scab from getting established. We’re going to skip a lot of big words now (such as aspartate aminotransferase) and go straight to the takeaway. Metal ions are the common cofactors required by enzymes to keep things humming. The principle minerals involved are iron, manganese, cobalt, copper, zinc, and molybdenum.


The importance of this is perhaps shown by changing the lines of a classic movie script. Dustin Hoffman starred in the 1967 film, The Graduate, about a young man seduced by his girlfriend’s mother. That Mrs. Robinson. You’ll get what I’m about if you know the movie:

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say three words to you. Just three words.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: Trace mineral cofactors.


Let’s look specifically at cobalt. Eight enzyme systems rely on cobalt as a cofactor. One of these, methionine synthase, is involved in complete protein production. The relevance here lies in the fact that proteins consist of amino acid chains. Long story short, pathogenic fungi have preferred foods, and in the case of apple scab, several of the standard amino acids found in leaf cells more than qualify. Cobalt is a cofactor in incorporating amino acids into a complete protein. Including this trace mineral in orchard foliar applications in spring when scab is on the prowl takes more amino acids out of the food stream for this disease organism. Immune function applied makes fungicides unnecessary.


Another trace mineral, manganese, plays an important role in the fruit tree’s ability to absorb potassium. This major element can easily become complexed when soil pH is too high or calcium and phosphorus levels are too high. Imbalance causes problems far more than outright deficiency. In this case, foliar manganese acts as a “helper molecule” to make potassium uptake more functional in the plant. Calcium and magnesium levels in the fruit itself often increase as well thus upping overall fruit quality and reduction of diseases.


Such insights have inspired me to take the next step. This season I’ve added a trace mineral complex to holistic sprays made at pink, petal fall, and first cover. These critical points in the fruit cycle are influential with respect to pollen viability, fruit set, meristem development (return bloom), and initial cell division. I’m trialing the MicroPak formulation from Advancing Eco Agriculture in Ohio, which contains boron, zinc, manganese, copper, cobalt, molybdenum, and sulfur in a form which can be readily absorbed. One quart per acre rate costs just under $9 each time out. Health abides as the leaves are a luxurious green and spotless so far.


Borer Compounded

I turned into the first aisleway of the new block in making the first botanical trunk spray of the season. A few trees along and I see a five-year-old tree down. It wasn’t the wind alone that toppled this sapling. Something far more insidious had bested me again. This analysis of tree outrage should help you become paranoid as hell about borers too.


The RHAB beetle lays her eggs in slits made in the bark of apple trees (and certain other woodland species) at the soil line throughout the summer. Larva hatch and begin to eat the cambium cells immediately behind the bark. The human comes along in fall and spring to look for telltale signs and ideally grubs out the “borer within” with a knife. Gore reveals what we can only hope. The necessary wound calluses over and after several years may no longer even be particularly noticeable.


About five inches up this trunk you can see such a callus. Unbeknownst to me, the tiny borer (at the time of slit surgery) survived. You can see the tunnel leading down to the root zone and the borer that now lies revealed.


It gets worse. This same story is repeated on the far side of this very same trunk. Further carving reveals an upward tunnel in progress where a second, larger borer was found (held open in the photo by a galvanized nail). Come the second growing season after hatching from the egg, the fully developed larvae literally drills upward through the heartwood of the tree where it will pupate just behind bark higher up to then emerge as an adult to seek out the next tree. The results of this “double trouble” over that amount of time severed this fledgling Honeycrisp tree from the majority of its roots.


Seer this teaching into your brain, human. Even when we find borers we may actually not be finding borers! What I took to be a healed callus was in truth the perfect scheme to avoid future detection. Early instar stages of the borer are small, and wet chewed bark can too easily be interpreted as a sign of success.


Here’s what needs to be done. Bring along a jug of solidified neem oil whenever you do borer duty. Cut an opening in the side of the jug so as to be able to slather a butter knife with the greasy seed oil. Take that and fill the excavation cavity formed after thoroughly exposing all edges of the damage. Now smear even more neem on. Bark tissues and pores in the wood will carry azadirachtins to the borer (if indeed missed) and arrest its further development. The fats in the neem will hasten callusing of the wound as well. Cover with soil and know you’ve done everything possible to deter this curse.


Question of the Month

I’m the Organic Extension Specialist [somewhere] and have been promoting plant teas for years, and only recently did someone ask me why it’s okay for these teas to go anaerobic while compost teas must be kept aerobic. Do you know?

A fermented plant extract is all about getting plant-derived nutrients into a bioavailable form. Facultative microbes apparently are able to get this job done, having the capability to function in both an anaerobic and aerobic environment. I include activated EM and certain rock dusts in these brews to up biological activity and the nutrient profile. My earlier use of straight “herbal teas” featured the plants alone, with the nutrients brought forward by indigenous (surface) microbes.

An aerated compost tea is all about the critters within. The diverse range of organisms in good compost responds with zest when conditions are provided for rapid multiplication. Introducing air (by means of a bubbler) and microbial foods favors those species that in turn proliferate in a healthy soil food web. Lessons in light microscopy are in order when using compost tea for competitive colonization purposes to ensure that the brewing process has a fungal component. Tea microbes are actively metabolizing and thus ready to engage immediately on the leaf surface. Compost tea must be used immediately following the 24‒48 hour brew cycle.

Another twist in the story comes in the form of liquid compost extracts. This process is geared towards large volume application. Aerated compost teas can't touch the extended life that LCEs offer to farmers with significant acreage. Organisms are extracted directly from compost (and/or worm castings) and held stable with no further aeration or feeding. A higher degree of biodiversity can be found in LCEs than ACTs, with most microbes left in a dormant state, allowing for up to 14 days of holding time before applying to the soil surface.

Comfrey Knockdown

Living mulch plants like comfrey placed around the canopy circumference of the fruit tree serve a number of purposes. From being an ensuing source of nectar for bumblebees to wide-ranging taproots bringing subsoil minerals up to the surface layer where the humus action unfolds. I rarely scythe down comfrey when mowing and subsequently piling the loose mass of green around the dripline of the tree. This isn’t to say I don’t knock down (push) the comfrey in a desirable direction for keeping plant density beneath the tree more open. Comfrey stalks still connected to roots below stay green and thus truly earn the designation as living mulch. New stalks now emerge from the base of the comfrey to begin the growth cycle anew.



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Network Support

Hearty thanks to the growers -- and those friends who want more good fruit grown – listed here. These are the folks who have stepped to the plate with financial support since the last newsletter.


Growing a strong tree structure to support a bountiful crop load for many years to come takes time and effort. Look for some exciting things to happen in the year ahead as you once again kindly consider how you might best support this network of health-minded fruit growers.


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

Michael  Phillips


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