Community Orchardist Spring 2019

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This slow slide into spring in the Northeast finds some of us just beyond bloom, some in bloom, and in my case even waiting for that first smile of green on late cider varieties. The season is at hand. And with that comes efforts to boost health and counter disease, to protect blossoms from freezing, and thwart pests. Many things are in confluence by the time fruit sets. Spray schedules get all the tighter with respect to frequency of application as the weather delivers its usual curveballs. Healthy trees deal with disease pressure delivered in small doses readily but a major chunk of ascospore release all at once may call for canopy renewal. Pest pressure once fruitlets are on the scene necessitates yet more juggling as not all materials are compatible. Holistic sprays with sticky fatty acids must go on separately from clay whose particles are designed to flake off onto crawling curculio. Mineral fungicides in turn impact arboreal biology, often to our chagrin. Fire blight bacteria take advantage of uncolonized surfaces, be it the opening blossom or tender shoot growth. Orchardists must constantly think on their feet so as to anticipate the complexities of each new season.


Taking a "Flavor per Acre" Perspective on Crop Load

An overlooked benefit to thinning an excessive crop load is improving fruit flavor. We all know that these efforts in the month plus following bloom time – whether by hand or a multitude of spray approaches – certainly enhance fruit size and color. Growers are seeking to ensure return bloom as well by providing enough energy for meristem cells in spur wood to develop crop potential for the next season at the same time that seeds in fruitlets are forming with an energy demand of their own. Quality consideration are at play for those who hand thin and therefore can deliberately "edit out" insect and disease infestation, leaving behind the best looking apple or pear in each cluster to grow. Brittle branches on peach trees hold fast when the weight of sizing fruit is gauged accordingly.


Somewhere along the line researchers articulated the notion that it takes approximately 25 to 40 leaves to serve as the photosynthesis factory to fully develop each fruit along the branch. That range in number of leaves reflects the difference between dwarf trees where most leaves wave in the bright sunshine and a standard-sized tree canopy with more interior shading. Russian research in the 1950s indicated it's more like 75 leaves to ensure annual cropping. Of course no grower counts all those leaves . . . but you get the idea. The sun shines, sugars are produced, the tree grows, fungi bring nutrients, fruit sizes, and voilà!


Melrose apples with flavor!  Photo by Frank Siteman.

Fruit from overcropped trees often lack flavor. There are simply not enough leaves to make the fruit all it can be. This seems especially true for varieties like Golden Delicious, Melrose, Honeycrisp, and Jonagold. Pushing trees too hard depletes energy reserves. Add to that a hot summer, followed by a lack of cool nights in early fall, and growers experience early drop of a less than stellar crop. Sound familiar?


Branch segmentation is another part of the thinning story. Generally-speaking, we hand thin to leave a fruit every 6 to 8 inches along the branch with dessert cultivars. That statement assumes fruit have set equally throughout the tree, that current leaf count plus those about to develop on elongating shoots will satisfy the energy requirements of each fruit. Yet an individual branch sometimes has a mind of its own. Barren branches interspersed within a bearing canopy should not be considered "reserve leaves" that allow more fruit to be left on neighboring branches. Biennial gears have shifted, whatever the reason, and these leaves on that particular branch are vested solely in fruit bud development for next season. Our venerable Ribston Pippin fruits in the upper portion of the tree in odd-numbered years, and then it’s the lower branches that hold fruit in even-numbered years. Go figure. Similarly, with a weaker set, fruit can be left in pairs, ideally with space between, to make up for where pollination was sporadic.


Dessert fruit caveats are not necessarily the same for cidermakers. Bittersweets and bittersharps are different sorts of apples where astringent qualities can be just as important as sugar levels. Eve's Cidery reports that thinning Stoke Red to what felt right, still resulted in apples with low brix (a measure of sugar in the ripe fruit, essentially). Thinning clusters of cider fruit to dessert standards was extra work with little to be gained with respect to desirable tannin levels. The flavor per acre perspective embraces a biennial aspect with cider cultivars.

Maggot Fly Revisited

Here's a summer conundrum that has gotten out of hand the past few years. Apple maggot fly actually needs addressing in late spring if you too have been experiencing a population explosion of the infamous railroad worm as a result of warmer summer and fall months. Consider this a case study in how pest dynamics are changing as climate reality hits home.

The apple maggot passes the winter in the pupal stage in the top two to three inches of the soil.  Most pupae remain in the soil through one winter and emerge as adults the following summer; however some stay in the soil for 2 years. A pest insurance policy, if ever there was!


The adult flies emerge from the soil from late June through early September. Females start laying eggs 8 to 10 days after emergence. During the period prior to egg laying, both males and females alike hang out in the general vicinity in which they emerged. There's no particular interest in apples at this point.


Once mating occurs, the female seeks out fruit in order to lay her eggs. Eggs are placed just under the skin of the apple through a puncture made by the sharp, needlelike ovipositor. Ripening volatiles draw the females first to early ripening cultivars, followed by fall ripening cultivars at peak emergence, followed by late ripening cultivars throughout the dog days of August. Here's the rub: Females lay eggs over an extended period of time, and will continue their efforts through September and into October in a warm fall.











Emergence chart and nematode insights courtesy of George Bird, Michigan State University


The resulting maggot fly implosion means growers must shift methodologies.

A wet start to summer facilitates pupal development early on. The fact that maggot fly larvae can be found in plums (yes, plums!) that ripen in early August shows this clearly. The resulting territorial expansion cannot be overlooked. Yellow sticky cards with ammonium impregnated into the sticky compound will draw immature flies. Use these more generously than as mere indicator traps.


Homemade variants on GF-120 paste become useful now as well. The commercial product doesn't come cheap so give this a try:

Fruit Fly Bait Recipe

1.5 ounce Beauveria bassiana (product)

    or 0.02% spinosad (active ingredient)

1 ounce live baker's yeast

0.5 pound sugar

0.5 pound dried brewer's yeast

1 gallon water

Spot spray on undersides (to lessen rain loss) of leaves near developing fruitlets.


Peak onslaught by late July is the time to bring the red sticky ball strategy into play. Read the books for details. Of the numerous ways to go about this, I've settled on the Ike Method, whereby a disposable plastic sphere is stapled onto a plywood base painted bright yellow. The half-sphere gets coated with the sticky compound; a new half-sphere can readily be stapled over the first when it gets covered with dead flies and is no longer appealing (in an AMF sort of way). I am not exaggerating in saying that I caught approximately 2,000 apple maggot flies on 60 such traps in 2018. The kicker here is that those sorts of numbers mean two things are happening. One, a few apples can become infested along the way before each female reaches the trap. And two, despite a fruit essence lure, there comes a point when ripening volatiles and sizing fruit catch up with the initial draw of the red sticky ball.


Cultivars from the Minnesota breeding program – like Honeycrisp, Chestnut Crab, and Sweet Sixteen – seem especially attractive to AMF. Spot sprays of Entrust (spinosad) have merit when pressure starts to get out of hand on especially susceptible varieties.


Certainly, picking up all early drops twice a week remains critical. Mature maggots leave the fruit and enter the soil within 3 to 9 days of fruit falling off the tree. Ergo, scoop 'em up and send such drops to the livestock or far off into the woods for the deer and bear.


Lastly, and this twist deserves our full attention. An extended egg laying window results in late varieties more often being infested by maggot fly larvae. Yet the so-called winter apples hang on the tree despite obvious damage within the flesh. These late larvae exit the fruit while it's still on the tree in order to get to the soil to pupate. I believe this extraordinary "stepping out" lies at the heart of my current undoing.


Evidence of the infamous railroad worm is not hard to see!  Courtesy of H.J.Larsen,



All of which brings me back to my latest spring fling. I will be applying parasitic nematodes orchard-wide around the time of petal fall. Three species of entomopathogenic nematodes will be employed to seek-and-destroy maggot fly pupae biding their time in the soil beneath my bearing trees.


The most important part of successful apple maggot control with parasitic nematodes is to make the application in low light with reasonably good soil surface moisture conditions. A rainy morning can serve well, provided the rain started in the night and will continue for several hours beyond the application. Nematodes are susceptible to various parts of the electromagnetic spectrum (bright sunshine) and moisture is essential for several reasons. Cruiser species move about in search for prey by essentially swimming along in soil moisture. Pupae respire and that proves to be the draw for cruisers. Ambusher species use moisture to locate a suitable place for attachment upon detecting larval or pupal movement. Timing for a spring application is as soon as the soil temperature at a two to four-inch depth reaches 50°F.


Maintaining an extensive population of entomopathogenic nematodes in orchard soil has been a challenge. It's my hope that a spring application of nematodes will hang around after the "AMF feed" and thus be on hand to respond to sawfly and curculio larvae entering the soil around the time of June drop. Thus the call for both cruiser and ambusher species in this integrated plan.


Three species mix of nematodes from Nature's Good Guys come in a powder formulation. This works because all three species have long resting stages. The nematodes must be released within 6 hours once activated by stirring into water. A quarter million count will provide thorough coverage for two acres of trees. Spray pressure must be reduced to 60 psi for this life force to succeed.

2019 Berkshire Meeting

The circle of growers that gets together every March in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts has been meeting for more than twenty-five years. We have grown in number since the early days to as many as forty today. What follows are paraphrased notes from this year's gathering along with a tad of the banter that makes this annual get-together so much fun.


  • 40% decline in insect biomass worldwide. Bumblebees missing on some farms now. Culprit is industrial agriculture. We [humans] forced the insects to leave; now we have to ask them to come back. This is a BIG ASK. The planet cannot afford conventional farming anymore.
  • I work three days a week in a feed store. Landscape products for trees now contain neonicotinoids. Why? I hide the damn stuff so no one finds it!
  • Fruit trees are the overstory of what should be a complex plant community where beneficials and fungal diversity alike make the earth sing.
  • Biochar dramatically increases plant health. Easy to make from prunings.
  • The forest canopy is important pollinator habitat for 416 species of solitary bees, starting before apple bloom, which then migrate to the orchard.
  • We stopped the evolution of the apple with respect to ever-changing pest dynamics by our insistence on growing the same cultivars everywhere.
  • Five-year Cornell study found more production from biennial harvests.
  • Cider apples have lower threshold for gibberellic acid hormone. Accordingly, the English gave up on annual production long ago.
  • Think of growth of apple fruitlet as a series of concentric cells. Applying foliar calcium throughout fruit sizing window gets calcium into each layer.
  • Boron helps uptake of calcium from soil as well as movement in plant.
  • Carey Reams suggested Sul-Po-Mag applied late July every five years for ongoing bud health. Use 100 pounds per acre (~1lb per tree)
  • Cool weather immediately after a good pollination day will slow down pollen tube development; pollen expires before arrival; thus no fruit.
  • Spotted lanternflies "hitchhike" on vehicles along highway corridors. No one should be smug. Very susceptible to pyrethrum; PyGanic is organic option. USDA has Korean predator in quarantine.
  • Trunks suffering from sunscald and winter injury will benefit from coating of light-colored clay and juicy cow manure. AKA biodynamic tree paste.
  • Dwarf trees are stressed [as a function of runted root systems] thus prime draw for ambrosia beetle. AKA black stem borer.
  • There are 20,000 potential cultivars in every pound of apple seed.
  • Newly-planted stock needs to be well irrigated in first year to get over being pumped up with NPK by nursery; will then settle in place in 2nd leaf.
  • Better yet, cut off a lanky whip and allow one bud to reset. This knip-boom method results in a nicely-feathered tree on a two-year rootstock.
  • Grafted-in-place trees end up bigger and more vigorous. Use tree tubes to grow rootstock above deer browse height then graft to preferred variety.


Q&A with the Orchard Consultant

Your honor, if I may, I would like to rephrase the question . . .

I've been asked twice now to give my endorsement to 70% Neem Oil. A year ago by a supplier wanting to increase sales; more recently by a manufacturer hoping to kick start a new venture. I listen to the rap how neem extracts work as a broad-spectrum fungicide, insecticide and miticide, all rolled into one. That this product is far easier to use than actual neem oil. That trials are being done, that OMRI approves, that the EPA has registered the product. And then, with a twinkle in my eye, I respond along these lines:


I expect you have gathered from my books that I am an advocate of whole plant medicine. Thus I recommend use of unadulterated, cold-pressed, pure, unfrigged, 100% neem oil (and karanja oil) and this for specific reasons.


The azadirachtins in neem have potent insecticidal qualities. I recognize that a 70% formulation will be more insecticidal on juvenile phases, in that the azadirachtin content becomes more concentrated. Standardized products like Azaguard and Neemix up this ante yet again.


I totally disagree with calling a neem product a broad spectrum fungicide, however. Sure, companies do so for legitimate marketing purpose, as that is certainly the construct by which conventional growers respond. Yet I know from years of experience that the terpenoids in neem help stimulate a systemic resistance response within plant tissues. That all those good and extremely desirable fats in a quality seed oil feed the arboreal biology . . . which in turn provides the enforcement to protect the leaf surface niche from pathogens. These multiple actions are not fungicidal–as in toxic to fungi–by any stretch of the imagination. Yet combined these are what make pure neem oil entirely effective at preventing disease on plants.


The flip side of extracting the azadirachtins is the oily portion left behind. Trilogy is one brand name for a "clarified hydrophobic extract of neem oil." This works by smothering disease organisms—maybe—but again it’s a nowhere kind of approach compared to the proper use of healthy nutritional fats and competitive biology.


Nor is pure neem oil that difficult to work with given minimal instruction. Another cold-pressed neem oil product called TerraNeem EC comes already blended with adjuvants so it doesn't require emulsification to get it onto the plants. That may be helpful for those with hard water issues. Registered pure neem oil called NymBioSys is available for certified growers requiring a reportable number on the label.


We can argue semantics but I won't be swayed from presenting a holistic point of view. Nor am I feeling combative about what your company hopes to achieve by any means. Convincing more growers about valid organic alternatives to all those harmful chemicals is a positive. It's just that this storyline runs so much deeper.


Pure neem oil is the better choice for overall plant health. You are welcome to share new information with me but that’s how “the guru” sees it.


"It is possible that the next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next Buddha may take the form of a community—a community practicing understanding and loving kindness, a community practicing mindful living. This may be the most important thing we can do for the survival of the Earth.”

—Thich Nhat Hanh



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

Michael  Phillips


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