Community Orchardist Spring 2021

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The energy builds all winter long. A new season, a new start. Tweaks that have been brewing in the pondering mind are now going to see the light of day. 'So what are you going to do different this year?' needs to be juxtaposed by asking 'And what are you going to continue to do better?' That context underlies the powerful grower discussions we have every spring at the Berkshire Roundtable (unfortunately deferred this viral year). A tree person observes nature's response to climate shifts and our own ecosystem prompts and acts accordingly. You're about to discover how my head spins.

The Art and Science of Pulsing Foliar Nutrients

Network research currently centers on a deep dive into plant sap analysis. Identifying the timing of essential nutrients with respect to flower viability, fruitlet cell division, and robust photosynthesis all summer long matters. Still, this is a humble effort so only so much can be learned in any given season. Leaf samples are being taken from similar varieties in two different blocks at three distinct points in the growing season. This allows running comparison trials between specific nutrient formulations as well as getting a handle on soil pulsing techniques aimed at reducing oxidization of ornery trace minerals.


What especially interests me in emphasizing nutrient balance throughout the season is the impact on floral bud initiation for the next year. Aye, talking about that tendency of pome crops to go wantonly biennial. Organic thinning approaches like potassium bicarb and lime sulfur that decimate growing tips (in pursuit of burning out excess flowers) simply does not cut it for anyone who understands photosynthesis as the restorative engine of this planet. We're entering radical territory, so if you're new to fruit growing, please hold onto your hats! Strengthening off-year buds by means of making photosynthesis more robust (efficient) will theoretically help to balance crop load from year to year. Hand thinning still has a place for fruit quality considerations – yet taken in context with competent pruning – shouldn't be so damn overwhelming. Crop balance comes from within, if we're thinking right. All of which impacts disease resistance, attractiveness to pests, fruit keeping ability, and so forth… suggesting effective nutrient pulsing should intrigue us all regardless where we plant trees.

Assorted caveats of pure confusion.

Some will say that the only relevant nutrition for plants springs from the soil. That paying heed to soil chemistry ratios is absolutely the one game in town. Others speak for biological diversity being the harbinger of plant nutrition in balanced form. The term 'quorum sensing' speaks to this but also implies that plant diversity plays an equal part. Foliar feeding may seem to be a molecular affair based solely on epidermal pore size but this construct expands manyfold when surface biology gets reckoned. Throw this mish-mash of thoughts onto the marketplace, and well, growers face product recommendations galore.

How do we keep our balance? I can tell you in one word: Tradition!

Start here with Tevye for fun –


Certain elements that play critical roles in plant physiology are more mobile and thus more readily engaged as a foliar application. Yet many organic growers seem to have let go of basic recommendations traditionally utilized by commercial IPM operations. Warren Stiles at Cornell taught zinc and born applied at tight cluster often proves to be a righteous spring tonic. Photosynthesis can receive a welcome boost by keeping magnesium available with three apps of Epsom salts two weeks apart following fruit set. A potassium edge can be had from sulfate of potash (or even vinegar) when fruit fill is on the line. Such basic ingredients do not cost much in the raw form… and the network is on the case to improve uptake via biological delivery. Yet only your sap analysis knows for sure.

The Ingham postulate

"Soil fertility is defined by the nutrients present in that soil. Typically, soils people will define soil fertility as soluble nutrients that plants can take up. When we are talking about soil fertility we are cognizant of two pools of soil nutrients. The first pool is total nutrients present in the soil. The second pool is soluble nutrients present in the soil. Plants take up soluble nutrients and for the most part they can’t touch the total pool. However, if you have good sets of bacterial and fungal communities they can make the enzymes and acids to solubilize the total nutrient pool."

Elaine Ingham (who's just been quoted) advocates strongly for the soil food web to deliver the goods. No amendments needed beyond properly made, aerated compost tea. Bacteria and fungi take up solubilized nutrients, and once consumed by their predators, excess nutrients are released into the soil solution for plant uptake. It is the microorganisms that make the difference in converting plant unavailable nutrients into plant available nutrients. And without this life thrust, growers can be led to believe that their soil lacks certain nutrients and that fertilizer salts best be applied. Not so, Elaine points out, as stored in the crystalline lattice work of the sand, silts, and clays are all of the nutrients that any plant requires once accessed by a generous biology.

The photosynthesis engine

Any boost to photosynthesis in turn means great tasting fruit. The efficiency of this life-gifting process hinges on a full spectrum of nutrient availability. Trace minerals serve as enzyme co-factors that allow metabolic processes to proceed apace. Knowing we've got this right is where plant sap insight can shine as brightly as the sun.

Ergo, Falstaff?

Another goal in this research is to find out when homegrown remedies suit, be it fermented plant extracts or mineralized concoctions pretreated with organic chelates and directed biology. Why purchase liquid formulations – and pay ever-rising shipping charges – when a little knowledge serves equally well?


A diverse plant community has critical import in all this. Nor is this my usual fungal pitch to further mycorrhizal mystique around the common root being. A smattering of oats in the canopy zone, for instance, encourages siderophore- producing bacteria that keep iron available in a reduced form which tree roots can tap into as well. Feeding the bacterial side with proper whey proteins (as found in raw milk) and molasses and EM-derived organic acids by means of a ground-directed spray in early spring looks to be a further key in unlocking calcium from applied gypsum and other soil sources. Good food, good medicine!


Many ideas are coalescing on the nutritional front. The excitement is palpable. Yet I'll admit this bit of writing has also been more like a movie trailer by design. The full details will be forthcoming after one more season of doing, observing, and cogitating. There's indeed a next book waiting 'round the bend.


The Need to Spray

There's often a spray picture in my conference presentations which I jokingly refer to as an "NRA moment" along these lines:

It's not the sprayer that kills but rather what we put in the sprayer.

The point being that an orchard sprayer is an incredibly useful tool, whether it's a backpack type or a tractor-mounted Pak Tank or an airblast jumbo jet. That applying nutrients and biology is a far different scene than a constant bath of fungicides and neurotoxins. I do this in part to emphasize that spraying will be as vital in biological orcharding as in chemical orcharding. Hearing people say they would grow fruit but don't want to spray, well, that alone calls for a bit of drama. I can honestly say that I enjoy spraying. That tankful of brown goodness – seaweed, nutrients, fatty acids, and microbes – will be well received by both the arboreal food web and the soil food web. Our small part in the growing of fruit is to keep natural systems humming.

Pruning and Life

Don Kretschmann in Pennsylvania has come up with twenty maxims correlating lessons in life with pruning technique and underlying tree purpose. Which a guy might certainly do when out amongst the trees all day! Only Don applied a writer's perseverance over the decades and kept refining these thoughts. This fruit grower is now passing the torch over to his daughter Maria who will be taking Kretschmann Organic Farm in equally fruitful directions. Still, true wisdom has a staying power of its own:


Not all trees have the same growth habit. There are distinctly different types. Some bear fruit on distinct spurs, others more on the tips. Some have naturally good structure and crotch angles, while others have a more upright growth habit. Some trees have much more vigor than others. Know thyself… and accept that some people are just high maintenance.


The Wonders of Biodynamic Tree Paste

Perennial canker got you down? Has sunburn distorted your cambium? Black rot taking out esteemed branches? Feeling the need for a bark pick-me-up?


What's known as biodynamic tree paste is good for what ails. The underlying purpose of this classic remedy is twofold – native clay as a tissue rejuvenator; cow manure as a rich source of microbes. These two core ingredients are mixed into thick slurry on a 50-50 basis. Anything added like rock dusts may help feed the microbes but don't necessarily expect nutrient absorption into cambium tissues to follow. Adding a 10% sand portion helps with adhesion. Purists throw in a shot of equisetum (horsetail) tea as part of the mix to further bring in silica energetics. Applying prior to budbreak to young and old trees alike helps shift problematic organisms out of an establishing niche and may keep sapsuckers at bay. Late fall application (with grayish clay) can even help reflect solar gain.


A word about the microbe component. Not everyone has a fresh cow, right? Other manure from grazing animals should be equally apt. Fresh manure is considered preferable but even stall bedding (prior to active heat decomposition) will have its share of aerobic organisms. Finished compost teeming with life force or vibrant topsoil will also have what it takes. The point here is no excuses but rather make do!


Ensuring bark health can be as simple (and fun!) as slathering on a biodynamic earth poultice to the main tree structure in early spring.

Photos courtesy of Liz Griffith, Door Creek Orchard, Wisconsin

Rudolf Steiner speaks in the biodynamic agricultural lectures about understanding the structure of a tree (trunk and branches) as more akin to earth. The green shoots and leaves that arise from this "tree earth" are the plant. Considering bark as an extension of the soil helped me start thinking about the soil food web reaching upward to the canopy. Treating tree structure more like earth is extremely relevant.
Grafting for the Truly Insane

Keeping track of grafts in a multi-variety tree usually takes the form of many fluttering tags. Every branch can produce an entirely different apple. Things are relatively straightforward when each graft is positioned fairly close to the trunk so that a single scaffold represents a single variety. Those who venture off the main highway (so to speak) literally need a road map. What you see here is the inspired work of my good friend, Scott Bolotin, in Rockingham, Vermont:


Q&A with the Orchard Consultant

My husband and I bought a small farm in southwest Michigan with six acres of Golden Delicious (2/3 of the orchard) and another three acres planted to Idared apples. We've brought the trees back down to 8-9 feet tall but have been struggling with the watersprout-happy Goldens.


We've now seen in your first book, The Apple Grower, the recommendation to wait to trim watersprouts until the first week of August. That was a huge relief and made so much sense as we always ended up with more watersprouts at year-end than when we started. And the trees just seemed to laugh at us after applying Tree Kote over the big cuts instead of "calming" them, as was suggested by the local extension guy.


Aside from losing the crop due to an early March thaw, then the usual freezes in April – we still planned to prune watersprouts this past August. But, then we had a drought starting in the spring which carried through to August when rains came. At that point, we didn't think we should prune figuring that the rain would give the trees a false start. Were we right? Or do the trees know that it was okay to prune in August despite the weather? And should we prune watersprouts now that freezing weather has resumed? Or just focus on thinning cuts and crossing branches and wait for watersprout pruning in August?


First telling point would be the rootstock used in this orchard. I’ve seen seedling trees kept to 12 feet tall… and it’s a mighty battle for that grower to do this. I hope this goal of yours to keep these trees to 8-9 feet high suits both the rootstock vigor and the spacing provided between rows.


Late summer pruning does help quell the watersprout response as the tree has run out of time to respond in an overly assertive manner. More to the point, leaving 10 to 15% of the shorter vertical shoots will give the tree “its lead” as regards apical dominance. Trees are going to fill that space in the open sunshine by hook or by crook. Accommodating that desire to this limited extent is crucial to keeping growth response calm.


Don’t bother coating cut surfaces with Tree Kote. That's not going to calm the tree but rather potentially sets up future problems by locking in pathogenic organisms like black rot. Nature provides plenty of beneficial competitors to colonize that cut surface as long as we don’t interfere with silly human notions.


I don’t know that a rainy August would keep the trees in crazy growth mode. The key event during this month is the eventual hardening off of terminal shoot buds as daylength begins to perceptively shorten. Timing of summer pruning precedes that shift in energy from shoot growth above to the roots below.


You should do a good thinning of watersprouts this spring. Focus on leaving that 10 to 15% of the weaker growth. This allows better lateral development (and thus fruiting) rather than engaging the full crew cut effect where a tree seeks to restore its desire to go up. You allow some of that when pruning correctly. And then come August, yes, thin sprouts again . . .  still leaving that 10 to 15% factor.


Labour-intensive small units will always be able to produce spectacularly more per acre than the large mechanised farms, apart from the finding that organically grown food goes further. When the inevitable change in life-style takes place I predict that we shall find it easier to feed the world population than we think, perhaps easier than now because Western nations will presumably have become less gluttonous. I predict also that we shall all be healthier!

—Lady Eve Balfour, 1977

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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 contributed financial support for these efforts since the last newsletter.


Generally speaking, it takes twenty or so names on this list to finance the efforts required for a next newsletter.


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

Michael  Phillips


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