Community Orchardist Summer 2020

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We're in the home stretch. That's said noting cherries and plums are already being enjoyed further south, peaches are beckoning, and even the earliest apple varieties are ripening. Still, this period when most of the work to thwart pests and disease lies behind us – yet prior to the all-out harvest – can be a time of a different kind of angst. Trees begin to show the stress of heat and drought. Scab finds a second opportunity in a thunderstorm deluge. Rots run rampant where calcium is in short supply. Bindweed is "winning" in the southwest corner. Clearing the trunk zone around young trees may reveal borers are at hand. Some varieties start dropping fruit weeks before the expected harvest. Maggot flies need to be watched for new behaviors. Rodents are on the move. Hmmm. Plenty to do after all!


Grower Mindset

Orchardists would agree we grow fruit in the season at hand. Our focus on keeping pests at bay and aesthetic disease to a minimum couldn't be more attuned. We may summer prune to improve skin color; irrigation for dwarf trees is a must in sizing fruit. Many of us apply some form of foliar calcium to improve cell wall integrity and thus up the keeping ability of our fruit. All these efforts are about our primary mission to produce a profitable crop.


Yet I've come to realize that all too often growers overlook an equally critical part of working with fruit trees: Maximizing Photosynthesis. More robust growth means more leaf surface to grab that summer sunshine, thereby producing more carbon sugars to trade with the biology both below and above. Part of this "arboreal-root economy" boosts crop prospects. Just as apropos, nutrient investment makes strong flower buds all the more likely the following season.


Magnesium, iron, and balanced amounts of nitrogen (fish) will improve photosynthesis. Manganese sets the stage for cation balance provided there's plenty of calcium made available in the early season. Boron applied on both sides of bloom does wonders for both fruit set and flower initiation. Low rates of potassium (vinegar) along with multiple forms of calcium in summer sprays assures robust photosynthesis continues beyond harvest while at the same time boosting tree hardiness.


We'll be talking a whole lot more at nutrient pulsing, effective homegrown formulating, and holistic foliar dynamics through the lens of plant sap analysis over the coming year. This is an important research initiative for our network… and why you might ask?


Paying attention to both the crop at hand and boosting tree photosynthesis through mineralization are equally pertinent to our success.


Pre-Harvest Drop

Apples can start dropping off the tree before they are ripe. The flesh of these early drops often has softened and proves less tasty than normal. Several factors can trigger the early jettisoning of fruit, from excessive fruit load to aggressive summer pruning, from insect damage to substantial drought and high temperatures. Mineral nutrition come into play as well.


Let's start this discourse with thinning factors. Ideally, we have addressed excessive crop load back in the month immediately following fruit set, leading up to June drop when the tree aborts fruitlets it can no longer support energetically. I often find myself "editing" additional fruit in July that took a hit from pests or was missed earlier. Still, few of us ever get this job done as extensively as we should. Crowded clusters can be found whereby sizing fruit physically pushes off its neighbor. Drought and high heat will have all the more impact when too many fruit were left on the tree from the start.


As apples begin to ripen, they produce large amounts of ethylene, the ripening hormone. Ethylene stimulates softening of fruits and the formation of an abscission layer in the stem. Some varieties, such as McIntosh and Wealthy, are very prone to pre-harvest drop. These cultivars are all the more affected by high heat which induces a jumpstart on ethylene production. Drop on such thin-skinned varieties can exceed 20% and even approach 50% in a hot summer. Balanced nutrition will help improve these numbers substantially.


Insect damage is a major factor regardless of the cultivar. That apple maggot fly egg laid 4 to 8 weeks before anticipated harvest provides the larvae with plenty of time to develop and reach the seeded core… thereby triggering premature abscission. The same holds true when codling moth generations are in sync with varietal timing. These early drops are best picked up twice weekly in order to thwart larvae exiting the fallen fruit to move onward to the pupal stage. Proper disposal can include composting provided you manage those piles to heat up properly, whether by turning or giving due consideration to carbon-to-nitrogen ratios. Feeding early drops to chickens and pigs works as well.


The orchard ecosystem plays into drop potential in a number of ways. The ability to keep soil moisture levels more consistent hinges on irrigation in high-density plantings or generous use of mulches around free-standing trees. What I have deemed "fungal ascendancy" comes about through an ongoing supply of organic matter and the dribbling of fatty acids from holistic sprays. Mycorrhizal connection in turn facilitates a wider range of nutrients being available throughout a green community. Outrageous diversity means many plant partners are supporting an ever diverse biology. Put another way, there will be far more drops in a dead-earth scenario where chemicals have destroyed life continuity.


Low magnesium (Mg), high potassium (K) and high boron (B) are implicated in the drop factor. Three applications of Epsom salts spread approximately two weeks apart starting at fruit set (Spring3, Comp1, Comp3) go far in boosting magnesium levels in plant sap.


Pre-harvest drop can be severe if you heavily prune watersprout response during the summer. Removing too many shoot leaves limits the carbohydrate supply, leaving behind less functional (older) plant leaves. Bottom line: Reducing the leaf-fruit ratio below 20: 1 will get you into trouble!



Carey Reams believed that where conditions for health prevail, disease never has a chance. Some of his views as regards human health are more controversial but many soil tidbits are worth investigating.


One is the application of Sul-Po-Mag to crop land every ten years in mid to late summer. This soil amendment (also known as langbeinite) would be applied to orchards at a rate of 200 pounds per acre. Some growers apply on a five-year rotation at half this rate – approximately one pound per free-standing tree.


What follows are taken from a topical index of Reams teachings as reiterated by former students of his in the ecological ag movement. These statements to do with tonic use of Sul-Po-Mag reflect my own experience with apple trees, especially as regards resilience of bark tissues:


ADVANCED AG: Sul-Po-Mag makes copper available. [Hold that thought!]

ANDERSEN: Reams used calcium carbonate, never dolomite. He observed that sufficient magnesium would be available if he balanced the calcium, phosphate, and microorganisms and then applied fertilizer quantities of Sul-Po-Mag.

BEDDOE: There is a prenatal period in trees and plants just as there is in animals. In the northern temperate zone, during the period from July 15 to September 15 (and sometimes up unto the first frost, or anytime the temperature drops below 60 degrees for two hours or more) the trees take in potassium that will be used to make next year's fruit. If the right ratios of potassium are not available for the trees at this time, then next year's crop has already begun to suffer. A product called Sul-Po-Mag (sulfate of potash magnesia, a naturally-occurring product mined out of the ground), is used to promote this process. JOHNSON: The application of Sul-Po-Mag is a better way to make copper available to the plant on a long term basis. If there is an excess of Sul-Po-Mag in ratio to the copper then thin skinned fruit like tomatoes will have creasing where the skin is too thin.

PLANT FEED 1976: I've seen 80% of a crop of oranges lost when they were three-fourths grown because of a lack of Sul-Po-Mag.

WHEELER: It supposedly works to release copper which allows plant bark to expand and stretch. This is a great product for use on orchards, and it will also work well on farm crops.

Note: Please distinguish these thoughts from using this natural soil amendment for specific remedial work. Fertilizer rates for Sul-Po-Mag used in the cation balancing stage of soil preparation can be higher, based on soil testing, where appropriate, as one works to improve base saturation ratios and thus soil pH.


Transmutation of Minerals

These observations come from Ewan Campbell of EcoFarm Aotearoa in New Zealand. This adds to the intrigue of working with those photosynthesizing maestros known as cyanobacteria in holistic sprays. The ability to make minerals available that just aren't there when a biological system is up and running would certainly fit with Dr. Elaine Ingham's notion that microbe diversity in soils does far more than fertility inputs.


"In the Total tests there are large variations of mineral as the biology harvest and transmutate minerals as required. As there is up to a 15% variation in laboratory testing, it can be difficult to define exactly what is taking place. Yet as we keep testing year on year it is very evident that we are not running out of fertility in our soils…


Nature is No Fool and what we have tested and observed is when we do mimic nature, nature pays you back handsomely. Cyanobacteria in the right environment certainly appear to be able to convert certain minerals to other minerals which are required for healthy production, and available silica as far as we are concerned is essential in that process along with the other facets laid out here."


Earwig Shenanigans

Apples clustered together often prove inviting to earwigs as a hangout. A typical human response to this falls along the lines of Gross Bug = Bad News. Who could possibly see any good in earwigs, right? Add to this that these insects exploit tears in the fruit, and well, the answer to who-dun-it seems pretty certain.


Earwigs have always suffered from a bad reputation, with their wriggly bodies and scary‑looking tail pincers and piles of poop. Research at Washington State University shows these insects are actually far more of an ally. Earwigs eat leafroller larvae as well as just-hatched codling moth larvae (prior to entering the fruit). Red spider mites injure foliage by feeding with piercing mouthparts and removing cell contents, including chlorophyll. Heavy mite feeding early in the season can reduce tree growth, yield, and also affect fruit bud formation for the following year. Earwigs forage in turn on spider mites. The biggest contribution of all is aphid control, particularly the dreaded wooly apple aphid.


The European earwig was first found in Seattle in 1907, spreading across the continent soon after.

Photo by Katja Schulz from Washington, D. C., USA  (



Earwigs feed at night and hide during the daylight hours. You can create earwig habitat near to those obvious WAA colonies on shoot growth and young trunks. Simply stuff a terracotta plant pot with straw and hang it upside down either on or very close to the fruit tree. Within days, earwigs will start converging on the pot. The dry nooks and crannies in the straw are perfect for them to congregate safely. These "earwig hotels" can be positioned near to good foraging zones to good effect. Bands of corrugated cardboard wrapped around branches also work.



Q&A with the Orchard Consultant

I guess I'm a bit late in my central leader pruning... but I went out to do that thinking I knew what to do and now I'm not so sure. Attached are several pics with what I'm thinking is the right approach – let me know if I have the right idea. Don't want to make any huge mistakes right off the bat when the trees are so small!

     Also probably a dumb question, but regarding limb height, does that change as the tree grows? I guess I never really thought about it too much but I guess I assumed the tree itself grew up as well as getting thicker, so a branch a foot off the ground would get higher as the tree ages... but now I'm thinking that is not correct, and that all "upward" growth comes from new growth being added from the top? A long way of asking if I have a two-year-old tree with a limb a foot or two off the ground, that should probably be pruned off, right?


You're asking about pruning the crow's foot response. You're late with respect to more growing energy could have been directed into a chosen leader four to six weeks ago but there's still gain to be had. Whips headed at planting tend to develop 2 to 4 vertical shoots competing to be the leader.

  1. I'm assuming lateral branching (where cuts are marked) is in a good place. Speaking now of what's called heading height, the place where first scaffold branches start above ground. Thus these branches could stay and even be spread if needed.
  2. Ground reference is harder to see in this image. This looks like a vigorous crow's foot response. Pruning out what's marked still leaves a selection of laterals below (assuming these aren't too low, no closer than two feet to the ground). Another approach would be to cut back to 3 or 4 buds along marked shoots so as to keep lateral potential higher up.
  3. This tree looks fairly balanced. Perhaps next spring you tip the longer lateral to regain proportionality. Its crotch angel looks legit but spread slightly if less than 45 degrees.
  4. A classic "divided highway" situation where two vertical shoots have essentially the same girth. Definitely clip this off.


Not a dumb question but rather a sign of your emerging tree consciousness. Lateral limbs do not rise up the trunk as the tree gains height. In fact, over the years as the branch gains girth, it may actually appear to get closer to the ground. Generally, prune off all growth within 2 feet of the ground. Those in the 2–3 foot range are optional, as extra green means more photosynthesis to grow roots. Recognize which are keepers and decide the fate of such extras once they interfere with the light space (and thus development) of the keepers.


Every day without even realizing it or thinking about it, we have been causing pandemics for other living creatures that we share this earth with ~ the butterflies, bees, birds, and four legged creatures are all suffering because of our complete disregard for other forms of life. This is such a grand opportunity for our species to take a giant step forward and to realize we are one with the Great Web of Life.

But will we? I remain hopeful.

          ~ Rosemary Gladstar



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

Michael Phillips


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