Community Orchardist Winter 2019

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Deep dreams of winter come with realizations of orchard lessons to heed. Bloom did not live up to its potential this past spring in the Northeast and thus an 'off year' became the 'mother of off years'. More is afoot here due to climate change than simply insufficient thinning of the massive crop seen the season prior. Our months of dormancy now seem to be consistently capable of moving rapidly from warm to deep cold then back to warm . . . or some variation thereof. Strong buds are essential to get to the far side of the unpredictable. Meanwhile, pest curveballs are shifting with ever warmer summers and falls. Add in the inevitable response to a mast year in nature, and we're up against a bummer reality. Growers accordingly must adjust. These musings in retrospect should help refine those good intentions that in turn make possible an awesome fruit crop.


Fruit Bud Nutrition

Supporting bud integrity is understood intuitively by nutrition-minded fruit growers. What follows establishes a season-long program where we can indeed have positive influence on return bloom.


The core holistic recipe consisting of seaweed extract, fish hydrolysate, neem and karanja oil, and effective microbes is a good place to start. Establishing a vibrant arboreal food web leads to an ongoing foliar nutrient scene on the surface of our trees. Just as takes place in a living soil. Growers need to get minds beyond "soluble ion mode" to start appreciating the deeper side of plant nutrition. Meanwhile, those fatty acids from fish and seed oils readily embolden those lush green hues in leaf tissues which in turn drives photosynthesis. Robust production of plant sugars ensures healthy plant metabolism . . . and obviously some of that energy is going to be directed into fruit bud potential across the growing season.

We start this nutritional crescendo on the front end of spring. The potential for getting calcium into this year's fruit to enhance cell wall integrity actually begins with unfurling fruit buds from the get-go. Plant sap analysis done by Advancing Eco Agriculture (AEA) indicates that "early season calcium" somehow sets the pace for how much calcium can actually translocate into developing fruits. Ergo, a touch of foliar calcium mixed in with the tight cluster and pink applications has good merit.


Fermented plant extracts are a homegrown source for foliar calcium and silica once fruit set is underway. Products can be purchased instead  (and we’ll get to that in a next segment) but regardless don't overlook this fundamental investment in calcium and silica!  Manganese chelate goes hand in hand with such a plan. Foliar-applied manganese acts as a “helper molecule” to balance excess potassium thereby abetting calcium uptake in the fruit itself. Just as pertinent, manganese is an essential trace mineral for the initiation of those meristem cells that become next year's fruit buds. This nutrient combo applied with the core holistic recipe throughout the fruit sizing window is what I would call a no brainer. Seaweed extract from kelp ups the manganese ante as well.


Summer holistic sprays certainly have relevance from the bud perspective. I know, I know. There comes a point where you so want to put that sprayer away and just pick fruit. Yet it's in the fruit ripening window that growers gain the upper hand on rots. A wet summer makes such work essential but in a drier year don't forget the worth of continuing to invest in next year's fruit buds.


An additional nutrient charge may be called for even once the harvest is fully underway. Perhaps even more so in an on-year where heavy crop load has likely hindered bud development for the following spring. A bud boost application in mid-September of Accelerate (fish, crab, and select seaweeds) has been suggested by AEA as a means to resurrect poor bud potential. The question is how will fishy apples go over? Your editor admits to still thinking about this idea.


Lastly comes that brisk application of fats after harvest once leaf fall begins in earnest. Nitrogen from liquid fish in the fall holistic spray will help fatten buds come spring. The fats in turn serve as a protective overcoat against cold and wind desiccation.

Commercial Product versus Home Brews'

This thrifty Yankee derives great satisfaction from using herbs found here on the farm to make fermented plant extracts that are rich in calcium and silica. You'll find details of that in Mycorrhizal Planet and past newsletters. It also makes a lot of economic sense to me to purchase liquid fish and seaweed extract in bulk. Activating effective microbes radically reduces the cost per gallon for the biological component of holistic sprays. More than a few of you have probably heard me refer to myself as a generalist cook in preference to buying prepared spray products.


Yet it's totally fine to take advantage of the array of thoughtful nutrient and biological spray products in the marketplace if home brewing isn't your thing. One grower friend put it to me this way: "I have a hard time trying to come up with enough horsetail, nettles, and comfrey, plus the barrels. There are only so many hours in the day, Michael Phillips!" That's clear enough. He asked might I come up with yet another way to replace this part of the holistic program for growers like him whom remain baffled by biological techniques.


That other way is to spend money. I test products all the time for both efficacy and to get an inside handle on how such may have been crafted. Manganese chelate and some variation of a trace mineral tonic are on my definite buy list. I utilize Epsom salts in the spray mix when I see leaves calling out for more magnesium. The need to purchase customized products for residue decomposition, foliar calcium, foliar silica, fire blight protection, and to enhance microbial diversity, however, isn't slated to be in my book. All's good, this business of finding the time for what's most worthwhile in this wonderful life.

Borer Success

I started doing botanical trunk sprays for roundheaded apple tree borers about twelve years ago. Making a 1% concentration of pure neem oil requires one gallon of seed oil mixed into a 100 gallons of water. Sometimes I add several pounds of Surround kaolin clay to help whiten up lower bark surfaces. It requires two tanks' worth (using a 100 gallon PakTank) to do every tree throughout my orchard of nearly 400 trees, give or take. This summertime measure was all about shifting evil karma . . . having learned about borer in a big way here at our farm back in the early nineties when I detected 98 out of my first 100 trees had the grim (curse). This language is intended to indicate all the more that RHAB can be very bad news at certain sites!


What's key is completely saturating the base of the trunk from the first branches down. As in literally puddling up the application so you can see standing water soaking in at the trunk base. Merely wetting the bark is not enough. A mesh vole guard assists here, as this acts as a "back funnel" to get coverage around the entire circumference of the trunk. I make a mid-to-late June application on younger trees (those with a girth of three inches or less) with a goal of following this up on all trees a few weeks later in July. Young trees may even get a third app in mid-August but that doesn't always happen. I still find borer on occasion, maybe 1‒3% of my trees, depending on the year, this on an extremely high pressure site. Invariably it's the younger trees most subject to attack, and often the ones on the edges facing the woods where alternative host species grow. You can up the ante to a 2% concentration of neem oil for a trunk spray when targeting young trees if you are just starting to combat this curse.


Here's looking at you, babe! Growers rarely see the actual adult beetle that lays the eggs that become the infamous roundheaded apple tree borer. Photo courtesy of


Regardless, trunk sprays must still be followed up with visual inspection and a knife in the fall. Captain Ahab will advise you further about borer surgery. I've taken to "buttering" any damaged zones the trunk zone with pure neem, filling in the carved out cavity, wrapping this area with comfrey to facilitate callusing, held in place with a spiral tree guard for the fall and winter months. I make it a habit when doing borer patrol to take a partial jug of neem with me, with a flap carved out so I could get at the solidified neem at the bottom with a knife. The results were amazing in terms of revamped trunk zones the following spring. And those trees showed no sign of borer continuation, as admittedly I don't always find the culprit, and thus rely on the azadirachtins in neem to finish the job. Recently, I started to spread neem butter all the way around any young tree base that looks the least bit suspect, right at the soil line, partially excavating to apply and then refilling soil over the base of the "neemed" zone. I want to stress this handwork was always post-mortem and not preemptive.


A couple years passed and John Bunker of FEDCO Trees showed me his new planting of cider apples in Palermo, Maine, this past spring. The trunk zone was dark and oily looking, reaching up as high as the first branch unions. I asked John if he perchance was applying pure neem to his trunks. He was indeed . . . and then the light bulb finally came on: Why not brush liquefied neem on every young tree directly, especially in a newly planted orchard? That said I only got as far as my nursery in treating trunks in this manner this past spring. Slather neem oil on liberally if you choose this approach, again puddling up at the base, as even pure oil does not seem to harm actual bark tissues. I saw no sign of borer (and there had been the year before) when weeding that bed in late summer. The female beetle itself is so zoned in on laying her eggs at the soil line which is why I limited the brushing on of liquid neem in the nursery to a small excavation and no more than a few inches up. I didn't like the blackened mold that results higher up otherwise.


There's one other factor that needs to be pointed out in all this borer madness. I typically make between 8 to 10 holistic applications to my trees through the season to keep things like scab, fire blight, and all moth species in check. (A review of the timing of such is presented in the June 2018 newsletter.) These core apps include a 0.5% concentration of neem and karanja oils every time. Besides coating leaves and the canopy structure where adult RHAB land – and subsequently crawl down to the trunk – I will often wet young trees all the way down to the soil line. I think of this as touching up trunk coverage just because you never know. (Psychiatrists have not yet affirmed "Borer Paranoia" as a legitimate condition but I'm sure they will someday.) I do this on a definite soak basis with the very first spring spray and fall spray, so those apps may be even more significant to contributing to the overall good results that I'm seeing.


Bottom line: It's a labor issue for me in terms of getting to several hundred trunks in a timely manner on this high-pressure site. Thus I will opt to continue (mostly) with botanical trunk sprays. Others of you will find it more efficacious to take John's lead and brush on liquefied neem directly in June. Once and done.


Organic growers now have a legitimate borer solution in hand.

Squirrel Negotiations

I have long fielded the question what to do about squirrels albeit without ever having needing to act in this regard myself. Our native red squirrels seemed to know enough to stay in the woods rather than awaken the sleeping giant. Until following the mast year of 2017, that is. Untold squirrel hoards wreaked havoc on my 2018 fruit crop. What follows is not going to be pretty.


The devastation started a good six weeks prior to particular apple varieties ripening. A bite here, a bite there. Not ready? Try over here. Every damn day! What seemed like one or two rodents at work (calling it as I see it) can often be a half dozen if not more. Say, didn't I just see you? That business of squirrels being territorial is bull when populations are out of control. Peach growers report bushels of fruit disappearing in the course of a single day. Most of those apple samples from early on were subsequently subject to rot by the time of harvest. I can feel the anger welling up anew recalling all this.


Traps are theoretical. And it must be said that live versions of same where the squirrel gets moved to a distant location are not without ethical issues. Some growers make a sound argument for drowning the trapped squirrel instead.


One way or another, a predator is required. That predator needs to be you. I rely on my father's trusty 22 caliber rifle for this. Suburban settings might tolerate use of an air pellet gun. Squirrels will sit in a branch and lecture you. The takedown shot is admittedly closer than it is kind. I took out some two dozen squirrels out of necessity. Another grower south of here reached a count of ninety.


Less destructive alternatives may work in the home orchard setting. Attaching a sheet metal collar around the trunk of isolated trees can prevent squirrels from being able to climb up the trunk . . . provided lowest branches aren't within jumping reach and taller trees don't hover above from which to jump with glee. Some people apply sticky Tangletrap to the metal surface to lessen interest quicker. Bird nets from companies like Plantra may help but do keep in mind rodents can gnaw through practically anything. A trusty dog in the yard may be key to protecting that net perimeter at ground level.


Let me know if you have anything to add.


Q&A with the Orchard Consultant

We are used to living and dying by rainfall because the products we applied in the past often required reapplication after a significant rain event.  With the holistic sprays, I don't anticipate this being an issue (yay!).  But just to make sure, are there any instances like ridiculously heavy rain when you feel reapplication is necessary? You refer to tighter spray frequency in regards to more frequent wetting periods, so what are you worried about washing off specifically? Or is it simply because disease potential is higher during wet periods?  I know you may apply in response to specific events (hail storms or extreme fire blight pressure during bloom) in addition to your usual scheduled sprays, but I'm just asking about reapplication of a scheduled spray in response to, say, a normal 1/4 to 1 inch of rain, or beyond.


I consider a holistic app to be systemic (taken within tissues) as well as "lodged" with respect to microbes establishing an arboreal food web well-supplied with food resources in the form of fatty acids. This in turn leads to a more substantial appreciation of foliar feeding as an ongoing (not instantaneous) paradigm. The goal with a holistic spray is a day if not two of sunshine for photosynthesis to be able to prime systemic immune response fully. Microbe populations use this lead time to further colonize the leaf surface. A heavy rain is not going to wash this off the way it does sulfur, etc. Plus fats have staying power, especially in context of the nooks and crannies of the waxy cuticle. The reason for a tightening of spray frequencies in the fruit sizing window is because so many things happen then. Certainly disease potential peaks in the weeks following bloom. The recommended pace of spray timing reflects what I have observed by means of haphazard Brix readings taken at varying intervals after a holistic spray:

Effectiveness of holistic application in the field stretches as long as 10 days (to as much as 14 days in greenhouse trials).

I start tightening up application frequency with petal fall and first cover apps. Coming out of bloom is a tenuous time and I want to be sure microbes are up to snuff. A quiet bloom period means there's been no biological reinforcement since pink. On the other hand, a CCB (completive colonization boost) might be applied twice for two purposes: fire blight conditions on subsequent blossoms and/or an extended period with little rain followed by significant wetting that releases untold scab spores prior to the petal fall app.

Here's a past scenario in response to a deluge event defined as an inch or more of rain. Interestingly, this is the one time I trialed the sulfur card since going cold-turkey holistic more than a decade ago. One block got the holistic core recipe at petal fall; another block got full-rate micronized sulfur; both in anticipation of a predicted mega-wetting. The "old me" knew to renew sulfur about two days into the rainy period because there had been two inches of downpour by that point. Yet this was a trial to determine how pure holistic stacked up against preemptive sulfur one-on-one. Accordingly, scab got far more established in the second block. Sulfur would have done a better job with a renewal app yet compared on the basis of singular coverage, holistic results were damn impressive.

INDEED: There's more freedom in holistic understanding but you still must heed frequency aspects for an array of challenges at concentrated points in the growing season.


If we lose the forests, we lose our only teachers.

— Bill Mollison




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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.


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

Michael  Phillips


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