The Holistic Approach to Orchard Health

Learn the holistic approach to better orchard health — from pure neem oil to liquid fish sprays.

| May 3, 2013

The Holistic Orchard (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011), by Michael Phillips, demystifies the basic skills everybody should know about the inner-workings of the orchard ecosystem, as well as orchard design, soil biology and organic health management. Detailed insights into the holistic approach on grafting, planting, pruning and choosing the right varieties for your climate are also included, along with a step-by-step instructional calendar to guide growers through the entire orchard year. The following excerpt comes from chapter 1, “The Orchard Ecosystem” and chapter 4, “Orchard Dynamics.”

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The Holistic Orchard.

The Four Holistic Sprays of Spring (Part One)

The heart of a holistic approach to disease comes down to four health-supporting sprays for our fruit trees early in the growing season. We forgo copper, sulfur, and lime sulfur by doing this. These are the long-standing mineral fungicides relied upon in certified organic operations to ward off potential disease . . . but at a cost to mycorrhizal health, fruit finish, yields, and return bloom. An overview of organic allopathy will be coming, along with an understanding of specific challenges when health-minded orchardists might nevertheless feel compelled to call upon traditional spray options. Weather that induces serious disease risk demands focused attention. Yet we can often ride through extenuating circumstances simply by emphasizing orchard health across the board. Which brings us to the four holistic sprays of spring.

These fixings of orchard health consist of pure neem oil, unpasteurized liquid fish, and a diverse complex of microbes. That last component of this holistic recipe can be served up as effective microbes or aerated compost tea. This is primarily a nutritional brew for beneficial fungi that also happens to stimulate tree immune function. A competitive arboreal environment will ward off pathogenic disease, and all the more so when fruit tree phytochemistry is activated. The primary infection period for most tree disease is effectively straddled by these sprays. Yet there’s more to this story. The nitrogen boost (from the fish) going into bloom will strengthen pollen viability. Insect pests will be impacted by azadirachtin compounds in the neem, which inhibit the progression from egg to larva to adult. These holistic spray applications serve as a biological replacement for petroleum-based dormant oil as well. Early-season moth cycles get disrupted, setting up “lesser generations” the rest of the season. That should be plenty to wet your whistle for now, methinks.

Biological Reinforcement

The interplay of microbe communities on the surface of the leaf and fruit is finally getting the attention it deserves. I am jump-starting orchardists (by way of this book) to the cutting edge of biological fruit growing . . . and trying to keep things relatively reasonable at the same time! This is a microscopic world where numerous species of fungi and bacteria consume and become food resources; leaf phytochemistry is stimulated by the presence of trillions of organisms; and disease-causing fungi and bacteria have to compete every step of the way.

Canopy colonization depends first of all on food resources being available, be this from leaf exudates, the bodies of fellow microbes, the food-generating capability of photosynthetic bacteria, atmospheric contributions, and whatever we supply additionally as growers. A number of other factors work against full colonization of competitive organisms on all surfaces of the fruit tree. Ultraviolet degradation, acid rain, ozone depletion, extreme heat, and dry spells have to do with natural decline. Additional impact comes from agricultural choices to use fungicides and high-nitrate fertilization to up yields. The upshot here is that maintaining a competitive arboreal environment calls for regular biological reinforcement provided with appropriate food resources.

Effective microbes

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