The Holistic Approach to Orchard Health

1 / 13
"The Holistic Orchard," by Michael Phillips, provides readers with all the information needed to create and maintain a successful orchard.
2 / 13
All fungal events can be correlated with root timing down below. Holistic disease management is facilitated by seeing this fungal curve as a guide to the timing of specific tasks.
3 / 13
All fungal events can be correlated with root timing down below. Holistic disease management is facilitated by seeing this fungal curve as a guide to the timing of specific tasks.
4 / 13
Pure neem oil requires a soap emulsifier to properly mix into water.
5 / 13
silica levels in the "Equisetum arvense" plant — commonly known as horsetail — rise appreciably when the fronds spread apart.
6 / 13
Stinging nettle in the seed stage has increasing levels of silica.
7 / 13
Comfrey can be used as a homegrown foliar calcium source by simply brewing an herbal tea with its leaves and letting this ferment five to seven days.
8 / 13
The process of brewing nutrient-rich teas for the holistic orchard requires little more than brewing buckets for each herb.
9 / 13
The "Venturia" fungus that causes pear scab overwinters in twig lesions as well as on fallen leaves.
10 / 13
Peach leaf curl establishes at the end of a harvest in bud crevices.
11 / 13
Bacterial spot launches right around budbreak.
12 / 13
The fungal duff zone finds its heyday when it comes time to stir the biological stew each fall.
13 / 13
A modicum of lime sprinkled on the first fallen leaves ensures that a hefty majority of the current year's scab lesions will be unsuccessful at establishing pseudothecia (spore sacs)to spread disease anew nest spring.

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.”

You can buy this book in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store:
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

An outgrowth of the nature farming movement in Japan has been the development of a special culture of beneficial microorganisms known as effective microbes, which are used as a probiotic inoculant to promote ecosystem health. Effective microbes increase the species diversity of both the soil food web and the arboreal food web—thus enhancing the growth, yield, quality, and disease resistance of crops. These cultures of microbial species occur naturally in environments worldwide but have decreased in many soils due to overfarming and chemical fertilizer and pesticide use. The microorganisms in an effective microbes culture fall into three principal groupings.

Photosynthetic bacteria are self-supporting microbes that synthesize useful substances from secretions of roots and foliage, organic matter, and/or atmospheric gases, by using sunlight and the heat of soil as sources of energy. The food resources developed by these bacteria include amino acids, nucleic acids, bioactive substances, and sugars, all of which promote plant growth and development. The metabolites developed by these microorganisms are absorbed directly by plants and act as substrates for increasing beneficial populations. Mycorrhizal fungi in the root zone, for example, benefit from nitrogenous compounds (those amino acids) secreted by the photosynthetic bacteria, thus bulking up this symbiotic system for tree roots. Needless to say, it’s these photosynthetic bacteria that form the backbone of effective microbes working synergistically with all the other microbes, both those in the applied culture and those already indigenous to the orchard ecosystem.

Lactic acid bacteria produce lactic acid from sugars and other carbohydrates that are proffered by photosynthetic bacteria and yeast. Common foods such as yogurt and pickles have been made with lactic acid bacteria for centuries. Lactic acid is a strong sterilizing compound in its own right, able to suppress disease-causing microorganisms, be it in the pickle jar or on the surface of a leaf. Down on the orchard floor, lactic acid bacteria promote the decomposition of material such as lignin and cellulose, thereby making the nutrients in otherwise difficult-to-decompose organic matter bioavailable. Most telling of all, for tree fruits struggling to absorb foliar calcium, these bacteria improve the utilization of calcium, phosphorus, and iron.

An assortment of yeasts synthesize anti-microbial and other useful substances required for plant growth from amino acids and sugars secreted by photosynthetic bacteria, organic matter, and plant roots. The bioactive hormones and enzymes produced by these single-celled fungi promote active cell and root division. These secretions are also useful substrates for lactic acid bacteria and actinomycetes, the earthy-smelling bacteria found in healthy soils worldwide.

Other organisms found in proprietary probiotic cultures may include specific actinomycetes and various fermenting fungi. One nice thing about actinomycetes is their ability to produce anti-microbial substances that suppress harmful soil fungi such as Phytophthora root rots. Fermenting fungi decompose organic matter rapidly to produce alcohol and esters that suppress odors and thus change the cues that attract certain insect pests like maggot flies.

Phew! That’s a whole lot of interdependent rock ’n’ roll showing up in a relatively invisible world! Effective microbe cultures allow us to consistently introduce these synergistic organisms via the sprayer to our fruiting plants and the ground in which they stand.

Home orchardists can keep this simple by using the mother culture as it comes prepared by the manufacturer. Community orchardists have to be more economical about this, having far more trees to cover, and thus activate effective microbes through brewing in order to increase batch size twenty times over. The premise behind this is simple: Critters awaken and then multiply when given food resources and the right temperature range. Planning ahead is essential, because the activation process takes as much as ten days. Activated effective microbes must always be brewed directly from the mother culture; microbe populations begin to shift upon subsequent batch brewing.

The basic recipe for activating effective microbes is as follows:

• Measure 3/4 cup of unsulfured molasses. Organic sweet sorghum is often recommended, but I opt for using a good blackstrap, which is more economical for orchard use.

• Pour the molasses into a clean gallon jug two-thirds full of hot water from the tap, up to a temperature of about 120–125°F (49–52°C). The water should definitely not be chlorinated. Use a plastic jug rather than glass to allow for gaseous expansion. Shake well to dissolve the molasses.

• Measure 3/4 cup of the mother culture and pour this into the sweetened water. Shake well. Top off the gallon jug with lukewarm water.

• Put aside in an insulated box or other warm place, such as by the woodstove. The goal is to keep this anaerobic brew close to 90–95°F (32–35°C) for the first two to three days. The lactic acid bacteria are the first to kick into gear, provided the jug or water was not contaminated with a more aggressive organism. The initial pH of the brew will drop from 5.5 or so to around 4.0 in this time period, indicating that active production of lactic acid has begun.

• You will need to ferment the batch for another five to seven days after this to mature the complete culture. Normal room temperature is fine at this point, though slightly warmer conditions (72–78°F, or 22–26°C, is considered ideal) will accelerate the process. The photosynthetic bacteria are the last organisms in the brewing progression to grow. A slight gas expansion in the jug can be observed when you loosen the cap during this bacterial bloom phase.

• Check the pH of the solution to determine when microbe populations have stabilized. Dip a strip of pH test paper into the jug, then check the resulting color with the dispenser chart. Mother culture comes at a stable pH in the 3.0–3.5 range—but I will use an activated batch once the pH drops below 3.8, knowing that photosynthetic bacteria are now hale and hearty. Your nose is perhaps the best indicator of all: Activated effective microbes are ready when that characteristic sweet earthy smell of the mother culture has been reestablished.

• It does not matter at all whether effective microbes are brewed in the dark or in light.

This biological component of the holistic spray recipe is applied to straddle the primary infection period of most fungal diseases in spring for all the reasons given already. Some probiotic companies warn not to spray on open blossoms, as the microbes might prove detrimental to flower viability, but this is debatable. Summer use of effective microbes can be continued along with the fermented herbal teas if growers in humid areas feel more protection is needed from summer rots on peaches or problematic surface fungi like sooty blotch on apples. I especially want orchardists to be aware of the virtues of fall (post-harvest) applications of effective microbes as a means of denying certain disease-causing bacteria and fungi access to overwintering spots within fruit tree buds. This is the means by which copper and lime sulfur (applied post-harvest and again prior to budbreak) for use against diseases like bacterial spot and leaf curl in stone fruit and, yes, fire blight in pome fruit can be left behind. Arboreal health should indeed be promoted year-round.

Compost Tea

The life diversity found in the compost pile can be employed to do similar work. The nuances of using aerated compost tea for disease suppression have been thoroughly explored by Elaine Ingham and its use promoted by her many protégés. The basic premise is wonderful: Craft a fungally dominated compost pile for orchard use, brew an aerated tea with it to favor the further propagation of aerobic organisms, spray this on the trees to crowd out pathogens, and change the food resource dynamic. The same tea can be used as a ground spray to replenish depleted soils. All to the good, and a homegrown proposition at that. The trick, however, is getting a righteous brew.

A rather pricey brewer is used to keep substantial volumes of tea aerobic and at a desired temperature. Many tips are shared to use specific fungal foods to guide the culture in a fungal direction. Compost quality is absolutely critical. All these steps require the power of the magnified eye to confirm the types of organisms in the brew. It’s fascinating, fun, but downright finicky . . . and thus simply more than the average home orchardist is going to do. Compost tea consultants can supply you with know-how: you can get a light microscope to confirm the presence of desirable species; trial and error might eventually make you a preeminent brewer; and the tea alone may indeed counter tree fruit disease, as its most adamant proponents claim.

However, I’m going to stick with my integrated scheme for now, using effective microbes for a somewhat consistent diversity component in spray applications to build orchard health. Those of you embracing the tea approach should be in touch so I can pass word along of successful nuance. Some of you might even want to try a combined approach, using the aerobic premium of a proper compost tea with the photosynthetic bacteria that give effective microbes their holistic credentials.

Nonaerated compost tea won’t satisfy purists, but I do see a place for this simple brew in orchard culture. This liquid extract of compost requires none of the fussiness of the aerated version. A few shovelfuls of rich compost soaked for a day or two in a 5-gallon bucket, stirred on occasion, then strained, yield a less defined yet still helpful range of organisms to enhance leaf decomposition beneath the trees in the fall.

Supporting these microbial reinforcements on the plant surface while at the same time building up inner plant fortitude comes down to deep nutrition by way of foliar sprays. Food resources for the microbes subsequently will be made bioavailable to the plant by the interactions of the arboreal food web. Foliar uptake of certain spray nutrients occurs directly through the leaf stomata but to a less certain degree. Absorption is increased when sprays reach and coat the undersides of leaves, as this is where most stomata are located. Foliar nutrients cause an increase in photosynthesized plant sugars, a portion of which (research suggests 25–30 percent) are used to feed the soil biology, which then has enhanced gumption to provide more soil minerals back to the tree. Wowser! Here we cover the nuance of biologically attuned leaf foods that play important roles in holistic disease management.

Pure Neem Oil

The cold-pressed oil of the seeds of the Azadirachta indica tree (common throughout most of Africa and India) makes possible many healthy orchard happenings. The constituents in unadulterated neem oil that play a huge role in countering disease are the immune stimulants and the fatty acids. My first encounters with this whole plant medicine on the organic marketplace suggested its role as a leaf polish . . . and in a very real sense neem continues to be just that by way of nutrient pathways galore.

The raw seed oil tastes bitter and smells garlicky, if not nutty, at its freshest. More to the point, this herbal remedy contains vitamin E, essential amino acids, and secondary plant metabolites called terpenoids and isoflavonoids. The fatty compounds in neem are derived from palmitic, stearic, linoleic, and oleic acids primarily; all of these contribute considerably to microbe health as well. Pure neem oil also contains trace amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, iron, magnesium, and manganese.

Stimulating tree immune response in the orchard with an herbal remedy from another tree seems especially appropriate. The phytochemistry in pure neem oil induces fruit trees to up leaf production of those very same terpenoid and isoflavonoid compounds used by all plants to overwhelm fungal hyphae and keep them from getting an infection foothold. Healthy plants do this all the time. We’re simply timing the holistic spray schedule in spring to straddle those weeks when fungal disease pressure peaks . . . thereby upping the resistance factor when it’s most needed.

The fatty acids come into play in different ways. Providing this ideal biological fuel to sustain arboreal colonization should be clear by now. Mycorrhizal and saprophytic fungi in the soil respond to this food resource, which is especially useful when the ground begins to warm in early spring. The healthy sheen left on bark and leaf alike helps protect plants from climatic stresses. The ability to disrupt pathogens from overwintering in bark and bud crevices—backed with biological reinforcement to close the deal—holds particular promise for growers faced with bacterial spot or fire blight buildup. Canker infections will be somewhat checked by means of this fat nutrition providing a leg up to competing organisms. Pure neem oil is used in body lotion products in the herbal trade, in part because the fatty acids regenerate our skin. In a nutshell, healthy biology of any sort thrives on fatty-acid-based connections.

Early-season neem goes on at a 1 percent concentration when used as a fungal catalyst directed at the ground and major branch structure of the tree. Little leaf tissue shows the week of quarter-inch green, and it’s generally quite cool at this time of year; the risk of phytotoxicity is low. This same 1 percent concentration is also used to totally saturate the trunk zone in the summer months to deter various borers from laying eggs. All other foliar applications of neem oil during the growing season are made at a 0.5 percent concentration. Don’t overdo a hand wand application (by lingering too long on a particular branch)—you might see leaf damage and possibly even fruit russeting as a result. That pathogen disruption nudge to the bark and bud crevices in fall can be made at a 2 percent concentration once the majority of leaves have dropped from orchard trees.

Raw neem seed oil will be anything but easy to spray unless you know the tricks of the trade. Due to its high levels of natural vegetable fats, unadulterated neem becomes as thick as butter at temperatures below 60°F (16°C). Planning ahead is a must when it comes time to spray: Place the container in a warm room (but not directly in sunlight) for a day until the consistency reverts to a homogeneous liquid. Placing semi-thawed neem in a pot of warm water on cool mornings may be necessary as a final step. An emulsifying agent can be any biodegradable soap. This must first be mixed directly into the neem oil, on the order of 1 tablespoon of soap per 6 ounces of oil. This mixture will quickly become greenish yellow and opaque as the large globules of fatty oil are broken down into smaller globules. Pour this oil/soap blend into warm water in a bucket and stir vigorously before adding the completely emulsified mixture to the spray tank and its full volume of cooler water. Applying such a mix as soon as possible goes without saying.

Neem oil can be stored into the start of the subsequent growing season, but generally try to obtain a fresh supply for each new season. You may notice a sludge factor at the bottom of the container after long-term storage. Pure neem oil is mainly composed of glycerides of fatty acids, and in this way it is similar to palm oil. Both oils deposit stearin at low temperatures (below 41°F, or 5°C) and especially after they solidify. This occurs all the more with each cycle of warming. The stearin deposit can be filtered out if needed without representing a loss, biologically speaking. The best plan around this: Purchase the quantity that suits your orchard needs for the season ahead; “thaw” the original jug amount when you’re ready to make the first spray in spring; bottle up the rest of the neem in batch sizes required for each subsequent orchard spray (pints, for example); and store the batch sizes back in a cool place (like the cellar) to best preserve constituents, bringing out one at a time as needed for your holistic intentions.

Liquid fish

Three distinct types of fish products are offered on the organic marketplace, but only one has vast biological value.

Liquid fish fertilizer is made from the first pressing of genuine fish parts and has not been pasteurized—and thus contains the fatty acids and enzymes so important to beneficial microbes. This nutrient-rich formulation of biological fish will sometimes be called hydrolysate. Fish emulsion, on the other hand, consists of liquid wastes (after processing fish for other purposes) that have been heat-treated and thus biologically deactivated. Refined fish oil falls into its own niche as a sticker-spreader used to overcoat biological toxins like Bt and thereby protect the active ingredients from ultraviolet radiation.

The bottom line is you want a liquid fish fertilizer that contains those desirable fatty acids. Recommended brands in North America include Organic Gem, Neptune’s Harvest, Eco-Nutrients, Dramm, and Schafer Fisheries. These processors use an enzymatic, low-heat process to ensure that organic compounds are left intact while eliminating bacterial breakdown (and thus strong odor) by adding a trace amount of citrus extract or phosphoric acid. Heat destroys the vitamins, amino acids, enzymes, and growth hormones that act as biostimulants to the soil and arboreal food webs. Powdered versions of hydrolyzed fish (drying anything to a powder involves heat) are not in the same biological league.

Liquid fish has been included in the four holistic spring sprays not only for the benefits of its fatty acids but for its nitrogen boost as well. Foliar nitrogen serves to prolong pollen viability, helps hold fruit set, and strengthens meristem development to ensure good return bloom the next season. Orchard use of fish in the growing season ends with the first cover application, as excess nitrogen in the summer months will delay the hardening-off process of fruit trees. I apply fish one last time as part of the holistic fall application, now utilizing the nitrogen to boost decomposition forces on the orchard floor.

Liquid fish rates might seem to be determined by the applicator based upon the price paid per gallon. Home orchardists are at a retail disadvantage here: A single gallon will cost four times as much as the same gallon drawn from a barrel shipment. Recommended community orchard rates are 4 gallons per acre for ground application and 2 gallons per acre for foliar application. The backpack equivalent for foliar use amounts to 10 ounces of liquid fish in each tank mix.


Unsulfured blackstrap molasses contains all sorts of nutrients that get beneficial microorganisms up and running. Its complex sugars are a carbon source with humic-like properties that are consumed by fungi and bacteria alike. Which is why it’s so important to use molasses as a feed when activating effective microbes to increase batch size. That same principle applies to direct foliar application of the mother culture; a dollop of molasses has been included in the home orchard spray mix accordingly. Molasses in the spray tank will help “stick” the introduced microbes to the leaf surface as well.

Adding blackstrap to applications aimed at increasing nutrient density is worth considering as well. The complex sugars in molasses help maintain high levels of Brix in fruiting plants. This measurement of soluble solids in plant tissue (which includes a combination of sugars, amino acids, and proteins) is made with a refractometer using a scale expressed in degrees Brix. Fruit grown with deliberate intentions of maintaining a higher Brix will be more nutrient-dense and of better quality. Plants with a Brix reading of 12 or more are said to be unlikely to attract insect pests, to have increased disease resistance, and to better withstand climatic stress. A jump in Brix levels not too long after applying a health-oriented spray mix serves as a legitimate indicator that foliar intentions have been met. Adding molasses to foliar applications has been shown to help achieve this.

Carbon sugars are the principal source of energy to stimulate soil bacteria so that the process of decomposition can get off to a good start. Spraying red clover residues with molasses and liquid fish after mowing in both fall and spring (when prepping new ground for planting) helps bring on the bacterial flush that precedes greater fungal presence. A similar transition situation occurs when tilling out beyond the dripline in midsummer to break up heavy sod or to maintain dwarf trees. Molasses provides that requisite bit of extra energy for the soil microorganisms to rapidly break down residues just before sowing cover crops alongside the tree rows.

Table molasses is not nearly as good for horticultural use as the darker blackstrap molasses. The latter is the syrup left after the final extraction of cane sugar, with nutrients galore that include potash, iron, and B vitamins. The natural sulfur component found in blackstrap made from mature sugarcane is a useful nutrient, but do avoid sulfured versions made from young sugarcane, which have sulfur dioxide added as a preservative. Rates vary between 1 and 4 quarts of blackstrap per acre for ground application. Use 1–4 pints per acre for foliar purposes, which translates to 1/4 cup of molasses in the standard backpack tank mix.


Milk nutrition enters the orchard in the form of whey. The liquid remaining after milk has been curdled is a by-product of the cheese industry that can be dried into whey powder. This excellent source of proteins, lactose, vitamins, and minerals can be added to any holistic foliar mix on behalf of leaf nutrition and arboreal mycology. And whey contributes directly to disease suppression to boot!

Calcium has been shown to inhibit fungal spore germination. Conversely, low calcium levels along with excess nitrogen in leaf tissue set up conditions for disease. Australian growers using foliar sprays of milk (diluted 1:10 with water) have successfully reduced powdery mildew levels on grapes. Reconstituted whey achieves similar effect, only more economically. What’s not clear is the mechanism behind all this. Lactose intolerance on the part of opportunistic fungi? Competition from arboreal organisms boosted by milk nutrients? Foliar calcium uptake by leaf cells, resulting in stronger cell walls? Very likely it’s all of the above.

Similar observations come from South America, where the teachings of a brilliant French biologist have been brought to growers’ attention. Francis Chaboussou proposed that susceptibility to pest attack is intimately tied to protein synthesis in plants. Long story short, disgust with the high cost of chemicals left a number of fruit growers willing to try an all-out nutritional approach. Herbicides, fungicides, and excessive nitrogen fertilization were let go in favor of rock phosphate applications and spraying orchards every two weeks with whey (at a 2 percent concentration). That was the constant. Different growers of different crops used fermented manure tea, trace minerals, liquid fish, molasses, and humic and fulvic acids as well. Various fruits, from guava to apple, turned out impeccable and delicious, free of blemishes and infestations alike.

Herbal teas

Homegrown remedies excite any herbalist, so perhaps you can imagine the passion I hold for using fermented herbal teas in the orchard and berry patch. These summer brews follow right on the heels of the four holistic spring sprays. Other disease-causing organisms arrive on the scene just as fruit begins to takes form. Specific herbs can be used to beef up the cuticle defense of the fruit tree with silica and to supplement calcium to ensure strong fruit that stands up to summer and post-harvest diseases. This part of the holistic plan is semi-optional, but probably a good idea for fruit growers who want to fully capitalize on all the good work of spring.

Arboreal brews go totally herbal following first cover. Pure neem oil continues to be at the heart of an ongoing nutritional spray program aimed at boosting immune resistance to various fruit rots and other surface diseases like sooty blotch. (Neem will also be interrupting the summer moth complex for those with multigenerational issues.) The assorted herbal teas fit in somewhat sequentially with the neem tank mix. I follow a ten- to fourteen-day application schedule for these holistic summer sprays in order to achieve a respectable fruit finish. You will have to gauge the realities of summer disease pressure and overall plant nutrition at your site to determine if these arboreal brews really should overrule other plans on certain mornings.

Making a fermented herb tea is simple. Fill a 5-gallon bucket with fresh herb, lightly packed. Boil a pot of water to pour over the leaves (as opposed to boiling the herb in the water), as this helps maximize nutrient extraction. Now fill the bucket to the brim with unchlorinated water. Let sit for seven to ten days somewhere outside, loosely covered to prevent significant evaporation. This fermentation period makes the constituents that much more bioavailable for foliar absorption. These teas are diluted in that I add the strained tea from each bucket for each herb being used to each 100-gallon batch of spray. Backpackers might consider adding a quart of each herb tea per spray, as you honestly can’t overdo herbal nutrition used in this way for tree health.

Three plant friends in particular meet my summertime needs in the orchard, with the tops of another adding a gourmet touch.

Fermented teas of horsetail are included two or three times in my sprays following petal fall, including that final holistic spring application at first cover. Horsetail (Equisetum arvense being the preferred species) is 15 percent natural silica. It turns out that silica plays a role in the cuticle defense against particular summer fungi that smudge the surface of apples and pears and others that rot the lot.

You’ll find this ancient plant in undisturbed moist places such as streambanks, drainage ditches, and marshlands with partial to full sun. Whorls of long brittle stems radiate out from the nodes of jointed hollow stems that grow 10–14 inches high. Its slender leaves start off reaching up but recline to a horizontal position as silica levels rise in the plant, a transition that determines harvesttime for orchard use. A non-seed plant, horsetail is usually spread by spores (just like fungi), though transplanting by root division is possible. I have an extensive patch growing on the north side of our farmhouse right along the foundation, making the gathering of horsetail for my orchard sprays a cinch.

The fermenting tea of horsetail exudes the smell of the sea . . . so says the poet . . . while its telltale rotten-egg smell reveals the full truth of a ready brew. Its anti-fungal qualities verge on the energetic for biodynamic practitioners, who include horsetail tea (made from dried herb) in ground applications in early spring and again in fall. Our plan focuses solely on the bioavailable silica and its uptake into the cuticle. Summer fungi landing in that month after petal fall take some time before appearing. It’s easy to miss the beginnings of rot, but in another few weeks peaches and the like can become a discouraging mess. Sooty blotch and flyspeck require 250 hours of accumulated wetting before becoming visible on apples at harvesttime. Preventing a fungal foothold early on is what wins these ball games. One last fascinating note about Equisetum for those of you enthralled with aerated compost tea: A significant increase in beneficial fungi counts has been noted when horsetail is added to the tea brewer.

Fermented teas of stinging nettle could actually be used anytime, but I wait to do this in conjunction with horsetail starting at first cover and then on through the month of August. Nettle is pure tonic nutrition for plant and food web alike. Trace minerals (like zinc, iron, and selenium) abound, along with nitrogen, calcium, potassium, and almost every vitamin named. Silica levels in Urtica dioica go skyrocketing up when seed formation on the plant becomes obvious . . . which coincides perfectly with the time I make teas for the fruit trees to ward off summer fungi and to perk up the vegetable garden.

Nettle leaves are covered with tiny hairs—hollow needles actually—that sting upon contact and then cause a mild burning sensation for hours afterward. Unmanaged pastures might be one place to look for this stinging herb, but it’s simple to start nettle from seed in the greenhouse, from which you can then plant a home nettle patch. Trust me. You will come to treasure the gifts of this migrating plant for spring greens, for your own medicinal use for almost every condition, and as a green remedy for fellow plants renowned above all others. One suggestion is in order to keep your relationship with nettle on an even keel: Wear gloves when harvesting this plant.

A proper fermented nettle tea can be even more powerful with respect to the hydrogen sulfide (rotten-egg) smell. Interestingly, this is the brew that slugs by the dozens choose to sip and invariably drown in . . . an observation that has led me to set out shallow servings of this particular tea wherever slugs currently seem to have the upper hand in the garden. Don’t worry—you’ll be filtering out any slugs that make it into the tea bucket along with the nettle residues prior to making those successive orchard sprays.

Comfrey packs a wallop of calcium in its deep green leaves. This superstar of the orchard understoryis known botanically as Symphytum officinalis. The chemical compound allantoin in this herb encourages bone, cartilage, and muscle cells to regenerate in our bodies. Naturally, comfrey is a powerful stimulator of all cell multiplication and thus growth in plants as well. I rely on this herb especially as a source of supplementary calcium, a mega-nutrient required for all fruit production.

Calcium translocates somewhat poorly from leaf to fruit, especially when there are dramatic fluctuations in rainfall patterns or it’s a light crop. This can lead to calcium deficiency in the fruit—even when soil levels appear adequate—causing a disease condition known as bitter pit in apples or cork spot in pears. Certain varieties are more susceptible to this late-season spotting of the skin than others. Commercial growers rely on summer foliar sprays to get more calcium into the fruit to prevent bitter pit. Young fruitlets are best at absorbing calcium, as eventually the waxy cuticle of the ripening apple will interfere with absorption. My homegrown solution to this perennial challenge is the bioavailable calcium found in fermented comfrey tea, applied every other week after petal fall.

Garlic extracts are considered to be systemic, which means that leaf tissues readily absorb the proffered plant constituents. We grow a substantial amount of garlic on our farm, a process that involves removing the flower stalks (scapes) on hardneck varieties, and it’s these scapes that I invariably include as a gourmet topping in my height-of-summer brews. We cut the scapes from the garlic in June, about a month prior to the bulb harvest, and throw a handful of these into each bucket of herbal brew from that point on. The fact that the organo-sulfur compounds in garlic serve as synergistic carriers of silica and other nutrients from those teas into and through the cuticle simply rocks my herbal boat.

This concept of plant medicines for plants is expanded upon the world over—anywhere modern spray concoctions aren’t necessarily desired or affordable. A few last orchard tidbits might intrigue you enough to try other teas as well. Aromatic herbs like wormwood are used to ward off female codling moths (which rely on sensing nearby fruitlets by smell) during the period of egg laying. Tansy is reported to be effective at preventing fungal rusts. A fermented decoction of horseradish roots prevents various rots on light-colored apples, cherries, and plums. Undiluted fresh teas of nasturtium or broad-leafed dock can be used on existing cankers and to protect young trees from the same. Grasshoppers will not nibble on wild lettuce—a bitter slurry of this plant sprayed onto fruiting plants will indeed deter descending hordes of these foliage destroyers. Sometimes the most sensible solutions grow right in our backyard!


The tenets of whole plant medicine invariably lead to the sea. Those brown and green seaweeds that grow in cold, nutrient-rich water and along rocky shores are various kelp species. These large ocean algae contain a wide range of naturally chelated nutrients, amino acids, and other growth-promoting substances such as cytokinins. If you live near the ocean, you can harvest washed-up seaweed on the beach to take home as a great addition for the compost pile or even as haphazard mulch. Growers who use kelp regularly as a foliar application report increases in fruit quality, shelf life, and resistance to environmental stresses such as drought and extreme heat, as well as pest and disease problems.

Cold-processed liquid kelp has been enzymatically digested to preserve the complete range of hormones and proteins that go with all the important trace minerals in seaweed. A quality dried seaweed extract retains a significant share of those growth-regulating hormones as well while saving considerably on shipping costs. Researchers have noted that it’s the cytokinins that allow the fruit tree more time to increase its resistance response to disease-causing organisms. Both seaweed products contribute in that respect.I add seaweed to every spray opportunity as a megavitamin for healthy growth once foliage is showing. Higher concentrations of chlorophyll result, and that means photosynthesis is enhanced. The tonic rate for seaweed extract is 8 ounces (dry weight) per 100 gallons per acre on a biweekly schedule, which is equivalent to the recommended 2-quart-per-acre rate for liquid kelp. In backpack terms, this amounts to 5 tablespoons liquid kelp per 4-gallon spray volume. Many of the liquid fish manufacturers offer a mixed product consisting of biological fish with cold-processed kelp, but because I want to continue using seaweed all summer long, I purchase these two products separately.

Reprinted with permission from The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way by Michael Phillips and published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011. Buy this book from our store: The Holistic Approach.

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368