by Karl H. Kazaks
NORTH GARDEN, VA — On May 11, close to 40 people gathered at Vintage Virginia Apples outside of Charlottesville to attend a day-long Organic Orcharding 101 Workshop. The day’s keynote speaker was Michael Phillips, who (together with wife Nancy) operates an herb and apple farm in New Hampshire. Phillips is also the author of The Holistic Orchard and The Apple Grower. This account will touch on just a few highlights from the educational day.
The foundation of Phillips’ pomological philosophy is that healthy fruit comes from an ecosystem that is in balance. In particular, he stresses the importance of having healthy soil. His measure of healthy soil goes beyond just the amount of available nutrients — it includes having a robust fungal network and a robust biological community. A healthy varied soil community, he believes, is what provides the best firewall against disease — not only does such a community grow stronger apple trees, but it’s also home to beneficial insects which can mitigate disease risk factors in the first place.
Soils in the eastern U.S., Phillips said, “are forest-derived. They’re tied to saprophytic fungi that decompose woody matter.” Because such fungi build “the forest soil ecology in our orchards,” Phillips recommends orchardists encourage its growth by mulching with ramial wood chips — chips made from woody material less than two-and-a-half inches in diameter.
The carbon-nitrogen ratio in such wood chips, Phillips said, is 40:1. “That’s a fungal sweet spot.” As you get into bigger pieces of wood (tree trunks and the like), the carbon-nitrogen ration rises to as high as 700:1.
When sourcing wood chips, select for hardwoods. The fungi that decompose softwoods — including the bark found in much of the mulch available commercially — are not the same type that you want to encourage in your orchard. What’s more, softwood bark is usually very rich in tannins, which is not something you want too much of in your orchard soil.
To get the right type of wood chips, Phillips suggested looking for treetops taken from logging, or talk to your local utility line clearing crews. If you make it yourself (he recommends a chipper which you affix to a tractor’s PTO), chip the brush but don’t shred it — you want larger pieces of mulch. You can use a modest amount of softwood, but make sure your mulch is at least 80 percent hardwood. Also, avoid walnut mulch due to the juglans in its wood.
Having woodsy debris at the soil level of your orchard, said Phillips, is not the same as having it in the atmosphere. Don’t stack wood — such as pruning trimmings — around or near year orchard, as the material can serve as a vector for disease which can blow into and infect your orchard.
In addition to wood chips, Phillips will also spread — in a random pattern — spoiled or mulch hay throughout his orchard. Field mice, he said, like to nest in the hay. After winter, bumblebees like to colonize the abandoned nests — and then you have more pollinators in your orchard.
What’s more, when Phillips spreads woodsy mulch, he likes to have mulch at different stages of decomposition throughout the orchard at any one time (rather than a uniform, manicured look).
“A lot of this is emulating the forest edge,” (where you might typically find a fruit tree), he said. “You don’t find things neatly mulched at the forest edge.”
Phillips recommends apple growers attend to their fungal duff zone regardless of their system — dwarf trees or large trees. Either way, he said, “you’ll get the connections you want to facilitate that plant being healthy.”
In terms of adding organic matter to the soil, Phillips likes to use compost — but his recipe for orchard compost is not the same as for garden compost.
To make orchard compost, he takes garden (biological) compost, mixes with an equal part of ramial wood chips, and lets it sit for six to 12 months. The goal is to make compost which will facilitate fungal growth — at that 40:1 C-N ratio (above the 25:1 C-N ratio usually found in good garden compost).
Phillips spreads his orchard compost in the fall. If you want to add trace minerals like those found in kelp to your orchard, Phillips recommends adding the minerals to the compost in August and then spreading the compost in October.
“It doesn’t take a lot of compost to maintain an orchard,” Phillips said. “Two tons per acre.” That works out to about one cubic foot per tree — or one and two-thirds five-gallon pails of compost per tree.
Above the soil, Phillips likes to cultivate plants and successively blooming flowers which can provide a home for beneficial insects and also support bumblebees.
“The more biodiversity you have in place the more you have allies you have out there,” Phillips said. Plants that he grows or has grown include comfrey and red clover, but the best mix for any particular orchard depends on its site and conditions.
While this was the first time Phillips came to Vintage Virginia Apples for a workshop, the orchard does hold several workshops each year. Those workshops — which typically cover grafting, cidermaking, and planning and planting a home orchard — provide an additional revenue stream in addition to the property’s orchard and cidery (Albermarle CiderWorks).
Tom Unsworth is an Operations Associate at the property, and was glad that Phillips came to central Virginia to speak.
“He has a great way of cutting to the chase,” Unsworth said. “The nice thing about Michael’s system is he has a lot of levels — it works for commercial producers and the home orchardist.”
Phil Lykosh, who owns a small orchard in Esmont, VA, attended the workshop. He had previously attended a number of other workshops at Vintage Virginia Apples and had read both of Phillips’ books. He attended the workshop, he said, “to reinforce” what he learned by reading those books.
“It’s helped me realize, ‘Ah, that’s what he’s saying when he says that in his books,’” Lykosh said. “His emphasis on nutrition, too — if your plants are healthy it’ll be that much easier to deal with pests and insects.”
For more information about Phillips’ approach to apple growing, consult his books or his website www.groworganicapples.com.
Michael Phillips visits central Virginia to spread his apple cultivating wisdom
by Karl H. Kazaks