Michael Phillips is an organic orchardist practicing holistic and biodynamic techniques to grow healthy fruit, vegetables and soil. Along with his wife, Nancy, he owns and operates Lost Nation Orchard and Heartsong Farm Healing Herbs in Groveton, New Hampshire. They offer everything from organic apple shares to herbal remedies to a newly formed cider press collective.
Phillips has long studied the masters of ecological agriculture and biological philosophy in order to develop his own unique methods of controlling insects and diseases. This is accomplished by building resilience through cooperative biology that employs a wide range of plant partners, microbes, beneficial bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi.
Phillips co-founded The Holistic Orchard Network, a community movement that provides full-immersion education and hands-on learning in the holistic approach to orcharding. In addition to his on-farm workshops and holistic orcharding consultation services, Phillips gives upwards of 20 presentations annually. He was a key speaker at the Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag conference in Columbus, Ohio, in 2017.
In addition to co-authoring The Herbalist’s Way (2005) with his wife, Michael has penned several books with Chelsea Green. These include The Apple Grower: A Guide for the Organic Orchardist (1998, 2005) and The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way (2011), which received Garden Book of the Year honors from the American Horticultural Society. His latest book, Mycorrhizal Planet: How Symbiotic Fungi Work with Roots to Support Plant Health and Build Soil Fertility (2017) is among the most important works of its kind today and brings to light the importance of ecological farming through respect for mycorrhizal fungi.
ACRES U.S.A.: What exactly is the soil-food web, and what role do mycorrhizal fungi play in it?
PHILLIPS: Down in the soil are trillions and trillions of organisms. The whole evolutionary pathway began with bacteria and fungi and still connects to that life-web in the soil, on the surfaces of plants and within our bodies. We’re each a community of a hundred trillion organisms. When you start realizing that it’s this interconnected web of life on every level, you want to work with that.
The Greek roots of the word mycorrhizae are myco, the fungal kingdom, and rhizae, the root realm. Here we have a direct symbiosis between fungi and the roots of plants. It’s the two together that make nature’s magic happen by bringing nutrients to plants on a very simple level — in exchange for carbon sugars that the plants generate through photosynthesis and trade with mycorrhizal fungi for those nutrients.
Mycorrhizal fungi help protect plant roots from disease organisms and form these networks that scientists call the common mycorrhizal network. Mycorrhizal fungi have this symbiosis going on with more than 95 percent of the plants on this planet. So when you realize all the benefits that mycorrhizae bring, this is the basis of resilient ecosystems. And when we get into talking about how we’re going to deal with climate change, we really need to wake up to what the fungi do because they are the heart of the matter — fungi and plants working together. That’s how carbon gets in the soil. That’s how our planet sustains life.
ACRES U.S.A.: In addition to the soil-food web, there is an arboreal food web, too, isn’t there?
PHILLIPS: Yes. One of the things I got out of reading Rudolf Steiner — and I’m not a biodynamic grower well-practiced in all the preparations — but there are certain tenets and principles that really resonated for me. Steiner talked about the soil “arising” as tree bark. That trees are like a “coming up” out of the earth from which leaves grow. That’s the plant portion. But the trunk is really the soil food web arising, as well. And it’s true that out on the surface of plants are fungi and bacteria, even within the cells — in the cambium going up, and in the stems and leaves. This is part of that notion that you can’t clearly define that here is the plant and a little bit beyond that is not the plant. There’s a continuum of life going on here.
Up on the surface of the plant there is a very diverse microbial scene that needs to be maintained. Whereas the human body presents a fairly stable environment for our community of microbes, organisms on the plant surface are out there in the sunshine, dealing with freezing cold, heat and drought. This changes things. And given that human beings are spraying fungicides and other chemicals that further deplete the microbial population, that environment will indeed crash. But if we keep those microbial numbers up, keep those biological connections in place for the plant, a couple of things happen. One is that the niche on the plant’s surface where fungal and bacterial disease wants to enter is occupied by positive beneficial organisms that protect it from those diseases entering in the first place. The key for fruit growers preventing fire blight is having organisms in place to take up the niche in the open flower and the tender shoot growth so that there’s no room in the inn for the disease to get a hold.
The other thing that’s happening with the arboreal food web is that microbes are eating microbes and microbes are assimilating nutrients. I don’t expect foliar sprays to instantly be absorbed by the leaf. I’m wanting such nutrient-dense applications to be utilized by the microbes on the surface which in turn deliver nutrients to the plant. This is a deep conception of foliar feeding. Instead, we have this idea that early in the morning the stomates are open and certain nutrients can be briefly sucked in by the plant; but in truth, this whole microbial scene is ongoing. There are endophytic fungi in the cambium cells whose hyphae reach out into that space on the surface of the plant and, just like mycorrhizal fungi do in the soil, these fungi are tied into the plants and exchanging nutrition.
ACRES U.S.A.: Most people are more familiar with fungi in the form of mushrooms, but that’s just a tiny piece of the fungal web, isn’t it?
PHILLIPS: Yes. Ectomycorrhizae are those species of fungi that affiliate with trees and produce mushrooms. They evolved from decomposing fungi, but instead of rotting the wood as regards cellulose and lignins, particular species adapted to form a symbiosis to help the trees grow better. So, when you go out and you gather chanterelles or boletes or matsutakes, you are tapping into the fruiting bodies of mycorrhizal fungi that are affiliated with specific species of trees.
On the other hand, the endomycorrhizae, the ones affiliated with most of the plants that farmers and growers and ranchers are working with, have fruiting bodies which are located down in the ground, and it’s all invisible to our eyes. Working with mycorrhizae in terms of restoring plant health on degraded lands and getting biology kicking into gear so things can grow goes back to the core concept of earth balance.
ACRES U.S.A.: You have described the mycorrhizal network as a social democracy practicing free trade economics in a mutually beneficial biological barter. Are these exchanges equal or does one side get the upper hand?
PHILLIPS: In truth, we don’t know. Are the fungi driving this or the plants driving this? Both offer enticements and both work together. Back in 1924, Rudolf Steiner talked about a common root being — how roots would mesh and intertwine. He didn’t so much mention fungi, but in that same passage he also talked about how the plant is not so much distinct of itself but there are boundaries that merge together. He’s talking about fungi and soil bacteria and life, but this whole common mycorrhizal network is what he called the common root being.
The basis of this underground economy is the fact that plant saps and fungal hyphae merge; let’s recognize this as shared protoplasm — and this is where all nutrient trades take place. If you’re in a plant community, the more vibrant and diverse that community, the more different species of mycorrhizal fungi are at play. So, say some zinc gets delivered from one of your fungal partners but you don’t happen to need that zinc as a plant; and so another fungi, through the shared protoplasm, takes that zinc onward to other plants on the far side of the field where — and this is that idea of social democracy — those plants absolutely need it.
Another thing that takes place is those really strong vigorous plants — those at the height of the canopy in the sunshine producing lots of carbon sugars — they’ll actually be called upon to deliver a little bit more carbon sugar for their nutrients so such can be distributed throughout the plant community. What we’re touching on here is that this whole evolution across biological kingdoms points relentlessly to cooperation and support networks as a way to proceed in life. The ecologist Frank Egler said that nature is not more complicated than we think — nature is more complicated than we can think.
ACRES U.S.A.: You mentioned mycorrhizal fungi sequester carbon. How exactly do they do that?
PHILLIPS: Mycorrhizal fungi along with bacterial partners produce a protein substance that we call glomalin, which consists of approximately 40 percent carbon. So, just like there are periods of root outreach and periods of root retraction, there’s an ebb and a flow to this.
When plants are investing carbon sugars down below in order to grow fruit and form flowers, to go through the various reproductive stages, there’s a strong demand for nutrient trade. Feeder roots are reaching out and mycorrhizal fungi are reaching out. Then that phase ends and things retract. When the hyphae of fungi retract, they leave behind that glomalin coating that puts 40 percent carbon down there in the soil. Glomalin is also like glue, so when fungi start to bind together particles of silt, sand and clay and humus, tucking water into micro pores, they’re creating soil aggregates. As the aggregates get bigger we get macro aggregates, and this is what makes good soil tilth. Mycorrhizal fungi are the drivers of this entire scene. They’re essentially making these gated communities to avoid predators such as the nematodes and protozoa, whose role in the soil food web is microbe-eats-microbe. It’s a safe place to be if you’re a mycorrhizal fungi or bacteria. Nevertheless, this “eating of one another” is the basis of nutrient assimilation and mineralization that makes nutrients available to plants. All results in more carbon going into the soil.
ACRES U.S.A.: You have said that the surface soil of the earth is akin to the cell membrane of a plant. What happens to the microbiome when we injure the soil through tillage, fire, herbicides or pesticides?
PHILLIPS: Now we come to the subject of degraded land, and with that question comes the caveat: Do I need to restore the biology or is it just going to be there if I start treating the land right? We know that excessive or deep tillage breaks up the fungal network of mycelium, and after years and years of this there is less and less spore and plant diversity, and we start to lose the basis of soil aggregation and soil tilth. That happens through the mechanisms of the mycorrhizal fungi interacting with the roots.
Plant diversity is really important. When we disturb things we lose those biological connections that make health work on this planet. So, when I talk about the cell membrane being like the surface of the planet, it refers to the top few inches of soil supporting the fungal mycelium, just as it is within the cell where there’s a membrane that protects the nucleus — the cytoplasm within. It’s a pattern, and nature repeats beneficial pathways.
ACRES U.S.A.: Speaking of supporting the fungal network, you say that some plants associate with only one type or species of mycorrhizal fungi while others have multiple fungal partners. What benefits do plants receive from having multiple associations, and how do we get there?
PHILLIPS: I’m glad you asked this question because this is important. What we know is that in a healthy diverse ecosystem the common mycorrhizal network consists of as many as 50 different species that are there because there’s a diversity of plants.
The hyphae of ectomycorrhizae fungi can go out as far as 12 feet. These are called explorer hyphae. Twelve feet gets you down deep into the earth, often down to bedrock.
Ectomycorrhizae work with bacteria along the hyphae and contribute organic acids in exchange for carbon energy delivered from the plant through the hyphal tip. Those organic acids dissolve bedrock and the fungi pick up the minerals — potassium or calcium or what-have-you — and takes it back up to the plant world.
With soft hardwood species like willow, poplar, alder and others, there is mineralization being delivered but not necessarily needed by that tree. But through the shared protoplasm aspect, the mineralization goes out to the wider plant community through the endomycorrhizae. What I’m describing are polyculture principles of “the more plant diversity, the better.” Those trees are restoring mineralization in the humus layer through the work of the ectomycorrhizae, and the endomycorrhizae are distributing it throughout the plant community through the soil.
It may be true that there are some plants that have only one fungal partner, but that’s really a shortcoming on our part because we haven’t recognized all the things that are going on — this is such an adaptive world. When I plant a fruit tree, I inoculate that bare-root system with an endomycorrhizal mix that contains nine different species. There are generally one or two types that are really good at distributing water throughout an ecosystem, and there might be another type that works in a cold soil in spring. The plant relies on that type for a short period, and then it grows some new roots and another type comes in that’s going to deliver manganese or calcium. Again, we’re back to this idea of ebb and flow.
Then there are trees like Scots pine that have an affiliation with 117 different species of ectomycorrhizal types, so it can get really complex. Having the different plants involved is where you start to get more of it all working cohesively and covering all the bases. If we’re talking about field cropping and cover crop cocktails, it’s all those different plants together supporting all these different microorganisms, where suddenly you start to hear the symphony and it all comes together. Two plants isn’t enough, four plants isn’t necessarily enough — it takes enough diversity to get up to that place where 50 different species of mycorrhizal fungi are at play in a given ecosystem.
ACRES U.S.A.: It was fascinating to learn that mycorrhizal fungi don’t just live near, among or on plant roots, but actually inside of them. Can you elaborate?
PHILLIPS: So, the endomycorrhizal types have hyphae that penetrate into the cells of the root and form arbuscules where nutrients are exchanged. An arbuscule might be active for three to seven days and then it’s used up.
Meanwhile, the fungal system, the mycelium as a whole, shuts off that particular nutrient-exchange package and moves on. In turn, complex nutrition dissolves into the root protoplasm, which is shared into the sap that goes up into the plant.
And the notion that photosynthesis is efficient — and thus complete proteins are synthesized, far more fats are made, resistance metabolites are formed — all that happens more effectively when plants get their nutrition in complex forms. There’s nothing more complex and beautiful than the way that the arbuscule dissolves into the root cell. The ectomycorrhizae, the ones that make mushrooms, also penetrate into the intercellular spaces. Again, this entire scene is based on shared protoplasm.
One of the things I’d like to examine here is this idea of nutrient uptake by plants. Basically, NPK-thinking has it that plants take up soluble ions for their nutrition. We pump up the nitrogen, we get huge yields; and that’s supposedly more profitable. But in turn, we also get more depleted foods because they’re not as mineral rich and they haven’t really been plugged into the whole basis of biology and healthy plant metabolism. The root system on the plant utilizes short feeder roots to uptake soluble ions brought into the vicinity by capillary action of groundwater. And basically, within three-quarters of an inch to an inch from the feeder root surface, nutrients can be drawn in by that system. That’s a really short straw.
Let’s look at another way of taking in nutrients. We have the mycorrhizal fungi explorer hyphae reaching as much as 12 feet away. The endomycorrhizae actually colonize the soil around every root and so, rather than being able to just get nutrients from three-quarters of an inch away, the endomycorrhizae may reach as much as four inches around there. So, in terms of access to soil volume, they have access to ten-hundred times more nutrients. And that system of longer straws is also taking in nutrients in more complex forms, like nitrogen in the form of amino acids, bacterial metabolites and fatty acids. Just like that nutrient transfer mechanism within the root cell, the whole mycelium is delivering this complex nutrition to plants. It’s really an incredible picture. The idea of nutrient-dense foods coming from life-dense soil. It’s all interrelated.
ACRES U.S.A.: You are pointing out that plant and soil health skyrockets when a plateau of biological diversity is achieved. Is this related to quorum sensing?
PHILLIPS: I first heard Christine Jones at an Acres conference I spoke at a few years ago. She talked about quorum sensing from the perspective of soil biology and plant diversity. She referred to research that was done in the Dakotas with triticale. They were growing the triticale all by itself in a field. It was a hot and very dry summer and the crop was going nowhere. Then they grew it with one, two, three different cover crop species mixed in and the crop was going nowhere. Then four, five and six species and the crop was going nowhere. When they got to eight different species growing with the triticale, things looked green and lush and the grain heads were forming. There was no irrigation — this was all happening because there was enough diversity to form this common mycorrhizal network moving water through the ecosystem and balancing these aspects out. This was what Jones defined as biological quorum sensing — that notion of soil biology when diversity resonates. I do the same here in my orchard with lots of different plants involved, and that’s part of the health system of my trees. It’s when you have that plant diversity that you reach a point where there are enough mycorrhizal fungi and different soil bacteria finding niches to cooperate and work together in a support network. That is when this earth really hums.
ACRES U.S.A.: What conditions are needed to promote the growth of fungal spores or the regeneration of endomycorrhizal hyphae?
PHILLIPS: One of the things I think growers should understand is that a given spore located within less than a quarter inch of the root receives a chemical signal from that root which causes the spore to germinate and the union can be made. Without the chemical signal from the root, which needs to be really close by, that doesn’t happen.
In a forest fire, plants die and the soil is overheated, and a lot of the fungal aspect is destroyed, but the fruiting bodies of mushrooms put spores off into the air. Those ecto-type spores can deal with sunlight before they get washed down into the soil, where new trees grow and restore that whole connection.
But in degraded fields, where plants work mostly with endomycorrhizae, their spores are underground and sensitive to sunlight. They don’t move on the wind — they move through the guts of an earthworm, on the back of a tunneling vole — and they don’t get back into the heart of that degraded soil very quickly.
When excessive tillage and use of herbicides has been going on for decades, and the bigger and bigger the fields are, it gets harder and harder to get those spores back into the middle from the edges. There are times when it makes total sense to inoculate to restore the spore connection in that ground.
Now you can do more conservation tillage and other techniques that are not continuing to degrade the land, but you need to get the seed of the fungi back in there. There are times when investment in quality inoculum is really important and not just in planting a bare-root tree or potato eyes in the garden, but all the more in a big field where the ground has been left fallow for long periods of time, where it has been sprayed with herbicides that prevent weeds, and tillage has been part of the scene. There are times when that investment is really important.
ACRES U.S.A.: What are the different ways that soil and plants can be inoculated with beneficial microbes and fungi? Is it practical on a large scale?
PHILLIPS: There are liquid and granular forms of inoculum that can be put into the seed drill to coat the seeds as they go into the ground. Even the seed companies can inoculate the seed, so there are different ways of going about it. The cost per square foot, per plant root system is pennies, but now we’re talking about getting this fungal network going and we’re going to steward the land in such a way that we keep it going.
But when I talked about getting phosphorus and nitrogen in the form of amino acids through the soil biology — by restoring these things, we’re moving on to relying on the biology with its longer straws to bring nutrients to the plants, rather than putting NPK fertilizer down to make growth happen.
So, there are a lot of savings to be had as you restore land to health, get the soil biology working, and getting that unavailable phosphorus out of the soil — and that’s just one example. All these nutrients are there, and they’re available. The emphasis is on the biology, and in many cases that is going to begin with inoculating.
ACRES U.S.A.: You have had many years of experience effectively combating plant and fruit diseases by cultivating healthy plant metabolism and induced systemic resistance. Can you talk about how that works and what role mycorrhizal fungi play in it?
PHILLIPS: So, for me, there are five tenets to what I call holistically grown. There’s fungal stewardship — mycorrhizal symbiosis — what goes on with plant roots and fungal networking. Mineralization is a big piece — food for the organisms and fatty acids, enzyme cofactors and the importance of trace minerals.
I will use chelated manganese and include tonic formulations of trace minerals along with calcium and silica teas that I make from fermented plant extracts. When it comes to disease resistance, systemic resistance, I use the term green immune function. This is all about resistance metabolites that plants produce in the face of environmental reality.
If healthy plant metabolism is going along really strong, starting with robust photosynthesis, the end result is lots of resistance metabolites, those incredible terpenoids and flavonoids.
Another is the idea of who occupies the niche in the arboreal web. I refer to this as competitive colonization. Getting those good microbes in place, giving them a deep-nutrition diet with profound foods so they can protect the plant surface from disease organisms being able to penetrate and access plant nutrition.
The fifth tenant of holistic growing I call “outrageous diversity.” Now we’re getting into quorum sensing down below, but we’re also talking about all the different flowering plants that attract beneficial insects and keep wild pollinator populations thriving. It all comes together because we’re working with how nature does health.
ACRES U.S.A.: What are some of your favorite biological preparations?
PHILLIPS: I’ve learned some herbal medicine principles of how we can make a tea from roots and the leaves of certain plants and the constituents are extracted into the tea, and we take that in and that nutrition, in turn, boosts our body systems. With calcium tea, I’m using plants like comfrey and stinging nettle in their green phase, and I’m adding effective microbes and typically two gallons of milk into a 50-gallon drum filled with water. After 8 to 10 days, those nutrients are absorbed into the water and I can use it as a spray to boost calcium levels in crops. I’m doing this at a cost of less than a dollar a gallon. Silica comes from horsetail and nettle once it’s gone into the seed stage. If those plants aren’t growing where you are, maybe bamboo is around; maybe marsh grasses are around. There are plants wherever you are that you can work with to get those nutrients out to boost crop nutrition when it’s really important. As a fruit grower, the whole calcium silica thing is how I boost what I call the cuticle defense against summer rots. That calcium is also going to help the fruit keep longer; it just makes a stronger cell wall.
ACRES U.S.A.: What advice do you have for those farmers who want to purchase pre-made inoculants for their orchards, gardens or fields?
PHILLIPS: What I like in a mycorrhizal inoculum product is getting a bigger chunk of all the players involved. I want diversity. Some products have as many as nine different species of endomycorrhizal fungi in there, and to me, that’s a quality consideration. You often see inoculum with four species, too, but if it has just one, use that on golf course fairways, but not in agriculture.
ACRES U.S.A.: Through the years, you have gained a deep insight into the ways of living and farming in symbiotic harmony with the earth from visionaries like Rudolph Steiner, Bill Mollison and Dr. Elaine Ingham. How have they and others influenced your work to change how we farm in a new era?
PHILLIPS: I always say my first and foremost teachers have been the plants and then those humans that have really connected with the plants and with the soil biology. When you get to their core message and you make it your own, there is obviously much to be learned in many different places. We all have a bit of the truth. As we start to take those teachings and see what was going on in 1890 or in 1944 and to make it alive again, to make it our own — that’s when it becomes real. W
hen I’m out there in the orchard spraying the fermented plant extracts and the effective microorganisms and the fatty acids in the seed oils, it’s not just me, a guy on a tractor with a spray gun in my hand. My mind is out there on the surface of the plant. It’s very alive to me.
There was a time when farmers referred to what they were doing as the “making of the crop.” That it just didn’t happen because you had the right fertilizer and you had rains at the right times and then went in and got the harvest, but that you were actually a co-creator in that plot of ground and that crop you’re growing for food — for your family and community. I think all are great teachers. I’ve had the ability to go in deep and see what is taking place and it’s how we as growers invest ourselves in the process.
There’s a power there and it’s not an easy thing to describe. There is a quote from Steiner that I love — that everything in nature is interdependent. Everything. I have to emphasize this again and again. What I’m doing here on my farm with my fruit trees and the medicinal herbs is weaving a tapestry, because everything in nature is interdependent, and it’s alive. I think that whatever you’re growing, when it becomes alive for you, it’s not a commodity — it’s alive, it’s a life force. You can sense the pulse of the biology in the soil. You can sense those green cells reaching up to the sunshine, and you become one with that. I don’t think it gets better.
ACRES U.S.A.: Thank you for taking the time to share your expertise with us today. Would you leave us with some parting inspiration as to how all of us can take the first steps towards making fungus root energy a reality on our own farms?
PHILLIPS: I love going back to the root words that define mycorrhizae. We started this conversation with the construct of the fungus root. The mycorrhizal engine runs on photosynthesis, and we must never lose sight of the fact that this is a symbiotic partnership between fungi and plants.
Our job is to keep the ground in cover, to keep that green happening – active green pumping carbon down into this holy earth. Rachel Carson said at one point, those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. We really need to call on those reserves of strength now. These are, I don’t want to say end times, so let’s go with transition times, when our species has to wake up to how this planet truly sustains itself. And right now, my message to fellow growers across the country, across the planet, is to stand strong, speak up and make this fungal revolution tangible. Everywhere. The plants and fungi have always sung what I think of as a soil redemption song — and they’ll continue to sing it — and that is what makes life possible on earth. Our job is to emulate all these good teachings and to make it part of our agriculture, part of our communities, part of our innate understanding of what it is to be a caring human on this blessed planet.
Learn Soil Biology from Michael Phillips
The 2nd annual Healthy Soil Summit will take place this August 25-26. Among the presenters will be expert grower and author Michael Phillips, who will take you through soil biology essentials. View the presenter agenda and speaker info here.