Home » The Holistic Orchard Introduction: Getting Started

The Holistic Orchard Introduction: Getting Started

By Michael Phillips

This is an excerpt from Michael’s book The Holistic Orchard: Trees, Fruits, and Berries the Biological Way, published by Acres U.S.A. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Growing your own fruit becomes downright fun once you understand organic principles and take them to heart. Soil health and forest-edge ecology are what make good fruit possible, not chemical sprays. Working with Nature using biological methods makes home orcharding a venture that families can enjoy for years to come. Stepping up the size of that planting to grow healthy fruit for your community will be a fun progression for some of you. Now the time has come to plant that very first tree.

Gaining confidence to do this right is key. You simply need to get over that proverbial hump that somehow you’re going to screw this up and waste both effort and money. I’m writing The Holistic Orchard to give you that shot in the arm, inspiration backed with knowledge that will get you started and provide the sensible guidance you need to succeed in the long haul. More people growing wholesome fruit for family and friends fits right on that shining path to a sustain- able tomorrow. Doing this holistically—by stewarding ecosystem connections and overall health—means you’ll experience real flavor in a pear or plum for perhaps the first time. That health anxiety many feel when thinking about pesticide residues in food will go out the window. I’m also willing to bet you’ll discover a core part of your being, that place where humans find happiness and meaning as we embrace our root- edness on this precious planet. The gift of each day in an ongoing garden of eden, wherever you grow and call the land your home, tops any list of blessings.

Apple Branch

So let’s get cracking, shall we? A book on grow- ing fruit for the family needs to give clear, step-by-step instruction, share which tree fruit and berry varieties it would be wise to consider planting to start, and provide solid insight into horticultural basics like pruning and dealing with pest challenges. Such books have been written before and will be written again. However, this time you and I will go farther. Ours is a journey that won’t look only at so-called organic solutions to insects and disease. Far deeper concepts lie in the pages ahead, based upon the advantages that come from fostering biodiversity. Ecosystem dynamics constitute a huge part of what it takes to bring helpful subtleties to the fore. Forget the chemically biased advice that says growing fruit organically can’t be done. We have arrived in a new century with eyes open and spirits rarin’ to go.

Everyone faces a requisite learning curve when it comes to growing decent-looking fruit. Orcharding, frankly, is more involved than straightforward organic gardening. A first-time gardener plants a certain seed, and chances are fairly good that a red beet gets plucked from the ground sixty days later. A first-time orchard- ist plants a tree that requires nurturing for two to five years . . . then it blooms and sets fruit . . . which must somehow overcome an onslaught of pests and diseases and four-legged critters throughout all twelve months of the year . . . before that delectable peach finally gets to shout oh, yes indeed!

You’ve been given a generous opportunity right there to come up to speed: Years roll by as you learn what you need to know. Flip to almost any page of this book and chances are you will feel some initial trepidation about the depths of knowledge involved in orcharding. Right? I understand, for, just like you, I too once planted my very first apple tree. This book is not some guide to “instant orcharding,” but rather it offers tiers of knowledge meant to be unveiled each time you return to it. We’re much alike in this. I do something one way for a while and then comes a day when I’m ready to hear that next bit on the way to becoming a better grower. Such moments arrive only when you’ve come farther along your learning curve and thus have the ability to make sense of the infor- mation. Be patient about this. Words on these pages weave back and forth, from friendly explanations of the basics to fascinating nuances that someday you will appreciate knowing. The extensive glossary will be a big help when you’re not quite sure what a term means. Zero in on the index as well to find every part of a particular story line. This is an orchard guide to dive back into again and again. Trust that confidence will come from the doing. I’m honored to be one of your teachers, but know that you will encounter many others along the way.

Fruiting plants will tell you where they want to grow, for instance. That makes sense when we start thinking biologically. Plant consciousness is real, but people often get confused by believing that the consciousness part emanates from the human rather than the green guy. This notion that life forces communicate—provided we are receptive to listen- ing—goes back a very long time. Gardeners who possess a green thumb are said to be successful growers because they feel what their plants need, whether it be water on a hot sunny afternoon or more root space in the pot. This intuition can be expanded all the more on the orchard front once we probe the science of tree physiology and ecosystem interdependence. Yeah, you’re on to me now: We’re going deep before we fulfill that step-by-step jazz. Every orchard site is unique. Different challenges wait over the next hill, let alone across this vast continent. You become attuned by fully embracing forest-edge ecology. Healthy trees in turn make for a happy orchardist who can deal with the unexpected.

Human health is a function of plant health, which is a function of soil health, which in turn is a function of fungal health. Now, who ever thought you’d see that kind of a statement in a book on growing fruit? A good apple is about so much more than simply negating insects and disease! A biological approach to orcharding relies first and foremost on supporting system health. Interestingly, the mutually dependent chain that leads to cramming berry after luscious berry into your mouth begins with symbiotic fungi that expand the nutrient reach of feeder roots a hundredfold. We’re mistaken if we lump all micro- organisms into a something other than us category and consider them something to be warded off, sanitized, and otherwise dealt with through toxic means. And yet mainstream agriculture as practiced these past hundred years does precisely this. We’ve too long forgotten our allies—belowground, aboveground, and on the surface of the plant itself—that can outcom- pete (for the most part, given nutritional support) other pathogenic organisms that cause disease. Each tree and fruiting shrub is a system within a system dependent on the vitality of all these other life-forms that are invisible to our human eye.

There came a day when I realized that the deep organic principles I wanted to implement in my orchard meshed entirely with the holistic health tenets that my wife, Nancy, was embracing in her herbal stud- ies. But of course! Farming wisely essentially means we are working to heal. To make things whole. To foster the connections among the birds and the bees and the trees and ourselves. Everything shifts when looked at in this light. Producing fruit is not about manip- ulating Nature, but rather about fostering Nature. Acknowledging an element of reverence in the process of growing food for ourselves makes everything we do for the plants and the soil a sacred act.

Orchardists are going to find in these pages an entirely new approach to abating fungal and bacterial disease because of my immersion in these two complementary worlds. Fruit tree culture has been stuck in allopathic mode for far too long, solely seeking out short-term fungicides and antibiotics to destroy disease-causing organisms from without. We’ve failed to understand that the tree’s own immune response could be coupled with the stimulation of friendly microbes to defeat disease from within. What I am calling the “four holistic sprays of spring” are all about building the health of the system to deal with everyday environmental reality without toxins. Many words are dedicated to helping you understand the whys behind the exceedingly clear recommendations to do just that.

Blackberries Image

Those of you new to organic orcharding have no idea what it means not to deal with mineral fungicides like copper and sulfur. The caustic days are behind us for the most part . . . noting that unfavorable weather patterns may still make a light touch of organically approved medicine necessary for certain fruits in certain years. But the upshot for home and commu- nity orchardists alike is that growing fruit successfully will now be far more fun.

Then there’s that often overlooked link between nutrition and our own health. Far too many doctors, and certainly far too many modern farmers, simply don’t reckon that the quality of what goes in deter- mines the quality of what becomes. Vitamins and minerals in the foods we eat are the building blocks of healthy bodies. Real food is nutrient-dense in that meat, vegetables, grains, and fruit—nurtured with compost and biologically reared—contain the full and balanced nutrition that our bodies require to maintain healthy function. Humans evolved eating fruits and nuts and green plants and the occasional mastodon. None of these foods was shortchanged nutritionally; every bite had fantastic flavor and substance. Why we accept anything less in modern-day fare is a result of effective advertising coupled with an outright loss of species intelligence. You reclaim your nutritional birthright when you plant that first pie cherry tree. How you grow that fruit in turn determines the nutri- ent density of your family’s own health prospects.

You need to know just enough to get launched into the growing of healthy fruit, but not feel so overwhelmed that you never begin. This book insists that you understand ecosystem health and only then consider the horticultural specifics of what it takes to grow particular fruits. Part of my job has been to deliberately hone the selection of varietal sugges- tions for different regions. I did this in part by talking with fruit growers across the country about which varieties work best where each lives. Flavor was the biggest underlying consideration, followed by grow- ing insights that should help you understand localized parameters all the better. I expect you to choose from a wider array of varieties than those that are offered here as you discover which fruits are successfully growing nearby. The culture of orcharding is built around sharing grafting wood and berry plants with one another. Seek out a regional fruit explorers group and you will soon have lifelong friends who will share their knowledge as well.

The organic insights and suppositions that other growers shared about their particular pest challenges needed to line up with my own intuitive take on biological science. Some folklore got thrown out along the way, whereas other bits are offered with the greatest esteem for ancestral wisdom. You should find the methods offered here to be simple to employ, cost- effective, and homegrown whenever possible. Any and all feedback is welcome . . . this is a guide I hope to continually update and improve as we discover the nuances of holistic orcharding together. What’s needed right now are new fruit growers who are not locked into allopathic thinking (whether through formal training or years’ worth of certified habit) and who are thus able to perceive the biological connec- tions that make orchard health possible. Shifting internal perceptions is the first step in bringing subtler methods to the fore.

Now a suggestion: Remain calm. Numerous insect scenarios get discussed in any fruit-growing guide. I often share an especially daunting volume on moths alone in my conference presentations. Page after page after page of color plates reveal an array of tortricid fauna of apple known to afflict pome and stone fruits alike. I point out that more moth species have come on the scene since Cornell published that book in the early 1970s. Only then do I turn what seems to be an overwhelming conundrum for the fledgling orchardist into manageable reality by explaining that any one orchard location may have two or three, perhaps four, outstanding concerns for which proactive steps may be required—and then only in some years—to produce a respectable harvest. The rest add up to a hill of beans, getting dibs on a tenth of the crop at worst.

What counts is learning how to determine what takes place on your home turf and then being able to consider sound advice to proceed accordingly. The Holistic Orchard offers friendly guidance throughout to help you understand the ways of fruit trees and berry plants. You may also want to obtain one of the orchard field guides recommended in the appendices, which will help fine-tune the identification of dozens of insects (including beneficial species) and the visual manifestations of disease found in orchards. The color compilations put together by Cooperative Extensions in each region of the country as well as university websites are to be used and appreciated . . . even if the usual accompanying chemical recommendations do not brew the tastiest cup of tea.

Many other wonderful fruits—like grapes, kiwis, and pawpaws—can and should be grown in the home orchard. Not to mention jujubes, mulberries, figs, avocados, citrus, pomegranates, and persimmons. Such selection ultimately depends on the growing zone in which you live. I wrestled with the decision of what to include and decided that “other fruit” books by people like Lee Reich, Lon Rombough, and Charles Boning address this already. (As always, see those appendices!) Native fruits often enjoy impor- tant ecological advantages and lend themselves read- ily to organic growing methods and permaculture design principles. If you live in the right climate for any of these fruits, I absolutely encourage you to add even more bounty to your orchard planting.

Our biological thinking cap has arrived. The teach- ings ahead will tell you not only what to do but, more important, how to think from a holistic perspective. Organic orcharding can never be a straightforward recipe where you simply follow steps A, B, and C and then pull a delicious apple strudel hot from the oven. Nature is dynamic . . . climate is changing . . . and every ecosystem is localized. New growing seasons bring shifts in the challenges to be faced. Every vari- ety will not necessarily thrive where you live. A key quality of a good fruit grower is the ability to adapt. What I love about my fruit trees—and all plants— is the listening and the observing. Seeing the subtle- ties brought forward by healthy management choices. Knowing I can adjust my understanding in order to help shape a better biological reality. Appreciating the gifts of this special place in the universe. You have that same ability too. You really, really do.

To keep learning about organic orcharding, find Michael Phillips’s book Holistic Orchard: Trees, Fruits, and Berries the Biological Way at the Acres U.S.A. Bookstore.

About the Author

Michael Phillips Portrait

Michael Phillips was a farmer, writer, carpenter, orchard consultant, and speaker. He lived with his wife, Nancy, and daughter, Grace, on Heartsong Farm in northern New Hampshire, growing apples and a variety of medicinal herbs. Michael is the author of The Apple Grower (Chelsea Green, 2005) and The Holistic Orchard (2011), and teamed up with Nancy to write The Herbalist’s Way (2005). His Lost Nation Orchard is part of the Holistic Orchard Network, and Michael also led the community orchard movement at www.GrowOrganicApples.com.