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Articles on Holistic Orcharding

Holistic Disease Management

by Michael Phillips

Things Our Mothers Never Told Us About
Fungus in the Orchard

Apple scab lesions gain a fatal foothold on the leaf surface when spring rains release tens of thousands of ascospores. (photo: courtesy of Alan Biggs via the West Virginia University Fruit Web)
Apple scab lesions gain a fatal
foothold on the leaf surface when
spring rains release tens
of thousands of ascospores
(photo: Alan Biggs).

Much of what follows begins with understanding the annual cycles of disease pathogens in apple trees. A preventative approach relies foremost on orchard sanitation. Admittedly, the use of a fungicide during the primary infection period can make all the difference when blown-in disease spores and favorable weather conditions make infection likely. Apple scab, black rot, powdery mildew, and the rust diseases take hold on the tender leaf tissue and fruitlets from about the pink bud stage till about two weeks after petal fall. I use the minimum amount of sulfur I can get away with during this time-about three applications on average here in my orchard in northern New Hampshire-based upon the collective experience of many in working with spore maturity, wetting periods, and tissue susceptibility.

The nuance of determining when to spray (and when not to spray) is explained in exacting detail in The Apple Grower. Too many growers simply do not realize that sulfur applied in excess (or a conventional chemical approach for that matter) eliminates the microbial allies that are essential for keeping disease under control in a holistic orchard by even gentler means.

I currently spray elemental sulfur with wise discretion during the primary infection period when several fungal diseases are most likely to strike. I liken this to what my herbalist wife, Nancy, has taught our family to do whenever we fly. The chance of being exposed to an infectious bacterium or virus in the re-circulating air of a jet comes practically guaranteed. A vibrant immune system keeps us well. Nevertheless, in that highly charged air which so many people share, it doesn't hurt to improve one's prospects by taking Echinacea (an herbal tincture) before and after landing to boost one's immune system. Sulfur works in an entirely different manner, but you get the idea. Applied protection goes a long way when inoculum levels are high.

Grow your orchard library at our Bookshelf Grow your orchard library at our Bookshelf.

Plant Medicines for Plants

Cedar apple rust on the fruit can only be prevented early in the growing season. (photo: courtesy of Keith S. Yoder via the West Virginia University Fruit Web)
Cedar apple rust on the fruit
can be prevented only early in
the growing season.
(photo: Keith S. Yoder)

A holistic approach to disease embraces the idea of enhancing the tree's immune system rather than merely taking a toxic approach to symptoms. Plants utilize a similar process as we do in warding off invading pathogens. Polysaccharide compounds are produced when hydrolytic enzymes first contact fungi and bacterial membranes on the foliage surface. These in turn activate an internal defense mechanism in the plant that scientists call phytoalexins. These consist of isoflavanoids and terpenes (varying for each unique plant species) which, when produced in sufficient abundance, can resist the invading pathogen. Plant stress, the overuse of synthetic agrochemicals, and climatological factors work against this natural defense mechanism process found in healthy plants.

more insights:
Thorough coverage with the refined kaolin clay keeps fruit-eating pests at bay -- photo: Michael Phillips.
Kaolin Clay Strategy

The larva of obliquebanded leafrollers (OBLR) feed on developing apples and tender leaves alike. (photo source: West Virginia University Fruit Web).
The Lepidoptera Complex

You know how some of us use vitamins or nourishing herbs to enhance our diet in order to strengthen the body's own protection systems? The same can be done with plants. A citrus extract being used in tropical fruit production activates the production of phytoalexins in a wide range of other fruit trees. Stinging nettle tea has a revered place in garden folklore as a foliar perk-me-up for stressed plants. Some biodynamic growers apply a horsetail spray directly to the foliage and fruitlets beginning soon after petal fall to protect against sooty blotch and flyspeck. Astral explanations aside, Equisetum arvense contains 15 percent natural silica compounds that abets a systemic response to the gradual build-up of summer fungi. Certainly a potent garlic brew has microbial benefit once absorbed into the tree's vascular system. Essential oils from basil, cumin, clove, wintergreen, and eucalyptus show promise against a number of fungal pathogens precisely because such oils contain terpenoid compounds.

The most effective plant preparations in "human herbal medicine" utilize the whole plant as the active principle. Western pharmaceutical practice often isolates one constituent in the making of a standardized product. Solvents are used to draw a specified chemical from the crude herb on the theory that a single active constituent possesses the targeted mode of action in and of itself. Any community herbalist can tell you this kind of reductionist chemistry fails time and time again compared to using a medicine lovingly prepared from the whole plant. Apple growers using pure neem oil imported from India are savvy to this truth: Azadirachtin is but one of many useful constituents in the revered neem tree. Patented neem insecticides fall way short by comparison. Pure neem helps with both insect and disease control, not to mention improved tree health from the foliar nutrition perspective.

Our quest as orchardists is to find herbal remedies and the like that can induce an immune response in the apple tree, quickly and strongly. Ideally each of us will find the plant extract needed in the very locale in which we grow fruit. The latest edition of The Apple Grower goes to great lengths in explaining the parameters leading to even more possibilities that growers can pursue here.

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Living in a Very Populous World

A second holistic notion worth pondering in this discussion of orchard disease management is our cultural fixation on sterility. Somewhere along the line we made a decision to equate a lack of microorganisms as being a wise approach to preventing disease. And let's face it, very few of us can say that we've never taken an antibiotic or swiped our counters with an antibacterial soap. Good Lord, you can hardly avoid having to purchase socks chemically-treated for fungus today! This underlying assumption that ridding the environment of critters much smaller than ourselves somehow must be safer misses the reality of living on earth. I constantly ask the folks attending my workshops to envision holding up 1 to 2 pounds of themselves. This amount of body weight represents that portion of ourselves that isn't "us." Bacteria cover our skin, line our nasal passages, and make the intestines the effective digesters they're meant to be. Our good health is predicated on the right little fellas existing within us in proper abundance.

Let's take this understanding out to our orchards and gardens. Establishing a colonization of good microorganisms somewhat ensures that the "bad guys" won't find room at the inn. I've argued earlier for the discretionary use of fungicides in the primary infection period. Now I want to think outside that box. A new product called Serenade draws its worth from this deeper understanding that microorganisms can out-compete another species of microorganisms. This biofungicide from AgraQuest establishes a culture of Bacillus subtilis on the plant surface. This strain of bacterium, prevalent in soils worldwide, is known to release cell contents during growth to eliminate competitors in its immediate environment in order to protect its niche. Furthermore, this soil bacteria has also been shown to induce the plant's natural resistance against bacterial and fungal pathogens. No doubt by the mechanism explained above. Here's a product designed to immediately reestablish a good culture following the application of fungicides during those weeks in spring of primary infection probability.

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Reaching once again for the homegrown solution suggests the use of compost teas. ATTRA has a very useful publication explaining foliar applications of such a microorganism-rich brew; call them at 1-800-346-9140 to request "Compost Teas for Disease Control" or download this write-up direct from the web. Elaine Ingram does an excellent job of explaining essential concepts about the Soil Food Web that apply here as well. Her book "The Compost Tea Brewing Manual" is requisite holistic information.

photographs this page courtesy of Alan Biggs & Keith S. Yoder
via the West Virginia University Fruit Web
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