An Interview with Michael Phillips, author of The Holistic Orchard and The Apple Grower 

Michael Phillips, author of The Holistic Orchard. Photo via Chelsea Green
Photo via Chelsea Green

CFSA: We usually hear the word “holistic” used in connection with alternative health or wellness. What does it mean in the context of growing orchard fruit? For instance, how is “holistic” fruit growing different from “organic” fruit growing?

Michael: Working with nutrition allows body systems the right resources to heal from within. Add the ecosystem component and all sorts of natural advantages can be provided for fruiting plants. Good organic growers have always known this. Yet those intentions of ‘never using chemicals’ doesn’t quite break from the notion of addressing disease pressures solely by toxic means. And thus organically-approved mineral fungicides like sulfur and copper are often used to excess to counter disease. The holistic grower knows that tree immune function and competitive colonization can be reinforced to defeat disease from within. Similar choices on this allopathic/holistic divide speak to how we deal with insect pests. It’s simply so much more fun to choose the healthy route.


CFSA: Most orchardists try to limit their chemical spraying, for both environmental and cost reasons. But in this book, you actually promote biological sprays. Can you explain what these “good sprays” are and how they benefit the orchard ecosystem?

Michael: The holistic spray program is totally about deep nutrition and competitive colonization. The spring applications straddle the primary infection period of many diseases and therefore are necessary universally. Dealing with summer rots and sooty blotch is where the fermented herbal teas fit in. Basically, the phytochemical immune response is that much stronger in a robust fruit tree. Couple that with biological reinforcement on the leaf and fruit surface. . . and scab spores and blight bacteria will find “no room at the inn” to establish diseases. I look at this as our part of the stewardship pact with the trees by which we grow healthy fruit despite the vagaries of the season.


CFSA: You mention “community orchards” throughout the book.  Could you describe what that means in practical terms of orchard size and marketing? Is it similar to the concept of Community Supported Agriculture? And can you make a profit selling fruit locally?

Michael: I hold to the creed that our culture needs to grow food in all the places that we live to the extent that we can. Growers have too long been daunted by not having the ideal site. . . which seems to suggest that much of our fruit should come from the east side of the Cascade Mountains in Washington and Oregon. What I see is serious home orchardists excited to plant more than the family needs. This, in turn, leads to selling fruit at market or creating a fruit share component for local CSAs. All such efforts are community orchards. The emphasis is now on tree-ripened fruit grown in living soil… and the taste benefits of that simply can’t be brought in from afar. A community orchard can be anywhere from 20 productive trees to several acres in size to up to 10 acres. Pricing needs to account for all the labor involved but more and more, people are willing to pay this as they understand that nutrient density in our food matters. And that’s why ‘fresh and local’ tastes so extremely good!


CFSA: As a group, do you think insect pests or diseases pose a greater challenge to the person who wants to create a holistic orchard?

Michael: Insects are definitely easier to get a handle on. All sorts of biodiversity in the surrounding ecosystem helps tremendously here. Plus we have some very effective options in our organic toolbox to nudge things back to balance. Disease, on the other hand, starts off as an unseen force of spores and bacteria. Growers are often not quite as far along on their learning curve to grasp that certain things need to be done at very prescribed times in the growing season. And it’s such a long season. . . giving various afflictions more than enough time to gain a foothold. And the weather is always different every year. All this makes dealing with disease the bigger challenge no matter what your approach.


CFSA: There’s a lot of information in your book on “understory” planting of herbs and flowers, like comfrey and sweet cicely.   What kinds of benefits do these companion plants provide for fruit trees?

Michael: Permaculture people speak about dynamic accumulator and beneficial accumulator plants. The first group includes tap-rooted herbs like comfrey that draw minerals up from the subsoil to replenish the nutrient profile of the topsoil. That’s a boon for tree feeder roots. The second group of flowering plants serves as adult habitat for beneficial insects. Such as the tiny parasitic wasps and syphid flies whose larvae consume foliar pests. Plants like Sweet Cicely and Queen Anne’s Lace are nectary sources for the adults. . . which are thus on hand to find moth larvae and aphids and the like for their own young.


CFSA: So much of the orchard’s “business” seems to take place either underground or up in the tree canopy, often at a microscopic level that we humans can’t even see. How do we begin to change our perception of what’s really happening in our orchard, and how can we turn that knowledge to our advantage?

Michael: I love the electron microscopy shown in Holistic Orchard. The first image shows the cellular surface of a tree leaf. The next zooms in to show the microbe colonization on a single leaf cell. Just imagine being a disease spore landing in the midst of all that competition! We steward this biological scene as growers. Visualize this action again and again as you do orchard tasks, knowing this is how things work as nature intended.


CFSA: How much of what commercial fruit growers do in terms of spraying (whether chemical or organic) is dictated by the perceived demand for “perfect,” blemish-free fruit in the marketplace? Can we ever get beyond this?

Michael: The majority of my fruit looks pretty darn perfect too. But my customers also know that a small dimple caused by an insect sting is harmless. That sooty blotch fungus can literally be rubbed off the apple’s skin. That a couple of small scab spots represent an active phytochemical response to disease presence, and thus more antioxidants and other secondary plant metabolites that our bodies, in turn, utilize to stay healthy. A good third of the sprays being applied in fruit orchards are about upping the ante around appearance. How much better to understand that nutrient density and thus flavor results in part from a fruit tree standing up to environmental stress. Ultimately, that’s the ticket, isn’t it? Getting people to taste how fruit is really meant to taste when picked off healthy trees.


CFSA: Looked at from a holistic perspective, do we need “pest” species in our orchards to ensure a healthy ecosystem?

Michael: I use the term ‘balance’ for a reason when talking about insect pests. Biodiversity happens in part because food resources are available for all sorts of species. You may think life would be far better off without the yellowjacket, for instance, but did you know that all summer long these wasps gather moth larvae to feed their young? We’d lose ladybugs if no aphids whatsoever were to be found. I teach that we need to honor all species, including ultimate pests like the plum curculio. Just remember we have integrated strategies to keep the balance in our favor.