“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 manipulating 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.”-Michael Phillips, The Holistic Orchard, xii.

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Yesterday was Easter Monday. It seemed as good a day as any to resurrect our fallen pine trees into something new. Well, actually, the trees are mostly still intact, laying directly behind our still-plastic-covered-barn-roof (hopefully new roof going on this weekend!) as if to taunt us every time we walk by.

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BUT there was some small satisfying relief to take what parts of the trees had been turned into pine chips and to give them new life (and much more manageable life, at that) in our orchard.

It’s been just over a year since we planted our little orchard. I remember last March, as we stood with shovels poised to dig the first holes, asking Tim: “Do you feel like all your dreams are coming true?” For Tim, planting an orchard has always been the symbol of really putting our roots down in a place. Planting an orchard is an investment–you might get to eat some berries after a year or two, but you often won’t get to taste tree fruit for 3-5 years until after planting. On the other hand, those fruit trees will continue to give back to you for a lifetime.

first tree planting

All of this meant that Tim wanted to wait to plant fruit until we knew where we were going to be for the long haulWhich is maybe why he was so eager to plant those fruit trees once we decided to move to Virginia (but before we had actually physically moved to Virginia :).

I’ll admit that it was a little hard for me to share Tim’s long-range vision and to prioritize orchard planting when we were so early on in our barn conversion work. But now, it’s a year later and we have a well-established little orchard just beginning to show signs of new spring growth.

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We’re going to try to keep that growth going organically, which lots of people say can’t be done in this part of the world. We’re choosing to politely ignore all those voices, and to instead bank on the words of Michael Phillips, author of The Holistic Orchard and several other orcharding books, and ardent champion of organic orcharding, no matter where you live.

Phillips says that conventional orcharding takes an “allopathic” approach, which I basically understand as a band-aid approach. Short-term fungicides and antibiotics are used repeatedly to destroy diseases and bugs on the surface of the trees. But Phillips argues that if we work to create healthy systems and healthy plant immune systems, then trees will be strong enough to (most of the time) resist disease and pest pressure from within. AND, he says, those strong, healthy trees will treat us with amazingly tasty and nutritious fruit.

According to Phillips, system health and plant health are rooted in healthy, biologically diverse soil. We can begin to figure out how to create that healthy, diverse soil by looking at nature. Phillips says that as orchardists we should work to create a “forest-edge ecology,” looking to how fruiting bushes and trees grow in nature as a model for our own cultivated systems. So think about a forest or a “forest-edge.” There’s tons of decomposing matter at the base of the trees–leaves, other plant matter, animal droppings, etc. All of that decomposition creates a perfect environment for fungal matter (just think of the mushrooms you see sprouting on fallen trees or on the forest floor when you take a walk in the woods). Unsurprisingly, the trees in turn thrive on that fungal matter.  In fact, Phillips says that “orchard soils ideally contain a fungal presence ten times higher than that of bacteria.” (The Holistic Orchard, 5).

Phillips book
Page 4 of The Holistic Orchard

Okay, I need to pull myself back from falling further into the abyss that is Michael Phillips. He give LOTS of general information about creating forest-edge ecologies, nurturing fungal matter, and the specifics of growing particular trees and varieties. I’m still learning a ton myself and will not summarize it well, so you should just read the book. His basic argument is SO important, though–that if we shift our focus as growers from treating the problems once they appear and turn instead to nurture soil diversity and healthy plant systems, we and the trees/bushes will be much healthier, stronger, and better off.

Which doesn’t mean we human growers don’t do anything. I think sometimes the perception of organic growing, especially when it comes to fruit, is that organic=doing nothing and letting whatever happens happen. Michael Phillips in fact calls for a ton of labor and attention to your orchard–it’s just a much different kind of labor and attention than we’ve come to think of as “standard practice.”

After winter dormancy, we dove back into that orchard labor/attentiveness again yesterday. The pine chips gave us good reason to attend to the blueberries, which are the only thing in our orchard that can handle the high-acidity of pine mulch.

We heeded Phillips’ words, and did our best to feed the soil and the plants and create a strong growing base so that hopefully in turn our little blueberry plants will be strong as they head into the season ahead.

spraying trees

We began by spraying the blueberries and all our other trees/bushes with fish emulsion, a natural fertilizer that we’ll spray regularly on the plants and their surrounding soil throughout the season. We made sure our drip irrigation lines were in place for future watering, and then spread a layer of compost around the plants. That was followed up by a layer of peat moss, which helps to maintain the pH that blueberries need. And finally, the plants got a thick blanket of recently-felled pine chips to help lock in the moisture and nutrients, to keep weeds at bay, and to add a bit more to that acidic pH level.

None of this makes our blueberries (or any of our plants) totally disease and pest-resistant. We’ll have to keep a careful eye on things as things warm up and diseases and bugs spring into action. We may have to use periodically use organic sprays. We may even lose some batches of fruit. But all-in-all, we’re helping to nurture a strong eco-system where plant life can thrive and where we can reap the benefits of healthy, delicious fruit. Not a bad place for our pine trees to land, I’d say.