Mulch on the Mind: Responding to “The Holistic Orchard” by Michael Phillips

I’m reading Michael Phillips’ The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way
right now: great stuff!  He spoke at the MOSES conference a few years back and made it possible to dream again.  I love orchards, I love fruit trees and pruning, I love dappled shade, I love fruit.  I hate chemical sprays, and the abiding mantra out there is that organic apples can’t be done.

Yes they can!  Apparently the trick is to march right on past organic into the realm of holistic. Organic at this point (in the US, where it is a highly regulated word) means “no chemicals.”  It ought to mean respecting the overall system and healing the soil and what not, and for the majority of organic farmers it does, but we can’t seem to get there with the requirements.  Recently I read somebody trying to sell the idea that GMOs would mean fewer chemicals, but I’m not buying that noise, and I’m sure as heck not eating it.

Holistic, on the other hand, says ailments are symptoms and a healthy system can right itself.  It’s all about viewing the farm as an ecology (biodynamics does this nicely, too) and looking for the underlying weakness that needs support.

Favorite tidbit thus far: Ramial Mulch.

ramial mulch and ramial wood chips are the same thing

Didn’t know this was gold, eh?

Ray-whoo? Ray-mee-ell.  These are the skinny bits from the tips of deciduous hardwood trees.  “Skinny” = no more than about 2 ½ inches (6cm) across.

The crucial detail here is the ratio of lignin (the wood that is alive and actively growing) to carbon (the wood that has settled into being solid and largely dead wood).  The lignin is particularly good for soil microbes, especially the ones that suit fruit tree growth nicely.

The tips of coniferous trees (pines, firs, etc) don’t count because they contain too much tannin, a detail which conifers think is very clever because that thwarts the competition who might be trying to grow underneath them.  I have an image of very smug little white pine in my head: never thought o’ that before.


Mycorrhizae and feeder roots: the PB&J of the ground

So what microbes are being helped by the feast of ramial mulch?  The fungi, especially the mycorrhizae, which essentially function as the fourth type of root on the vast majority of plants (although not cabbages, oddly enough). Starting from the trunk of the tree, there’s the buttress roots, which hold the thing up, then the transport roots, which run food and water back to the main body of the tree, and then the feeder roots, which actually do the uptake of the various elements needed by the tree to produce chlorophyll.

In the majority of plant species (not just treets) the feeder roots are cloaked in (and sometimes invaded by) mycorrhizal fungi, which trade “exudates” that the roots put out for food that the tree needs but can’t reach.  Lack of this is probably a huge part of why that forest in Paris floundered at first.

Ramial mulches support these fungal helpers much better than chipped bits of trunk or bark, so under fruit trees, ramial mulch is the way to go.  Conveniently, fruit trees need pretty regular pruning to stay airy and abundant.

Also convenient: Phillips is easy to read, despite the serious science that is the topic.  He’s got a clear voice and a like-able attitude toward thinking through the ecology that under-girds an orchard.

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3 responses to “Mulch on the Mind: Responding to “The Holistic Orchard” by Michael Phillips

  1. Ramial mulch is a new concept for me. I will save those trimmings and apply them right into the woods on the lot.

  2. Say! I just began reading Michael Phillips’ book myself! A year ago, we moved to a remote mountain homestead with an orchard at least 100 years old. You identified our seckel pear trees. Thank you. The apple trees, however, bear the appearance of Rome apples with the flesh of Jonathan apples. These apples are great ‘keepers’, gaining sweetness over time. The bonus? I have picked thousands of these apples—only one had a worm! God only knows the last time any chemicals were sprayed on these trees.
    My heart fills with gratitude to care for such an orchard!

    • How utterly lovely! It sounds like they’ve been at least somewhat pruned over the years if they are still producing. That’s the trick, in my experience, to bringing old apples back into production. A good keeper is worth gold by February and March, and the summer ones (which are often more shade tolerant and so are often the ones that survive a closely planted neglected orchard) just don’t often make it. (motto of the summer apple: Press’em or sauce’em.) What a lucky inheritance for you!

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