Some of the 80 varieties Michael Phillips grows.
MICHAEL PHILLIPS has spent more than 20 years growing apples up here in the north country, 30 miles south of Quebec, and debunking the commonly held belief that his favorite fruit can’t survive without pesticides.
Not that he hasn’t taken some hits.
“I lost 50 apple trees getting my degree in borers,” said Mr. Phillips, 54, on a recent afternoon, standing by a Northern Spy tree, one of 240 apple trees on this hilly 58-acre farmstead called Heartsong Farm. He was speaking of the round-headed apple-tree borer, in particular, which can kill a tree if undetected.
Most growers spray their trees with a pesticide, like Lorsban, to kill the borers. But Mr. Phillips uses neem oil, which comes from the neem tree, to interrupt the insect’s life cycle.
He also feeds his trees with composted wood chips, plants comfrey around the roots and sprays them with concoctions of horsetail and stinging nettles.
Mr. Phillips broke new ground with “The Apple Grower: A Guide for the Organic Orchardist,” a 1998 book that defied the common belief that apples cannot be grown without chemical pesticides. At the time, he allowed that fungicides, like copper and sulfur sprays, were sometimes necessary. (Both compounds may be used by certified organic growers.)
“I was learning to reduce all that, but I didn’t really shift the paradigm,” he said.
But the more he thought about how homegrown food and medicinal herbs bolstered his own health (his wife, Nancy, is an herbalist), the more he became convinced of the importance of feeding his trees with fungal-rich mulch and herbal sprays that boosted their immune systems.
In his latest book, he rejects even copper and sulfur sprays.
“The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way,” which will be published next month by Chelsea Green, explains how to grow fruit with nothing more lethal than neem oil and sprays made out of liquid fish fertilizer (which has fatty acids and enzymes lacking in pasteurized fish emulsion), homegrown horsetail and stinging nettles (both are high in silica and help leaves fend off fungal disease).
More important, he writes, apple growers need to understand how their trees grow above and below ground and what kind of soil they need: the woodsy, fungal-dominated kind found at a forest’s edge, rather than nitrogen-rich garden soil.
He also talks about how to prune and how to mulch with ramial wood chips, the tender branches pruned in late winter that can be allowed to decompose wherever they fall.
And he suggests herbs to grow beneath the trees, like comfrey, which is rich in calcium and draws minerals from subsoil. Also, its flowers attract native bees, to pollinate the apple blossoms.
To encourage those bees to stay, Mr. Phillips makes nests out of pieces of septic pipe. Native mason bees and bumblebees, he said, are more efficient at pollinating than European bees, which are also scarce these days. “Honeybees are like bankers,” he said. “They work 9 to 5, and only when it’s 60 degrees. Bumblebees and mason bees work from first light until dark, and pollinate all the female parts of a flower, so all the seeds take.”
If it sounds complex, it is. But don’t worry, Mr. Phillips says, smiling angelically. If you plant a tree, you will get apples in seven years or so. (Impatient gardeners need not apply.)
“But that’s good,” he said. “As the tree is growing, you’re learning.” A beginner, he suggests, could plant three trees in a triangle, 20 feet apart. Dwarf trees need less space, but have weaker root systems and are more subject to disease.
So if you have a tiny backyard, consider collaborating with your neighbors. Or support a community orchard, he said, which is usually run by “the guy who gets so excited, he says, ‘Honey, I’m going to plant 10 more trees.’ ”
MR. PHILLIPS’S love affair with apples began soon after he started his first job as a civil engineer, managing construction outside Washington, D.C.
“I would watch the sun rise over four-lane bumper-to-bumper traffic, thinking, ‘There’s probably something out there that would make me happier,’ ” he said. “I retired from civil engineering at 23.”
Soon, he had signed on as a carpenter for a community in southern New Hampshire devoted to helping abused and abandoned children. There, he helped build post-and-beam solar houses and dug up old tennis courts (the property had once been a summer camp), turning them into gardens.
He also planted apple trees. “And I realized, ‘I love this,’ ” he said.
In the fall, he took time off to pick apples in southern Vermont. Then one spring, he headed to New Zealand, where it was fall, to pick apples.
“I picked Cox’s Orange Pippins, looking out over the Tasman Sea,” he said. “They taste pretty good right off the tree.”
By the time he returned, he was determined to grow apples organically. He had fallen in love with a social worker, Nancy Spannenberg, at the children’s community, and the two moved north in the late 1980s, eventually settling here and raising a daughter, Grace, now 16, along with herbs, vegetables and, of course, apples.
Their farmstead, which harks back to the 1880s, had a remnant of an earlier orchard: a century-old tree that bears Duchess of Oldenburg apples, a chain embedded in its trunk to keep it from breaking apart.
“It’s one of four apple varieties brought to American shores in the 1830s from Russia,” Mr. Phillips said. “They were looking for apples that were very hardy to this climate, that a homestead family could depend on for a crop.”
It’s also one of his favorite apples, a tart summer variety that makes a great pie and applesauce.
“It has a reddish blush on green, with some stripes, and then the green turns yellow,” he said, with a lover’s attention to detail.
But then, Mr. Phillips loves all his apples. And there are 80 varieties thriving here.
One wild apple tree was 20 years old when he got here, and he could tell it had a healthy root system. So he started grafting varieties to its branches. Now, 24 varieties ripen on its stems.
How is that possible?
When children ask that, Mr. Phillips answers like this: “I say, ‘Kayle, if I cut off your thumb and put it on Ben’s thumb over here, then everything growing out of Ben’s thumb would be Kayle.’ ”
Gruesome, but clear.
So is his description of his nemesis, the round-headed apple-tree borer.
“The female crawls down the trunk to the soil line and makes as many as seven slits in a little baby tree the size of my thumb and lays an egg,” he said. “That grub stays in there for two years, eating the cambium and sap wood, then extends down to the roots. If just one survives, that tree’s dead.”
You could go after the larvae with a wire, but if there are seven, you’ll carve up the tree.
Instead, in July and August, when the females lay their eggs, Mr. Phillips sprays the trunk with a neem oil solution that contains a compound called azadirachtin, which suppresses molting. If an insect can’t shed its skin as it grows, it dies. Neem oil also deters insects from feeding and laying eggs.
Chemical companies have isolated the compound to manufacture patented products like Neemix or Ecozin. But those extractions “lose the other constituents of the plant,” Mr. Phillips said.
For instance, pure neem oil, he said, has terpenoid compounds that help the neem tree combat disease. Apple trees have the same terpenoids, so they respond to the oil.
Mr. Phillips sprays his trees at various stages: when the buds are “quarter-inch green,” as orchardists say, then when they are pink and then when the petals fall. These are the times when pests like moths and curculios feed on the tender flowers, and when fungal diseases like scab and cedar apple rust settle onto leaves and stems. “By spraying, I’m stimulating the terpenoids in the apple tree,” he said. “And boosting its immune system.”
Though two inches of wet snow lay on the ground on that sunny afternoon, it was quickly melting, and a few trees were still laden with fruit. Mr. Phillips had been up on his ladder picking the last of Northern Spy, a tangy red apple that makes a great pie and stores well. It’s one of those late-season apples that used to get nipped by the cold 20 years ago, when October meant temperatures in the 20s.
“But now I can tree-ripen the fruit,” he said.
That’s the good side of climate change. The bad side is 80 degrees on April Fool’s Day, which brings out the apple blossoms, followed by a hard freeze. That happened last year.
This year it was hail the size of golf balls that knocked half the leaves off the trees, when the late varieties were in full bloom.
“I was afraid I would see all kinds of fire blight,” Mr. Phillips said, “because of all the wounds opening into the vascular system.”
But the bark healed. All those sprays full of microbes and fatty acids must have built up the trees’ immune systems.
That’s what Mr. Phillips means by holistic: healing from within.
Before Picking Fruit, Pick a Tree
“It doesn’t hurt to be reflective about which varieties to grow,” said Michael Phillips, who grows about 80 kinds of apples in northern New Hampshire.
But most of us, he knows, are more likely to think, “I’m going to plant an apple tree this weekend,” and run out to the Home Depot or Lowe’s, where there are four or five ubiquitous varieties, some of which won’t grow well in your area.
“Here, it’s Agway, which sells Macintosh, Cortland, Red Delicious and Granny Smith,” Mr. Philips said.
Granny Smith ripens in mid-November to early December. “And no way that’ll happen here,” he said. “Yet they sell it in northern New Hampshire.”
Better to talk to local orchardists and hobby growers first, to find out which varieties are suited to your soil and climate. Mr. Phillips’s book “The Holistic Orchard” lists a number of growers’ associations, including North American Fruit Explorers (nafex.org); Holistic Orchard Network (groworganicapples.com), which contains information on community orchards, and Backyard Fruit Growers (sas.upenn.edu/~dailey/byfg.html).
One of the worst things for an apple tree is to be plopped into a little hole dug in a lawn (which is often over-fertilized with nitrogen) and sprayed with herbicides. Dense grass roots also compete for nutrients in the soil.
“If you plunked one in, you should have removed a four-foot area around the tree,” Mr. Phillips said. If you didn’t remove the sod, “cover it with cardboard and straw, or wood chips to smother the grass and break things down.”
Ideally, the ground should be prepared a year ahead, planted with a cover crop like red or crimson clover and also mixed with oats.
Fall is also a good time to collect soil samples and send them to a reputable soil testing lab, like the one run by the University of Massachusetts (extension.umass.edu/floriculture/services/soil-testing).
Then spend the winter reading “The Holistic Orchard.”