Mar 062012

The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way*

For me growing fruits trees and berries is a more daunting task than growing vegetables. A mistake in the garden is much easier to correct than a misstep with a tree. I’m always looking for help when it comes to trees.

The workshops on tree fruit at Cloud Mountain Farm are especially helpful. Even though we have this great resource an hour away, it’s often difficult to take advantage of everything that Cloud Mountain has to offer. They do have a paid subscription newsletter that details orchard tasks and techniques season by season that I have found helpful and instructive.

I’m always looking for a good book to help me along and a new one by New Hampshire orchardist Michael Phillips is turning out to be educational plus easy to read. Through his books and his website Mr. Phillips is promoting and helping the community orchard movement. He also has a newsletter one can sign up for to which covers items of interest to orchardists and backyard fruit growers.

I owe a lot to the apple and the pear. Because of my involvement with these fruits I was able to retire at quite an early age.

My company in Eastern Washington specialized in insuring the big and small fruit operations in the Yakima Valley and Columbia Gorge and I have spent days and days in those orchards, the gigantic concrete fruit warehouses and enormous packing sheds, talking with the growers and their employees. Some of these operations are huge with hundreds of acres of mono-cropped fruit trees and millions of dollars of real property values, farm equipment and vehicles. $100,000 annual insurance premiums were not unusual. It’s quite an experience to see an apple packing line with millions of piece of fruit being processed, boxed then placed in vast cold storage or controlled atmosphere rooms.

These apples which, in the 80’s were mostly red and yellow delicious, are sold all over the world. As the years went by growers, trying to stay ahead of the marketing curve, added other varieties like Fuji to the mix and tried new orcharding techniques like using dwarfing rootstock on wires (espalier) to make the fruit easier for the Mexican crews to pick. (The entire system is heavily dependent on Mexican labor). Many even saw the opportunity of “organic” and began to qualify blocks of orchard for that premium labeling, not out of any commitment to health, but from a desire to increase the margin of profit on a box of apples.

I wish I had paid more attention to what was actually going on in the orchard, the pruning techniques, etc. But I did not. The film Broken Limbs has some great shots of fruit operations in Wenatchee and offers some opinions on alternatives to monoculture.

A book like The Holistic Orchard brings us back to the reality of trying to grow a fruit crop on a small scale and helps detail the importance of pruning, soils and orchard maintenance plus illustrates various problems an orchardist might face and how to cope with the nefarious problems such as the sawfly larva (which infected the Curry Community Orchard last season).

I’ve been reading a few pages of The Holistic Orchard every morning and find it a valuable reference. It’s worth owning a copy but also available through the Whatcom County Library.

*I’d prefer to link to Village Books rather than Amazon but the price differential $39.95 vs $26.37 is just too much.


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