Friday, May 7, 2010

Groveton, New Hampshire: Michael and Nancy Phillips, the Apple Grower and Herbalist



"This tree here is probably, I don't know...ninety years old or so. On the backside here, say 40 years ago, it cracked down the middle, was starting to fall over. The farmer, the people before us, wrapped a chain around it and it's grown into the bark. Well this tree was planted here and this type of apple will be found on many northern New England farmsteads; and it's the Duchess of Oldenburg. In the early 1840's they brought over four varieties from Russia because they wanted that northern hardiness and something that was dependable. Since we've lived here...and I've maintained this tree for twenty-some years...it has it's on years and off years to a degree...but it always gives 12-20 bushels of apples. And it happens in late August and it's one of the most phenomenal pie apples"

We rumbled down the Heartsong Farm driveway early Sunday morning on the lookout for Michael Phillips, who literally wrote the book on apple growing (The Apple Grower, published by Chelsea Green). We found Michael listening to reggae while grafting new trees onto Bud.118 root stock, to serve as swap items at a local "homesteaders' swap meet" down the road later that day. He gave us a mini workshop on how it's done.

On a tour of the property we saw that the main orchard area was filled with rows of apple trees of various ages with their spindly and wildly crooked limbs twisting toward the sky. Michael's tone becomes reverent when he talks about them and he offers us information about each variety like he's handing us jewels; which ones are good for pie, where certain trees originated, what minerals are important to have in the soil around them, which variety was Thomas Jefferson's favorite, etc. We learned about the local solitary bee that he tries to encourage as a pollinator and about the benefits of comfrey at the base of an ailing apple tree.

Michael talked about the importance of growing apples in northern New Hampshire even though the land isn't the friendliest to apples there. This is the community he lives in, and he sees that as somewhat of a commitment to stay even though his property isn't totally ideal for apples. Besides that, he knew he wanted to be in a quiet place where he could see the stars at night...and so he has it, with almost two acres of fruit trees and more planned, the gardens he tends with his wife, Nancy, and a nice unnamed brook trickling by the house. His daughter also helps out with some projects, though she lives part time in Vermont while going to high school.

He has instigated a community-supported cider share system and will do the same with apples

He meets annually with a small group of apple growers in the Berkshires to discuss their experiments, successes, and news on the dedicated orchardist front. He's amazed and appreciative of the people who attend his workshops. When asked where his orcharding education came from, he replied, "luckily it didn't start in universities. I have a degree in civil engineering from Penn State and I did that for about ten months, working in Washington, and I'd watch the sun rise in four-lane bumper-to-bumper traffic, and I thought...'Well, this is stupid!' So I retired at age 23. This is just retired life now."

He makes money as a builder and designer (and, as is classic, his house is in long-term remodel), as well as through some teaching and speaking about growing. He takes both a design approach and a holistic approach to apple tree care, steeped in science.

"It rains...and leaves on the orchard floor that haven't decomposed from last year, if they happen to have scab, they get wet and then they release tens of thousands of spores which just settle on everything. And when that spore lands on this leaf...it's a fungal thing, so it has to send out a hyphae, and then it sends out enzymes to get through the leaf cell to access the nutrients...and if it does that, if it stays wet long enough for that to happen, that's when the black spot disease starts to show up. Well, the tree has a few things going for it. One is, if it has a number of different organisms on the leaf, competing for resources, that potentially crowds out the disease's potential to find room.
The hyphae has to go through the cuticle of the leaf, which is the non-waxy coating on the leaf...that cuticle can be strengthened with silica. And silica you can get from nettle and horsetail, so you make fermented herbal tea. Finally, if the hyphae does get into the leaf cell, the plant, if it's healthy, responds with certain compounds, the tupenoid and isoflavenoid groups. If a lot of fungicides have been sprayed, that kind of suppresses the tree's ability to stand up to that, but the neem oil contains turpenoids, so when I include neem here, it stimulates more production of that just as we're going into this disease/infection period. And both the neem and the liquid fish contain a whole bunch of fatty acids...you can't quite feel the oil, but I can see the darkness of the bark...those fatty acids fuel the microbes, but they're also food for the beneficial fungi in the soil which bring nutrients to the roots and if the plant's getting all of its balanced nutrition, just like if you have a good wholesome diet, and you're eating all of your food groups...not as stated by the USDA, but by earth [chuckles], then that helps you produce more of those compounds, it helps you resist disease and the whole thing shifts. So basically it's all about nutrients."


Before taking off to Vermont (which was two miles away) we sat at the rustic kitchen table happily sampling winter-stored apples, drinking apple juice and nettle/peppermint tea, and devouring muffins made by Michael's wife Nancy, who is a very accomplished herbalist.

Nancy is a teacher at their daughter's school in Vermont and holds her own workshops and lessons on herbs. Michael had shown us some of the herb gardens amidst the blooming flowers and the leftover stalks from last year's shoots that were waiting to be cleared. Nancy was excited to talk about which plants and leaves do what for the body and obviously longed for a holiday from school so she could get her hands into her beds and tend her spring blossoms and buds. We wish we'd have had a chance to speak with her a bit longer about her work, but we'd already taken up a good three hours of their morning and they were surely eager to spend some time with each other and their daughter. The book that Nancy and Michael published together is called The Herbalist's Way, also through Chelsea Green.

Montpelier Vermont is our next stop, to speak with composting gurus, dairy farmers, large scale vegetable farmers, and homesteaders. We were headed over to stay with our friends from Olympia, Schuyler Timmons and Aisling badger.

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