Book Review of The Holistic Orchard by Michael Phillips

When I first began reading The Holistic Orchard by Michael Phillips, I was struck by his ability to distill down to the essence the paradigm by which we must view orchards to work with them holistically. He explains that the orchard ecosystem (forest edge ecology) is best served by listening to tree wisdom. It seems rather obvious, but most common sense ideas are. Just as many holistic managers are learning to listen and observe the ecosystem processes at the soil surface, the holistic orchardist must do so as well.

Phillips talks about how the soil food web needs to be fungal dominate for healthy fruit production. We must focus on a healthy mineral cycle rather than appearances. Feed the soil with wood chips, rotted hay, compost, and shredded leaves. He notes that not all wood chips are alike. Most commercial wood chips are from soft woods, like pine, that are high in tannins and suppress the healthy growth of deciduous trees. Likewise he advocates that people not use weed barriers as they negatively impact the ecosystem function.

This book is not only a great resource of knowledge but also has great pictures of practices and microscopic views of leaf surfaces and illustrations of below the soil surface that bring these ideas alive. He covers individual chapters on all the major tree and berry fruits with great details on numerous other topics including varieties, horticultural skills, companion planting, and techniques for building soil.

Phillips is able to inspire the beginner and still offers the experienced grower in-depth information and new research on ways to address pest and disease issues. My one criticism is that he does write predominantly from a less brittle perspective, but most of his knowledge can be applied across different eco-regions. In fact, he includes case studies/success stories from different climates.

His second chapter is all about orchard life and considering the timeframe of the management of the orchard. Of even greater importance is the big picture thinking of how much is enough so that we balance production/profit with quality of life.

I was particularly interested in the “Orchard Dynamics” chapter where he explores the concept of community dynamics within an orchard into play. As Phillips notes, “Stewarding what needs to be right while intelligently setting limits on what might go wrong describes health-based orcharding to a tee.” [emphasis added by author]. This means building system health within the orchard and moving beyond the focus of weed and pest to look at the orchard dynamics. Diversity of plants and animals (including bugs) is key. In fact, he also suggests integrating livestock as holistic approach to orchard health.

With a focus on the importance of biodiversity and building on system health, The Holistic Orchard is an essential book for any holistic manager who manages an orchard, big or small.




  1. Mike Murphy says:

    Am reading your “Holistic” book. Am planning a half acre orchard in Zone 6, SW Ohio.
    Have an available abundance of horse manure, sawdust, and coffee grounds [from Cincinnati coffee shops]. Plan to spread this on the surface, and possibly tilling it in–or not.
    Am impressed by Stefan Sobkowiak’s “Beyond Organic Permaculture” system in Quebec. I like his “mixed cultivars to confuse the pests” approach. Also his inclusion of Nitrogen-fixers in his plantings. And also his inclusion of perennials & some annuals. A real mixed orchard, & very productive!
    Also like Tom, the backyard orchardist at Dave Wilson Nursery, his approval of planting “4 cultivars in one wide hole.” Might try that. Or at least a “hedge”of cultivars planted 36” apart.
    Am pretty committed to planting dwarfs or semi-dwarfs–cultivars I can summer prune to no more that 6ft or so in height.
    Am also interested in doing my own grafting, & so, growing my own rootstocks. And cultivars. Might need more than half an acre!

  2. Mike Murphy says:

    I meant “Phillips’ “Holistic” book.

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