Wild America: The fruits of summer

Michael Phillips

Among the simple joys of living in our area are the ability to buy fresh, local produce from a farm-stand or farmer’s market, or pick your own fruit from your home garden or orchard. Chautauqua County is one of the most important agricultural counties in New York State and our strong farming tradition means that a wide variety of delicious, high-quality farm products are widely available at affordable prices.

As interest in organic food has grown, many of our local farmers and home-growers have responded by adopting more sustainable practices. By eliminating or reducing the use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizer in agricultural production, farmers are able to grow fruits and vegetables that are healthier for humans and the environment.

Growing organic fruit can seem like a challenge even to seasoned farmers and gardeners, and there is a lot of practical information to learn: What should I plant and where?; How should I design my garden/orchard?; Which fruit cultivars or rootstock will work well in our region and still produce great tasting fruit?; How can I control pests and diseases without pesticides and fungicides?; How do I graft, plant, and prune properly? These questions can feel overwhelming, but with proper guidance the journey to growing healthy, holistic fruit can be both fun and rewarding.

During the Wild America Nature Festival at Panama Rocks Scenic Park on July 29 and 30, author and orchardist Michael Phillips will be giving talks and workshops on how to grow healthy fruit. Phillips is the nation’s leading scholar advancing “organic’s final frontier” and uncovering how to effectively grow good fruit without potentially harmful chemicals. His books include “The Apple Grower: A Guide for the Organic Orchardist (1998),” “The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way (2012),” and “Mycorrhizal Planet: How Fungi and Plants Work Together to Create Dynamic Soils (2017).”

“Prospects for growing healthy fruit are excellent when you understand how Nature works, which also means the fruit we grow will be that much more flavorful” said Phillips. “Even people who are completely new to gardening can grow fruit holistically using methods developed by modern scientific research and innovation.”

One of the main themes of Phillips’ books and research is how trees rely on fungal networks connected to their roots, beneficial bacteria on their leaves, and overall biodiversity to remain healthy and produce tasty fruit. Selecting appropriate plants for the region where you live is obviously important, but less obvious are the hidden but critical networks of mycorrhizal fungi under the ground. Mycorrhizae are symbiotic partners with plants; the fungi colonize the root system of a host plant, providing increased water and nutrient absorption capabilities while the plant provides the fungus with carbohydrates formed from photosynthesis. Without this network, woody shrubs and trees would not get the nutrients they need to grow. Using fungicides to kill “bad fungi” on a tree damages this network and impairs the natural systems that trees need to prosper; however, fruit growers can grow healthy fruit without pesticides and fungicides by adopting practices that help protect fruit trees from pests and diseases in ways that strengthen rather than disrupt these natural systems.

In addition to discussing how the mycorrhizal networks benefit fruit trees, Phillips discusses the connections between orcharding and permaculture; planting shade-tolerant berry bushes and plants that attract beneficial insects; the importance of cover crops and biodiversity; and holistic solutions to pest and disease challenges. During the Wild America Nature Festival, Phillips will give two public talks (Growing Healthy Fruit and Biological Alchemy — one each day) and teach four specialized workshops (Orchard Ecosystem, Tree Fruit Cultivars and Rootstock for Western New York, Taking on Pests Organically, and Holistic Disease Management) that can help homeowners, homesteaders, and small diversified farmers get started growing holistically. Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County and the Chautauqua County Master Gardeners will also be on hand to share tips on healthy farming and gardening.

Not only can you learn how to grow healthy fruit at the Wild America Nature Festival, you can also taste the fruits of summer in the Local Food Cook-Off featuring The White Carrot, Labyrinth Press Company, Reverie Creamery, Green Heron Growers, and Superfresh! Organic Cafe, who will be serving delicious, locally-sourced food. You can also sample food from vendors in our Farmers Market.

The Wild America Nature Festival will also feature guest speaker Dr. Douglas Tallamy, a nationally renowned expert on native plants and biodiversity and author of “Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Biodiversity with Native Plants;” 40 juried artists will participate in the festival’s Nature Fine Art & Craft Show; RTPI, Jamestown Audubon, Wild Spirit Education, American Hawkeye, and the Erie Zoo will present live animals; Steel Rails and Davis and Eng will play original and traditional folk music; and there will be many more fun activities for all ages. Detailed information is available online at www.wildamericafest.com.