Squash Rich Soil Poor

Two years ago, I planted a new area with squash, I was hopeful and optimistic.  It was open, free of the Iron wood trees, but it desperately lacked soil and the area needed serious rehabilitation.  I thought I had given it a good look over, but what I had underestimated was the wind. I was fortunate to have timed my plantings in a year where heavy rains broke the 15+ year drought. The plants thrived.  But then the winds came, and destroyed the raised beds, made irrigation very complicated, while also setting back my optimism.  Those Winter rains were a fluke, and they haven’t returned again.  The wind gusts, on the other hand, have returned with great force, just when you least expect them.  For the last two and a half months it has been blowing, then punctuated by dead calm. As a personal challenge, I decided to rethink that area, and figure out how to do raised beds in a wind gust area while also using minimal irrigation.  I needed to figure out a way to farm rock.

I walked the area with Randy, the AG (mainly pest and plant disease) inspector.  He kicked the ground and noted that they call it the Kau Desert for good reason.  He is facing retirement at a time when farming in Hawaii has hit some pretty hard times.  My projects seemed to offer him hope and a few smiles in is last years as an AG field agent. Farmers often speak of rocky soil, but this isn’t that.  This is rock, period.  100 years ago, and as recent as 50 years back, the Japanese farmers of this area just removed rock day after day.  When I say rock, I should note that they are boulders. They created areas of farmland from this rocky outcropping.  Some areas are now cultivated by tilling methods, some are run as ranchland, and my borrowed parcel is run as no-till.  This Spring I am again facing off with the hardest to farm section of the property.  Here, patches of rock that have been exposed by years of wind erosion, and that hard layer of stone will be under my beds.  Under normal circumstances, you would never plant on top of rock, but this is a test of possibility.  If you can grow there, your system will grow just about anywhere.

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The above photo shows what the ground looks like under the new garden system that I am creating.  Roots will not be able to penetrate those stones, so all that they need will have to be delivered through the raised bed system.  The soil that is there is no longer capable of absorbing and retaining water.  But soil has an amazing ability to be transformed back into a condition where it will absorb water. So let’s get to work…what needs to be done?  First think about your wind and wind directions.  Where is it blowing from most of the time?  I am planning on running one simple soaker hose through the base of this bed.  Overhead isn’t going to work like it does in my other patch.  In the main patch, overhead works, because whenever the wind blows, it will blow the water onto a plant, in this area, that isn’t so. Also minimal overhead irrigation works in the other patch because of the tons of soil building materials that were reclaimed and put to work as a living mulch. A technique that works in one area may not work right across the road.  So once you think through your irrigation strategy, think about the movement of the sun.  In Hawaii, you can really notice a difference in the direction of the sun’s rays, season by season.  Lastly, is it in a location where you will be able to check on it easily?  Anytime you are doing a test project, a watchful eye is going to lead you to learning from the experience.

I reused some wire table tops for multiple reasons, I wanted to see if they would:

1)keep the wind from tipping over the stacked design of the beds

2)keep the chickens out

3)create a sturdy base for a trellis

This is what they look like with a variety of squash and edible gourds creeping through.

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Not bad, but it gets better.  Since I have been working to locate and breed heirloom varieties that are disease resistant, I am putting that to the test as well.  Powdery mildew knocks growers flat when they first start growing in Hawaii.  This method of mine would never work without the prior, careful study of natural disease resistance. So in other words, know your plants first.  I am planting absurdly close plantings of all kinds of things: tomatoes, beans, mustard greens, tomatillos, even some flowers.  Most of these I have grown before, but some are new to me heirloom varieties that are getting their “test” here at the farm, such as the Zuni Gold bean that is loved in New Mexico. We see how things turn out for them this year.

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The idea is to create a mini food forest with tier upon tier of food. It is my own interpretation of the “Three Sisters” planting method, combined with another Native American technique that includes burying fish.  I have fermented the fish first, adding much needed microbes to the mix.  My compost scares people.  But I am in Hawaii and we don’t even have compost facilities anywhere near where I live.  I became the compost facility by working with my chef customers. Raw and fermented material is at the bottom, and it will have plants growing above it.

The close plantings will be a “only the strong survive” kinda deal. Plants can “work it out” and find their ways to get enough sun, water and nutrients. So far, they are working together nicely. are two months in. These close plantings also protect from the drying, harsh winds.  These close plantings also create strength in numbers by supporting each other against the gusts.  High winds can snap tomato and tomatillo stalks, even with some trellising.  This will help your system to better take care of itself. Not only will this planting method provide a great variety of foods and beans will add nitrogen to the soil, it is also planted with bees in mind.  Bees area squash growers friend, but unfortunately, they are few in number here where I grow.  So I make a bee buffet of all kinds of blooms.  I plant in harmony with the native Hawaiian plant Ilima and give those small blooming shrubs extra care and nutrition, and they supply lovely blooms to attract our bees.

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Here we see tomatillos growing in harmony with the squash plants.  Those bright yellow blooms will be a beacon to the bees.  Strings run up from the table tops to a simple bamboo trellis that has the ability to shift in the wind.  It has already withstood nearly 20 days of heavy wind, so it has proven itself.  DSC_1247

As for the chicken proofing, Hunter is seen here patroling the surrounds while not disturbing the plants themselves.  The chickens and I have all enjoyed their collecting of many harmful to the garden insects.  I should also note that these plants are growing in very raw compost, and all reclaimed materials were used.  This is not something that I advise you to do, but I am doing it as a means to see how fast the restaurant waste can turn to soil.  It can be done with careful planning, and a lot of trial and error.  I will leave that for another post.  So I encourage you into thinking of creative ways to grow your food, create your soil, save our water and nourish our bees.  If this can be grown on rock using restaurant waste, so much is possible.

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