Category Archives: Soil

Top 5 things I do prior to travel

I get a lot of questions about how I manage to get away from the farm. There are several things I “set up” prior to my departure that makes all run a bit more smoothly.

1) Amend the soil with farm made fish emulsion. A strong plant will have a higher chance of surviving/and or fruiting.

2) Refill tropical fruit fly stations and secure them against wind. This will keep pest pressure down while the farmer is away.

3) Make microbe rich bokashi and add to compost tumblers and composting piles.

4) Trim vines back all around irrigation heads that are set on timers. This will help keep the vines from blocking the flow of water to your plants.

5) Make new buckets of fish emulsion. They will ferment while you are away, leaving you well stocked with natural fertilizer when you return home.

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.

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.

Farm Clean up: the no-till way

In the frantic days before I leave for California, I needed to put some serious order into the farm. I will be going to help harvest the Baker Creek pumpkin seed trails,  and just a couple weeks later, I will be giving my speech at the National Heirloom Expo.  The excitement is building, because one of my very own farm pumpkins is a part of the trials.  I’ve worked hard so to stabilize the variety.  I am hoping that when I get there, it will be shining in the sun, and offering resistance to the drought there.  But for now, I need to focus on getting my own crop in order.  Pumpkin growers frequently count the days when you need to hit your harvest right on schedule for October, and we in tropical and subtropical places need to look 120 days out, and sometimes more.

Hawaii’s high season also creeping closer, where the demand doubles. So,  it is simply now or never.  This year is a big soil building year, as well as planting all new pumpkin vines.  It has been a long summer with quite unexpected weather patterns.  We had Winter-like weather for weeks, including flooding, and now it is like Summer again.  Adaptability is the name of the game.

The soil strategy is working.  I have brought in several tons of hops, mixed them with wood chips from the farm, then piled them on top on salvaged cardboard.  The trick is to turn the piles, carefully, letting them air out in all this heavy rain.  For those of you just tuning in.  In the farmlots, we got several days of flooding after 17 years of drought.  Quite a change, but not entirely a surprise.  Why?  The drought/flood cycle goes together, like it or not.  You cannot change the weather, but you can change your soil’s ability to adapt to changing weather.  Adding soil structure through organic mulch materials, and valuable nutrients both help.  This improvement to soil health also encourages the earthworm, and microbes…and on we go.

People are often overly concerned about how no-till looks, but really, it doesn’t matter how it looks, what matters is how is responds to the needs of your plants.  We need to get over our thinking that everything needs to be in tidy rows, with nice big parched earthen walkways between.  We are in a drought, and there is a lot more drought coming our way.  By planting very close in super homemade soil, the healthy plants adapt and even help one another.  I seed select only from varieties that are naturally resistant to powdery mildew (a huge problem in Hawaii) and then I can just let the vines sprawl, without worrying about close planted plants and powdery mildew.  What people usually do not see, but you can in these images, is the under story of the mulch.  Ever wonder why I have giant green squash leaves the size of platters?  It is because I have created a natural fertilizer system on which they grow.  When water hits a vine, it encourages it to re-root where the vine touches the soil, or in this case, where the vine touches the nutrient mulch.  I can encourage growth by burying the vine, (like giant pumpkin growers do) and encouraging more roots to form and uptake more nutrients.  This system is why I get so many tons out of a tiny parcel.  A squash plant often produces 2-3 pumpkins, mine may produce 10 times that, because I feed and prune and feed some more.  They are spoiled with love.

Here is a look at the mulch before the vines cover the lot.  The system is as follows:  cardboard, hops and wood chips mixed, some coral sand, coffee grounds, and fermented fish (buried in holes here and there.) Throughout the season, I will feed again with homemade fish emulsion, and top dress with more coffee grounds.  Then too, I will add some EM-1 soil microbes fermented in grain to the field.  Most of soil making is being done below those sprawling vines.  Compost materials are the mulch.  Soil is the solution.

the farm in year 3

For the Love of Hops

The Beer Garden is the nickname of my small farm parcel.  On April 1, 2013 (April Fools Day) I began to soil build.  When you know that you are growing a hungry crop, you know that you need to build your nutrients in as part of the plan.  So from day 1, spent hops from the award winning Big Island Brewhaus were used to amend the soil.  I am doing no-till, so the hops are dug into the growing piles.  Much like a 1/4 acre compost heap, it takes some attention and care to see that the soil stays healthy and that your microbes and worms can thrive.  People laugh when I say that it is a huge effort to “turn” a 1/4 acre.  Remember that each time I turn the farm, my zero-waste principles are at play.  Sure, it is easier to rip up plastic ground cloth, roll it into a ball, and drop it into our landfills, then they over till, and spray. That is one strategy, where you may save time there, but in the big picture, you are not saving anything. I do the opposite of that.  Each foot will either have a plant growing there, or will be used as a re-rooting place where vines will be buried under the homemade soil and get another hit of nutrients.

Yes, the other method can be done in a day, but your soil is on borrowed time, while mine is surging forward.  My labor of hauling and lifting create a nice, rich soil that holds water.  In a drought…that is worth gold.  So think before we discard.  Make connections with these local businesses who would like to help their farmers.  Yes “their” farmers.  Farmers belong to the community in the best possible way.

Here is a video where I explain a bit more about amending with fermented fish and brewery waste

I always do the warning about hops and dogs…they are poisonous to dogs, so watch your pet.  Many dogs have zero interest, but be cautious.

The image says it all.  The additions have changed the soil dramatically.
The image says it all. The additions have changed the soil dramatically.

So think about how you can make super soil.  This farm is small, but my soil is mighty.  Be a steward, and you will be rewarded with a bountiful harvest, reduced pests, and you will be a hero to the kindergartners…and who doesn’t want that?

Spring Cleaning at the Farm

In mid April, I have my days set on clean up.  Pulling grass, pruning chilis and eggplants, and replanting for the seasons ahead.  In the ever variable weather conditions of upcountry Hawaii, “now or never” springs to mind.  So here I am showing you how my mini kitchen gardens dapple the farm.  Though the invasive grass of the area may smother, it also protects the freshly made soil from wind erosion, as well as dehydration from the sun.

So try to think your way through tough situations, like how to deal with a smothering, drought hearty invasive grass that was brought in for the cattle industry, yet smothers the rest of us.  You are never going to win in this battle, you can only figure how to work with it’s existing properties. Kikuyu grass exists in Hawaii from 6000 ft elevation on down.  It also smothers other places like Australia.  Mowing it is one use, but the grass can be used as a living mulch that will retain soil moisture as squash vines crawl on top of it.  The grass can make bee pollination difficult, but at the same time, for squash, it can also make it difficult for melon fly and pickle worm to attack your squash plants.  There is an upside and usually a downside to just about any farm related matter in Hawaii.

Building Worm Paradise in Hawaii

Being raised on a Wisconsin farm may have given me rather high expectations for soil. Our humble 40 acre farm had deep, rich, black soil that you could sink your arm into, well past your elbow. That was considered “below average soil,” and that is where my false soil illusions began.

My brother and I would hunt night crawlers and all kinds of earthworms for Summer trout fishing. It was rarely much of a challenge to fill a bucket in a few minutes. The biggest challenge was to dig without severing the multitudes of them that squirmed below our shovels. We often abandoned the tools so to dig with our hands. We also wanted our worms to be happy and content in their last hours before they became trout bait. So sever we would not.

Fast forward over three decades and several thousand miles and land me in the Hawaiian islands where you would again find me digging in the dirt in search for worms. The result was quite different, because day after day, I found none. Not a single worm. This was a discouraging discovery that I needed to resolve, because if there were no worms, there would be no farm.

Industrial agriculture, wind erosion, lack of cover crops, multi year drought, years of nutrient depleting sun, and lack of organic materials, are things to consider when beginning a transition plan for a parcel. Though this area was prized for being some of the richest soil in Hawaii, that estimate took into account only soil type, and left nothing to be said for soil treatment.

The summary was easy: there was nothing to temp a worm to take up residence, and every other action on the farm was contingent upon this cornerstone of soil health.

The solution was equally clear: create a worm paradise.

If key players like worms were missing, that was a good indicator that other members of the soil building chain, like soil microbes, were also in short supply. I decided to focus my attention on the actions of one person, and develop a farm plan based around a worm’s favorite location: the compost heap. Creating a farm that was comprised of an organized pattern of composting heaps that would be piled on top of existing soil. The squash crop to be would be planted directly into the decomposing heaps, benefitting by the heavy food source available. The worms would be able to pull nutrients from this moisture and food rich pile, and bring the nutrients deep into the depleted soil.

No-till was an easy choice for methods, because a decade long drought and wind erosion had left little to till. No-till gardening techniques were expanded to a 1/4 acre scale. Between garden and farm in proportion and methodology, this framework would conserve moisture, encourage microbes, worms, and stifle weeds.

three sisters method of beans, corn, and squash, surrounded by reclaimed cardboard.  Soil building and moisture holding cardboard also minimizes weeds
three sisters method of beans, corn, and squash, surrounded by reclaimed cardboard. Soil building and moisture holding cardboard also minimizes weeds

Cardboard created a zero waste solution, along with growing blocks reclaimed from the local hydroponics farm. Together, the cardboard, and both basalt and coconut coir growing blocks would create a moisture holding, shady mulch where worms could hide and soil would form. As pumpkins were harvested, some would be chopped into chunks and buried face down in the mulch. This created “worm buffets” that were also cool hiding places where worms could gorge and reproduce.

The image says it all.  The additions have changed the soil dramatically.
The image says it all. The additions have changed the soil dramatically.

Now a year later, the soil is several inches deep of sweet smelling soil. Just like the days of my childhood, I often dig with my hands so not to risk severing any of the welcome guests that will not become trout bait. An “intensive soil care” initiative was the first move for the farm, and the efforts have surprised even the most hardened of soil scientists. Now reconditioned into a healthy soil system, EM-1, homemade fish emulsion, and coffee grounds are the additions made to the area.
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Vines now tumble and interlock with each other, birds, bees, and butterflies circle overhead. Mushrooms show themselves and again disappear into the cycle. The purple worms surface and dip through the paradise that was both created for them, and one that they helped to create. Several tons of food has been gathered from a small, once dusty parcel, giving hope to one more farmer who has spent their first year farming new soil.

The mini-farm at 10 months old
The mini-farm at 10 months old

Fish Composting Beds Opened!

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Remember this? Well….I am very pleased to report that it is now this!

Compost

I used EM-1 to add even more rich microbes to the heathy new compost and replace any that may have gotten burned out when the fish composting really heated things up. The fish composting was a success! (yeah! Thank you to Redwater Cafe and their continued donation of green waste and fish bits, Merriman’s for cardboard, and Starbucks for the donation of coffee grounds to help me build the soil!) The compost is a bit chunky due to my using a lot of sticks, but after a little bit of sifting out large pieces, the new compost was ready to be added to one of the beds. This will give a Spring makeover to a well used bed.

Making organic fertilizer from sushi bar fish scrap

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Simple and straight forward…fine pieces of fish scrap make a rich odor free fish emulsion when combined with unrefined sugar (or a mix of molasses and sawdust from untreated wood) in thin layers.  Top off with sugar in a thick layer, leave plenty of airspace at the top, and use a cotton tee shirt to allow it to breathe.  Periodically, you will continue to top dress with more sugar as needed.  The perfect rainy day gift making idea.  Who wouldn’t love to be suprized with this zero waste treat for their garden.

Leave in a shaded corner (garage or barn is good) where you can check on it.  It will take a few months to fully breakdown.  The rich dark syrup will then be used as approx one shot glass to 5 gal of water.  It will revive plants and help your farm and gardens grow.