Tag Archives: beginning

Planting Time in Hawaii

The number one garden question that I receive is seemingly simple, “when do I plant in Hawaii?” In reality, it is a very complex question, especially with our changing weather patterns. What is my answer? Frequently. Get new plants started as frequently as you can, and try a range of edible plant types. This year was a tropical storm year which brought a wild range of growing conditions at 2700ft elevation. Colder, and wetter than normal, and we cannot forget the seemingly endless winds. Though the combination caused a diminished squash crop, other vegetables thrived. Let me explain.

When temperatures and humidity levels shift rapidly, some plants refuse to set fruit. Squash is well known for hitting the pause button when it isn’t getting what it needs. Some plants need it to be warmer, some need it to be less windy, and other plants are more impacted by day length. Observation is the key to understanding this. Some of you may recall my transplanting many stunted Aji Limon chili peppers a few days before Christmas, 2015. Though slow to grow, the wet season that December (sometimes) brings was just right for them. They became big, full plants, and then fruited profusely in June. This had them producing chili just in time for pairing them with mango. It is now October, and those one time stunted, and seemingly mistimed plants, have remained in continuous fruiting. I am sharing this to remind us that every day, every plant, and every challenge, gives us an opportunity to learn. Most mainland planters may have kept those peppers in pots until March or April. I was tempted to try to over winter them in pots. As it turned out, these Peruvian peppers liked the cooler temps, and additional humidity that an upcountry Winter can bring. I learned that not all peppers are alike. Weather that made some chili plants dormant, made another double in scale.

Just this week we had snow on the mountain, known as Mauna Kea volcano. Though the snow is at 14,000ft, and I am at 2700 ft, it impacts my growing, by bringing cool winds down the slope. In order to make the most of this endlessly cold year, I am getting out the seed flats again, and getting a lot of leafy greens going…again. Swiss chard, a variety of kale, collards, peas, and favas will all love this season. Since the temperature is changing rapidly from day to day, I am also using this window of time, where we still have quite a bit of warmth, to start some more tomatillos. I am taking the risk to try a few more pepper starts that all need quite warm days to germinate. Will it work? Only time will tell, but I do know that having a wide variety of plants will keep you, and your community well fed, no matter what season holds in store. Just like these loveable heirlooms, we can adapt, and we will be better gardeners for it. Aloha!

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.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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