Tag Archives: inter planting

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.

The Climbers

Squash are either looked upon as amazing, sprawling, productive plants with a mind of their own, or else space hogs that need to be to be reigned in.  Obviously I see nothing but beauty and inspiration in their vines, but one of the most FAQ that I get is how do you control them?  The answer is simple, the more you try to rearrange their vines, cut them back, or run over them with a lawn mower, the more you are destroying your chances of being a successful squash grower.

I advise Hawaii growers to prune both Winter squash and edible gourds back once or twice a year, after harvest.  What I hear, is a lot of people cutting off vines as they are getting ready to flower and set fruit, then they wonder why they didn’t get squash.  Pick your battles here, folks. You get one or the other:  tidy garden or squash.  Considering that the state of Hawaii was down to one commercial grower before I started, one would think that if you got a plant established enough where it was spreading all over, you would leave it alone and let it reach out.

In the past few years, I have made some progress with inter planting with all kinds of things.  Squash will crawl over everything, but it will also keep on crawling.  I let the vine continue on its way and trim off the leaves that may be shading the pepper plant, or eggplant that it is crawling upon.  Now there are a lot of different kinds of growers out there, and this will not set well with some, but for those with a small space, permaculture bent to them, this is for you. Before we go on, just note that squash produce their fruits on the ends of their outstretched vines.  If you cut off these critical vines, you have made a prune that is going to really set you back.  I know many lawnmower cowboys who fight me on this, but trust me cowboy, you’ve shot yourself in the foot.

Here are a couple of photos from my home gardening experiments.  Today, I added additional pieces of bamboo this way and that, so  to create a strong enough trellis for chayote/pipinola to smother.  I crossed the bamboo and tied with wire.  Two untreated shipping pallets can be seen in there as the base, and heavy pieces of bamboo get threaded into the sides of the pallet to create planes where the upwardly mobile vines can go.  At the base, also you will find Winter squash, and Christmas lima beans planted.  It doesn’t really matter who grows on what.  All three are vines, all three are valued plants in the garden.

This garden is now overly shaded from the banana trees, so my focus is now the narrow windows of sunlight.  These climbers are now at a point where they are up and out of much of the shade.  This “living wall” serves several purposes, most importantly, it lessens the wind tunnel effect of this corridor garden. I also like the fact that it becomes a vertical place of interest as well.  But equally important to me, is that it is a home for the Jackson chameleon family and their newborns.  I care about such things, and I realize that many do not, but for me, leaving a permanent place where they can be fairly undisturbed has brightened many a day.  Tonight, alpha male “Zig Zag” eagerly climbed the tallest of the new bamboo stakes before disappearing for the night.

Ever watchful, they seem to be aware of who is looking out for them by building gardens with trellises to climb.  These East African chameleons are a highlight to my day. They too are great climbers, but get themselves down to the ground to eat snails and slugs.  They are territorial by nature, so if they like a spot, they will remain there and have their family there.  I have been blessed with seeing them in all ages, from those only a few days old, to full grown.  I have treated them for injuries and dehydration when needed, and I have learned so much about them in the process.

On the flipside of this wall, I have created a mini garden that gets a lot more sun.  In December, I transplanted the leggy seedlings, as well as the aging, may not germinate seed, and got this! A lovely mix of all the things I love.  A little bit of everything planted quite closely together.  So close, that I have to be really proactive with the fish fertilizer, as in, fertilize tomorrow because these plants are beginning to fruit.

I should also mention that banana stumps create the border for what is a very shallow raised bed garden that is at the base of this climber trellis.  The nutrients of these bananas stumps will continue to seep out, and eventually, they will breakdown in place.  A new stump can be piled on top, and continue the cycle.  I’ve found these to be excellent cool places for worms to have their offspring.  All of these reclaimed things were free to use in the garden.

Hawaii’s seasons come and go in such a way, that you can keep some plants going for quite a long time.  Some peppers and eggplants last over 2 years with proper care.  They do not fruit year round, nor do they have the enormous yields like they do in many parts of the country, but they can be fixtures to count on and plan around.  Lima beans need a very long season, as do so many of the Winter squash that do well in Hawaii. So think ahead, and plan on those plants to be in the same spot for 6 months or more.  If you think ahead, and leave them alone as they grow, you may find that you like the look of sprawling vines after all, especially after eating the bounty of the season.