Tag Archives: simple solutions

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.

Picture Perfect Pumpkins

I frequently reference putting a small block of untreated lumber under your pumpkins and Winter Squash.  Many people note that they do not have the time to do so, but also note that wet weather and bugs caused their squash to rot in the field.  I recommend making the time to protect your pumpkins with a little extra care. The way I look at it, by increasing your yield through the reduction of waste, you are saving time.  I took these photos (below) to give people an idea of what squash that have remained in contact with the ground all season can look like, especially here in Hawaii.  Keep in mind that in Hawaii, many of the Winter squash and kabocha that do well here take more than 110 days.  Often more than 120 days until harvest.  Somewhere in there, as the fruit sets,  try to make time to “block” your fruits by lifting them off the ground with a scrap piece of wood. The scrap wood only needs to be 4″x 4″ or so.  Once you have the wood blocks, you can use them over and over for years. I keep them in small stacks near the edge of the patch. It does take some getting used to, but it helps to safeguard from rot that can occur due to surface moisture as well as insects that can damage the surface of your squash.

The above featured squash shows what damage can occur.  Luckily, the harvest occurred before it caused the pumpkin to degrade on the inside.  Since I caught this while it was simply a surface issue, I happily made it into my beloved squash curry for myself.  This could have easily gone deeper into the pumpkin and caused the entire fruit to be lost.

With the way I farm, there is no true “loss” because the damaged squash can become nutritious pet food, chicken food, and rich soil building materials.  But when you farm small, you need to think smart and safeguard what you grow.  Some squash simply drop from the vine, and others may only half develop due to incomplete pollination by bees at flowering.  These things happen, and it is just simply part of the natural cycle of things.  What you can do, is give a little extra tlc to the fruits, and you will be rewarded with picture perfect produce that inspire chefs to put them on display before heading into the kitchen. One chef that I will not name, has been seen giving a slight hug to the squash as they enter his kitchen domain. Huggable produce is good produce.

This extra step in protecting the skin of your  squash will probably add an overall awareness by creating an intimacy with your farm as well.  You can tell a lot from how your squash are flowering and fruiting. A watchful farmer can see signs of insects, powdery mildew, the need for some fish fertilizer, pruning, and more, by stepping carefully into the vines.  These preventative observations can really make the difference in having a successful season. So while you are inspecting your fruits, give them a boost.  You will be rewarded at harvest time.

The Fermented Farm: Beer Traps

People ask me what school of farming I use.  There are a lot of groups to choose from:  organic, no-till, Hawaiian natural farming, Korean natural farming, biodynamic, intensive, permaculture…the list goes on and on.  I use elements of all of those, and I have adapted them to the particular situation I have, and my situation is one of ever changing conditions.  If there is any one thread that continues through all aspects of my farming, it is microbes.  Today, I am going to share one of the ways fermentation is part of my farming practice.  Beer!  Yes simple as it may seem, the humble dregs of beer kegs, and other cast away remains of beer gets used in my farming as beer traps.

A beer trap is my way of capturing the insects, slugs, and snails that would otherwise damage newly planted seeds, and seedlings.  It is a highly effective way of trapping them before you plant your seeds or seedlings, as well as during your growing season. I trap before I plant.  People often think that in the dry upcountry, we don’t have slugs and snails, but we do.  When you add a little moisture to the plot, every single slug or snail will be drawn to that parcel.  By simply taking reclaimed cups, saucers, trays, plastic tubs, and the like, and putting an inch or more of beer in the bottom, you will have a very effective way of removing the pests from your field.  My strategy is to place traps near new plots of seedlings, depending on the time of year, I will catch a wide variety of the bugs that would lessen my productivity.

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Above are two small traps that will be put out today.  With this small amount of beer, you will be surprised what shows up in there.  I can add some water to top off the traps.  Each day the beer trap will have a riper aroma, making it even more tempting as bait.  To increase your success, you can burry the traps so that they are nearly flush with your soil, you can make them larger, deeper, out of different materials, but the basic idea remains the same.  Trap before you plant and you will see results.

 

Preparing for Rough Weather

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, I am getting more calm as the rest of the country gets revved up.  It is my extra busy time from October 1-Thanksgiving.  It is the time of year when squash/pumpkin production isn’t terribly high in Hawaii, but the demand suddenly is.  It is also the time when we all want to think in terms of comfort food, pumpkin patches and family gatherings.  But with a tough Summer behind us, I am grateful that my preventative steps helped in the patch.

October was an intense month where some days, all I could do was just continue to believe that my actions would prevail, and the harvest would come.  It did.  The Summer was a sluggish season where Winter rains came in June.  There was flooding when there should have been long hot days.  Many farmers felt like disappointments, when really, it was one of the toughest seasons all across the country.  Even in the darker moments, when the seasons flip, and hurricanes come one after the next, I always feel that there is something that you can do.  The weather is not your fault, but we need to continue to search for ways to minimize loss.

I got a call from more than one farm across the state that noted that their pumpkins were rotting on the ground.  My answer was simple:  get them up off the ground.  For many this seemed like a time consuming act, but for me, loosing your entire crop isn’t an option.  I recommend that as the pumpkins fruit, take a piece of untreated lumber and slip it under the fruit.  It will cause the sow bugs/rollie pollies to go under the wood rather than destroy the skin of your squash.  It will also keep the squash from sitting on wet ground, and reduce the likelihood of rot.  I have had many people say how time consuming it is, so here is my method and maybe it can work for you.  Keep stacks of scrap wood at intervals near the edge of your patch.  As they fruit, carry a few squares of wood under your arm, and slip them under the new fruits as you see them.  This time of year, squash in Hawaii is just starting to take off, but Winter rains are also heading our way.  It is a great practice that has allowed me to loose no fruits to ground rot.  It also keeps the skin display perfect, while you are making a mental note of which of your vines are producing.

The pumpkins may roll off the blocks as they grow.  I simply check on them once in a while and replace them or add a second block if the squash is a really large one.  After harvesting, the block gets collected, dried in the sun and used again for another squash.  Try it out and see how it works for you.  You never know what the weather is going to bring, and this way, you are ready.  You can still “block” the fruits even mid or late season.  You can even do it when the field is flooding.  Any action, no matter how late, is better than none.

Fruit Fly Warfare

It isn’t my nature, but I have been slinking around like a true guerilla with my sites on the fruit fly population.  I wrote a 4 page essay on my findings, that I will spare you for now.  I will unleash it on my readers soon enough.  As some of you bundle up, and pour through your seed catalogs in hopes of Spring, perhaps dreaming about lands where there there is no true Winter, let me remind you, here in Hawaii we have the same brutal Agricultural pests as the Congo.  I wish I were joking.  One soon learns why 90% of our veggies are shipped in from Fruit fly free localities.  Here in Hawaii we are in the heart of yet another fruit fly “bloom” (they can have 8 to 9 cycles within the Calendar year. ) I refuse to be defeated.  Who knows, maybe outsmarting tropical pests will be my legacy.  It isn’t glamorous, but it is true.  OK back to the war…

Three waves of determined effort are necessary, and well, a continuous parts of your growing practice here in Alohaland.

Clean crop practice: I bag the stung squash in reused metallic coffee bags that my Starbuck’s Grounds for your Garden come in.  I then place them in the sun for a couple hours before they are dropped into a sealed bucket where they will die and decompose in the weeks again.

Lures:  The men are targeted and lured by the use of the right scent for the right fly ( sorry guys.)  Though Oriental Fruit fly does not attack squash, they are on the property in large numbers, so I am taking them out for the benefit of someone’s crops.  They may be feeding on a neighbor farm. The mean, but gorgeous Melon fly is my leopard spotted enemy.  Cure lure is their bait.  See reused cup trap image in prior post for the general idea.  Homemade traps have cleared hundreds of males from the two varieties, with the bulk being Oriental Fruit Fly.

Bag…no double bag ’em:  I have used my fledgling Blue Hubbard as a case study plant, trying out all kinds of strategies.  So far, my vote is for a quick, but meaningful hand pollination followed by a parafin wax baggie, topped with a brown paper lunch bag.  Driven by scent, this seems to be a good solution so far.