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 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
These weeks are busy, as the month of October is a squash farmer’s dream as all minds turn to pumpkin. So what better way to celebrate the season than with a two fold community building action. This past week, I got the Squash and Awe Soil Building Initiative launched. Building Soil-Building Community. I have asked local businesses to “sign on” to the program by donating pure, green or brown compost worthy waste to help build my farm’s soil. In turn, I teach a pumpkin program at their school of choice. So far so good…40 gallons of green waste. 18 lbs of coffee grounds, and three trunk loads of cardboard to use in my sheet mulching. 30 preschoolers served, and 5 classes at 3 schools in the weeks ahead.