garden-fresh wisdom

I’ve been chased inside by the rain, which soaked me through to the bone while I was gathering fruit in the orchard. I’ve never seen rain come down this hard! It felt wonderful, but even here in warm Hawai’i, it’s wintertime and I can’t stay wet for too long without getting a chill. So I’ve decided to write a post about some of the many things I’ve learned in the garden so far. In just over a week, I feel like I’ve gained enough knowledge to start my own successful garden, although this is just the beginning!

The past few days we’ve been doing a lot of transplanting. Because there are lots of critters that love to eat veggie seeds and tiny sprouts, we start everything inside the shade house (like a greenhouse but with screen walls). Plants begin sprouting with seed leaves, which actually live inside the seed before it sprouts! Once the plants start forming their “true” leaves, we leave the plants outside for a day or two to harden off. During this time, the plant gets used to being out in much sunnier, windier, (and in the case of greenhouses, cooler) conditions, without being totally stressed by transplanting. We dig a hole and fill it up with the hose to allow water to sink deep into the surrounding ground before moving the plant in. Then we water it with seaweed: seaweed is a de-stresser for plants, it has a very balanced combination of nutrients that help keep the plant content in its new home. Then we mulch the plant with fresh compost for more slow-releasing nutrients and water retention. Voila!

Well, I should be a little more exact here–there’s never just one plant. We always seed a few kinds of plants together: lettuce with carrots and dill, beans with sunflowers, tomatoes with basil. There are various reasons why some plants help each other grow (and others generally don’t do well together) such as what kinds of nutrients they take and what nutrients or hormones they send into the soil, whether they need shade or give it away, and whether they attract pollinators or repel certain pests. Seeds of Change has a good companion planting guide.

Speaking of unwanted garden residents, how do you deal with pests in an organic garden? I’ve learned that pests are usually a sign that the plants are stressed out, or weak from nutrient deficiencies. Using chemical fertilizers will create these imbalances as I mentioned before, as they are always made up of a mix of substances (as soon as you boost one, the others will be sent out of proportion), thus creating a need for pesticide. To avoid this, applying compost will help keep the plants strong–or applying specific organic matter can gently correct an imbalance, like the eggshells we scattered around the broccoli to boost the calcium. We’ve been brewing and spraying compost tea on the leaves of affected plants to give them a boost in warding off critters like spider mites–and we pull off the affected leaves to keep them from spreading. We harvest whole baby lettuce plants rather than cutting the leaves so the sow bugs don’t sense the broken tissue from cutting individual leaves. We’ll be stringing lights around the trellises to ward off the rose beetles that come out at night. And we enclose growing tomatoes in mesh bags to keep the fruit flies from stinging them. In short, there’s all kinds of creative things that can be done without spraying harmful pesticides.

But what about weeds? Well, I must say I like Connie’s philosophy a lot: “weeds” (what I might call opportunistic species) actually play a role in the garden, by filling in where there are deficiencies. Other sources back up this perspective. Gardens can benefit from the nutrient release from weeds when you leave them where you pull them. If you don’t want to leave them in the garden, it’s safe to put them in a hot compost as it will kill the seeds. But perhaps most of all, it’s about weed prevention: mulching, sheet mulching, and cover cropping. Cover crops can aerate the soil and provide organic matter and nutrients to plants, even boosting yields. The garden beds here that were cover cropped are currently the best beds in the garden, and they’re the only ones with worms, which provide even more aeration and nutrients from their castings.

One thing I’ve learned from Connie that fascinated the science geek in me is the effect of the plant container on water drainage. Contrary to what I would have thought, tall containers actually drain faster than short ones (or tall containers with rocks or styrofoam in the bottom). This happens because of the effect of gravity on water: the higher the volume of water, the heavier it is, and the greater the pull downward. If you’ve ever noticed why your little pots get algae on top, this is why.

Well, this post has been a little info-heavy, so here’s some garden photos to lighten things up 🙂

This is an incredible preying mantis that walked the tightrope (irrigation pipe) from one lettuce tower to the other. He moved so slowly, checking us out and cocking his head at our strange cameras.Image

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This is one of the entrances to the Hui garden, where the magic happens…

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This is a photo of me through the screen in the shade house taken by one of the photography workshop guests!

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