Archive for the ‘gardening’ Category

the microbe universe

Well, everything in life has its ups and downs, even living in blissful Hawai’i. After a fantastic day yesterday, we woke up to find our pals Sabine and Sweetie Pie gone, with only a stinky Sweetie present left amongst the torn up green onions, which were promptly ripped out and composted. Then we hit a bigger bump in the road. Or, more accurately, millions of little bumps in the road. They’re called nematodes. There are estimated to be one million different species of these tiny microscopic worms. Many of them are beneficial in the garden, eating pests that spend time in the soil. But others eat living plant material–the roots of vegetables–and this is the kind we have.

It started a little while ago when we realized the chard was stunted and showing spots on the leaves. This is actually Cercospora leaf spot: when the fungus spore lands on a leaf, the plant kills its own tissue in a circle around the spore to cut off its food, killing the spore. Pretty cool (and you can still eat the leaves). But when a plant is getting visibly attacked by a pest, it’s a sign that the plant was already stressed or weak. Taking a closer look, we pulled up a few chard plants. Back home, healthy chard roots dig into the soil up to 6-8 feet deep. But we pulled them up with ease, revealing tiny, brownish roots–many with big red tumour-like galls on them. At first, we thought it was the season: too much rain could have encouraged root rot, and the shortened day length has been causing everything to grow a lot slower (you’d be amazed by how much the changing day length makes a difference here in winter, even though the change is way smaller than where I live further north).

After some internet research, Connie identified them as root knot nematodes, which we have since discovered are very common in Hawai’i. They aren’t a problem back home, and in fact, Connie has told me that she doesn’t remain on the cutting edge of pest control knowledge. Why? Because she doesn’t really get any pests to speak of anymore–evidence that a biologically diverse system focused on building a healthy soil food web through compost and other habitat for beneficial organisms keeps a natural balance. If harmful nematodes are getting out of hand in our garden, it’s because there aren’t enough other microbes to keep their numbers in check.

The nematodes were bad news because they’re very difficult to get rid of; mostly we can just keep their population down. We’ll do this by adding compost over time to balance out the organisms, planting marigolds (nematodes don’t like them), rotating and fallowing the beds, and planting veggies that are nematode-resistant to starve them of the foods they eat (the kales, broccoli, mustard greens, collards, cilantro, green onions and leeks are doing fine). In the meantime, though, we aren’t keeping up with the ravenous appetite here for salad greens. We thought the poor plants would bounce back from us pillaging them every day now that the days are getting longer, but because of the nematodes we waved our white flag and the cooks bought a crate of Romaine. We’re hosting a work camp here in one week, with around 35 people onsite for ten days. I’m grateful for the plants to have some recovery time.

So to cheer ourselves up, we played science lab today. I took soil samples from all the beds, disinfecting my tools between each one so as not to spread the little worms (we’ll have to do this every single time we use a tool in the garden now). At a friend’s place down the road, we examined the samples under a microscope. We didn’t see as much life moving around in the beds with compacted soil. We saw lots of tiny nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the bed where the clover cover crop is still growing among the plants. These awesome bacteria, which live on legumes, convert nitrogen from the air into a form that plants can use. We also brought some freshly brewed and very lively compost tea. The lactobacillus, a beneficial bacteria, looked like a sausage (or a string of sausages). Zippy little ciliates shot across the slide in a hurry. Long fungal strands were covered in ladder-like rungs. And the nematodes were easy to spot: little worms squiggling around, wrestling with a tiny piece of humus. But we couldn’t identify whether they were the good kind or the bad.

The coolest thing we looked at were some indigenous microbes. Before I arrived here, a bunch of “pristine” soil was gathered from up in the hills. We spread cooked rice in a planting flat, poured unsulphured molasses over it, and laid the soil on top. We’ve kept it covered and moist for the past few weeks as the indigenous microbes feed and multiply. When the rice has disappeared, we’ll make a compost tea from this highly active and locally appropriate microbe universe to help build soil fertility in the garden. In the meantime, our small sample from the mushroomy-smelling, mould-covered tray has showed us there’s plenty of beneficial life in there.

I can’t remember using a microscope since high school science class, and I have to say I never thought I’d get so excited over soil microbes and mouldy trays of rice. I think my biologist roommate will be proud 😉

Unfortunately I don’t have any shots of the microbes, but here’s some lovely sunflowers instead.

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These are some of the bucket-full of edible flowers we harvest every day for the cooks to garnish the food.. hibiscus, calendula, nasturtiums, and.. blue butterfly pea I believe..

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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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Ube, Kulolo, and the all-star Gotu kola

I’m sitting on the front deck of the lodge, watching long, drawn clouds blend into the calm  water as they meander across a pale peach sunset. The workshop guests are snapping photos in the quickly dimming light. Yesterday after lunch, I went for a drive with Connie. It was the first time I’d been off the property since I arrived! Our first stop: the Molokai post office. I waited for Connie to post-a-nut to her grandkids. Posting a coconut from Molokai is a classic visitor routine–the coconuts are free, you just have to decorate them and pay for shipping! As I waited, several locals passed through, each offering a friendly hello. The post office worker shuffled about, smiling as she slowly typed in each order. People here move on serious island time, allowing you to soak up the richness of each moment and interaction. I feel right at home.

Next, we went to Hikiola’s: the co-op garden store. We sailed past the RoundUp and checked out the organic fertilizers. The labels showed different mineral ratios, just like the chemical fertilizers. Connie explained that it’s not a great idea to go by the ratios: as soon as you start tinkering with the level of one mineral, you throw other levels out of whack. The solution? Skip the fertilizer and add more quality compost. Connie sometimes gathers kelp from the ocean. It has the most balanced and bioavailable combination of vitamins and nutrients (and is excellent for munching too!).

Connie walked me through the long list of impressive-sounding ingredients. Bat guano? Taken from an ecosystem where it was probably an important food source. Blood and bone meal? A slaughterhouse byproduct of the factory farm industry. Fish fertilizer? Not simply the scraps from fish processing: the scale of the fish fertilizer industry in South Africa is so massive that the harvest of fresh kelp is no doubt leaving a whole in the marine food chain. Not to mention how far all this stuff traveled to be processed, repackaged, and shipped here. If your food shouldn’t travel thousands of kilometres, why should your fertilizer? The solution? You guessed it. More good old fashioned compost.

On Mondays and Thursdays, the barge comes in, carrying literally everything to supply the island (talk about food security…) so the stores were buzzing. After stopping at the grocery store (where everything costs twice as much as it does back home, and the avocados under the sign that says “Hawaiian Grown” have “Product of Mexico” stickers on them) we did what any sane person on the island would do on a Monday: we got two scoops for the price of one. I ordered the two most exotic ice cream flavours I could find: Ube (Hawaiian purple yam) and Kulolo (taro, a traditional Hawaiian staple). They were delicious!

Yesterday, something wonderful happened: my first seeds sprouted! It was so exciting!!! After worrying that I didn’t water the lettuce enough right off the bat, perfect rows of tiny sprouts appeared. It truly is a miracle. They felt like little babies (sure enough, last night I dreamed I had a baby…Too close of a parallel for comfort!)  Connie also showed me how to save lettuce seeds today–it was sunny and windy, so the seeds would be as dry as possible. It’s really easy, and it’s so important to save seeds from varieties that work well where you live. Saving and replanting the ones most suited to local growing conditions helps to continually improve the yield and the plants’ resistance to pests. We plucked off the fluffy seed heads and rubbed the pods open to drop the tiny seeds into a paper bag. Once they’ve dried out more, we’ll separate out the seeds and store them in the fridge. Seeds need to breathe just like we do, and keeping them cold helps them last longer by slowing respiration.

To top off the afternoon, I was introduced to another Hui ritual: 3pm green drinks. For this, I harvested fresh collard greens, yellow chard, parsley, and gotu kola. Gotu kola grows like crazy in the garden. It’s been called “the fountain of life” for its incredible array of medicinal uses in South Africa and the Asia-Pacific region. I blended these with ice, green veggie powder, rice milk, fresh lemon juice, and a bunch of papaya, mango and banana. The ladies loved my concoction! I think I’ve found the easy way to everyone’s hearts…

 

 

what do you want from your food?

When I said in my last post that Molokai was sunny, I didn’t mention that the sun was dominated by endless sheets of rain and huge gusts of wind. Sure, it wasn’t what I was expecting (or anyone else here, for that matter) but I was so wrapped up in my scarf (and my coat and sweater.. it’s winter, remember!) and my excitement I didn’t care. It made it all the sweeter today to sweat in the brilliant sunshine. The past two mornings I’ve woken up before my alarm, so something must be going right.

I spent yesterday harvesting an unbelievable amount of Swiss chard blown over by the storm. In hues of white, yellow, red and green, chard stands out for its beauty, its hardiness (except in tropical storms, apparently), its tastiness, and above all, its nutritional content. Chard is brimming with phytonutrients, over a dozen different antioxidants, and several other important vitamins and minerals. Doing a quick search of recipes for chard stems (any ideas?), I learned that it has been rated second only to spinach as the world’s healthiest vegetable. Go chard!

Last night, over locally caught Ahi tuna and beets I harvested that morning, I met the manager of the biodynamic ranch I mentioned in my last post. Jann is a wonderful woman who patiently answered my curious questions. She explained the myriad of challenges the ranch faces to keep up its organic certification. Upon prodding, she began explaining some of the principles and practices of biodynamic farming. She invited me to visit the ranch sometime to see the integrated approach in action, so stay tuned. Jann used to be a conventional farmer in the mainland US–the kind of farming with huge machinery, monocropped fields, chemical fertilizers, and Round-up galore that dominates the food system and wreaks havoc on the landscape, waterways, and ocean life.

But wait.. is chemical fertilizer really all that bad? Isn’t “unsprayed” (no pesticides) good enough? Well, I learned from Connie that this is horribly untrue: she told me about news reports that farms are failing and farmers are getting sick due to exposure to heavy metals. Sure enough, the chemical fertilizers added to grow the food you buy contain toxic substances like arsenic and lead! These are intentionally added as the “recycling program” for big industries with hazardous wastes, such as those from mining tailings ponds and steel mills! YUCK. Food sovereignty, anyone?

On the bright side, we do have the power to grow our own, and…oh..is it satisfying. I spent hours today harvesting baby greens, tender sunflower sprouts, edible nasturtium flowers, and radishes so spicy they made my mouth burn. I also got versed in orchard duty. Sabine, the lovely German WWOOFer, showed me the ropes of harvesting lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruits, papayas, and my all-time favourite, avocado. I’m in heaven. In fact, every morning I’ve had the joy of walking past the avocado tree beside my home, slicing into a fresh Lilikoi (known to me previously as Passionfruit), and slurping up the sweet jelly and seeds for breakfast. The Lilikoi is everywhere. In fact, it’s invasive here, and the guys working on the Hui’s restoration project bemoan the plant. But it’s tolerated (and even actively planted) because, well, it’s just so damn good. It reminds me of the juicy Himalayan blackberries back home. Everybody likes you when you’re sweet.

my first Hui day

I’ve officially landed at the Hui Ho’olana Retreat Centre and the first thing I have to say is: they were right. There is definitely some special energy on this island. Everyone I talked to who had been to Molokai before had tipped me off to this already, and I can feel it. What else could explain my incredible amount of energy here on the first day? I should have been recovering in bed after several 3am nights in a row aiming for the Vancouver airport from icy Saskatchewan, followed by a night sleeping on concrete in the Maui airport baggage claim area. I almost fell asleep while my body banged around in the bumpy Cessna, but as dawn over Maui became a sunny morning on Molokai, I stepped off the plane and Connie greeted me with a warm hug and a lei of beautifully scented plumerias. Feeling immediately welcomed here, I promptly forgot about my lack of sleep and dove in.

Over a strong, creamy coffee, I got to know Connie–she is the kind of person who feels like an old friend right away. Connie is from my bioregion back home, and has several decades of experience teaching horticulture and organic food production. I will be learning one on one with her for the next month, and after that I will be managing the veggie garden that feeds the retreat guests and staff of the Hui. It’s a lot of responsibility, but I’m excited for the challenge. Not to mention the immaculate garden is a food grower’s dream! Raised beds, tall sunflowers, pungent herbs, tropical fronds swaying in the wind, and a love nest (shaded lounge bed) right in the middle. It’s not going to be hard to spend all day here.

The crown jewels of the garden are, without a doubt, the leafy greens. This is partly the reason for the name of this blog. My main job here is to plant greens, grow greens, harvest greens, and….grow more greens. The Hui folks eat tons of leafy greens, and we need to provide at least a giant bag of salad every day from what we grow. Looking at the garden, you wouldn’t think there would be enough for everyone. There are huge spaces between the plants, and most of the salad greens are very young. It used to be much thicker, but when Connie arrived, she started gardening her way, and I am fascinated to learn how this can be done.

After an afternoon seeding Devil’s Tongue lettuce till my eyes were crossed, I joined my fellow staff and volunteers for dinner. I couldn’t believe my eyes–Beef burgers and free Rogue Pale Ale for the taking! I hardly ever eat beef burgers these days, because it’s hard to get happy meat that I can afford, and because meat production has such a huge environmental impact. But this was certified organic, biodynamic, grass-fed beef from a family friend right here on Molokai! My taste buds rejoiced.

To burn off this wellspring of energy, I joined the others in their Thursday night ritual. The Hui runs on a two-week cycle: one week there is a retreat, the next week we breathe and prepare for the next retreat. In two days, a photography workshop will begin. So tonight, we trickled down through the darkness to the yurt. Eli’s Yurt is a beautiful circular building where many of the workshops take place. Tonight we turned it into an ecstatic dance space. For some, this can be a spiritual practice; for others, it’s a fun sweaty workout. We danced around wherever and however our bodies moved us, to tribal beats, Hawaiian a capella, slow fiddle notes, and Simon & Garfunkel. With an opening and closing circle and many deep stretches along the way, it was the perfect way to drop my body, mind, and spirit into this community. I was definitely meant to come here. I’m home.

 

planting the seed

Welcome to my first post! Why am I writing this blog? Well, it’s not because there aren’t enough gardening blogs out there already with tons of useful information. In fact, if you’re looking for the hottest gardening tips, I’m sorry to report that you probably won’t find them here. Or you will, and they will be buried amid my musings as I try, fail, experiment, rejoice, and reflect on a new chapter of my journey–a journey into writing and a journey into growing my own food. Why me? Why now? Why the heck would anyone read this blog?

Well, for starters, maybe you’re a family member or a friend, and this is the best way to stay informed about what I’m up to as I embark on three months of learning organic gardening on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. Thanks for stopping by! But regardless of who joins me, I wanted to write about this experience anyway, and I’ve never gone more than a few days writing in a journal before I take a several-year hiatus. The more public I am about it, the more motivated I’ll be to actually sit down and write. That’s the hope, anyway.

I really enjoy writing, and there’s so much going on in my head that never seems to make it out, so much thought-provoking info I come across that I want to pass on and never find a chance. So many creative activities that I take up, and then set down halfway through because I’m lured away by something new. Why should I succeed with writing this time? No, it’s not a New Year’s resolution–I carefully avoided that dead-end. With a creative writing class freshly under my belt and a thirst to keep the words flowing, a bit of long-needed spare time, and a strong desire to remember and to share the stuff I’ve learned and the places and people I’ve encountered here, I am more than set up to do this thing. My highest hope is to keep writing when I return home, creating a shared space for pass-on-worthy things–especially about food, leafy green things that grow, other sustainability-related stuff, epic things happening in the world–and my own ideas too. Here’s hoping!

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