Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Using Compost

Compost seems to be a hot topic. I'm frequently asked to sell my stash to others, but it's a valuable product on this farm and I never have enough. So how do I utilize compost in my system? 

Compost is one of my main sources of fertilizer and soil improver. My homemade compost is comprised of a wide assortment of plants (grasses, weeds, brush and tree leaves), manures (chicken, equine, sheep, goat), and kitchen & fruit waste not eaten by the chickens. Occasionally slaughter waste and dead animals end up being composted too. Plus small amounts of garden soil, lava sand, coral sand, ocean water, fired bone, and biochar end up in the mix. 

The most common method to use my compost is to till it in to the top 3"-6" of soil when I refresh a growing bed between crops. I will fork a 2" deep layer onto a bed then very quickly and lightly till it in. By far, this my number one method. 

Another frequently used method is to use the compost as a mulch. About one or two months into growing a crop, I will spread a light layer (about an inch) of compost, like applying a mulch. Then I try to cover that with a light layer of fresh grass clippings as soon as feasible. When possible, I'll time it when I'm expecting a rain. If I'm not lucky to get rain, then I'll give the bed a watering. I don't think this is as good as tilling it in, but it does seem to give the growing crop a boost without disturbing its roots, as tilling would. 

Compost tea. I haven't developed the habit of using lots of compost tea. My neighbor is a big advocate of compost tea, using it about one month into growing a crop. Via his gentle prodding, he's gotten me to add a couple shovelfuls of compost to a trashcanful of water, give it a good stir, and let it sit in the sun for day. Then use that water at the end of the day to water the plants that need a drink. I've never experimented to see how much of a difference it makes, but I figure that it can't hurt. 

And the final use, I add it to the layers as I make the next compost pile. It acts as a starter, introducing the micro organisms into the pile. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

My Own Radish Seed

Radish and daikon seed is easy to produce here. If the plant is allowed to grow large and woody, weeks beyond its edible stage, it will eventually send up flower stalks. 

The now gigantic radish plants send out tall flower stalks which flop about and get fairly sprawly......

The flowers themselves are small and cluster at the ends of the flower stalks, though the stalks continue to grow and send out new flowers on their tips. By the way, these flowers are edible and are pretty in salads......

I'm told that radish can cross pollinate with daikon, wild mustard, and wild turnip. Luckily the only plants I need to watch for here on the farm are daikon and radishes. So I only let one variety flower at a time to limit where the bees gather pollen. Yes, daikon and radishes are pollinated by bees. Happily, my bees seem to like the flowers and visit often enough to get most of them successfully pollinated. 

Radish pods get really fat. You sure can't miss them on the plants.....

I let the pods mature to the point that they get yellow-brownish and a bit leathery. Next, I need to pick them and complete the maturation & drying in a protected airy spot. My homestead farm is pretty moist, so the pods won't dry down naturally unless it's a drought year. In the next couple of months I plan to start producing my radish and daikon seed down at my drier seed farm location, where I should be able to dry down the pods naturally while still on the stalk. But that's a future project.

When the pods have turned tannish brown, I set them outside in the sun to dry.....

Once the pods are dry, it's fairly easy to get the seeds. Put the super dry pods in a bag, pillowcase, or cardboard box and give it a whacking with a rubber mallet or a light mashing with a hammer. Yes, true radish pod abuse....violence in the garden, that sort of thing. You see, the seed is a bit challenging to get out of the pod by hand. If I only planned on harvesting a couple dozen seeds, then I could split the pods by hand, using my thumb nail. But for more seed, I needed to try something else so that I wouldn't be sitting there for six hours breaking open pods one at a time by hand. Once beaten into submission, the seeds will collect on the bottom of the bag while the dry pod pieces will be on the top. A fan helps winnow out the light debris if you wanted too (I don't bother unless I plan to sell the seed), leaving the heavy seeds behind. Because I'm not sure just how tough the seeds are, I tend to go on the gentle side with the hammer whacking. I do it just so that the pods are cracked and crushed, but not thoroughly mashed......

Crookshank is helping.......

The bowl contains the seed I harvested from this one box of pods. Considering how few seeds come in a purchased seed packet, growing my own is quite a savings. 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Sun Oven - Dehydrator

My homemade solar dehydrated has reached the end of it days. In fact, I've been holding it together with duct tape for months and I'm fed up fussing with it. But it served me well. It was an early experiment from years ago made out of repurposed materials (that is - junk), so it cost me nothing and taught me a lot. Time to move on. 

I've been toying with the idea of making another solar dehydrator, but recently another blogger ( held a free webinar on Sun Ovens. Hummmmm. So I attended. Conclusion -- I think the Sun Oven would work as a dehydrator although it wouldn't handle the volume that I was use to. The webinar offered a nice discount, so I took the bait and spent some money. I figured that if it turned out to be junkily made, I'd send it back. Well it turns out that I like the product. It's just a shame that I don't get reliable sun here, or I'd use it every day for cooking. That's something to look forward to during the next drought year. 

My first sunny morning I gave the Sun Oven a test run. I'm harvesting mamaki leaves right now and need to dry them. After preparing the leaves, they were spaced on the dehydrator shelves. The oven door was closed but slightly propped open as directed.

Sun Oven was aligned to the sun.....

Here's another view....

The oven quickly heated up, and I mean QUICK. Yikes! Run and get something to hold the door open more. I ended up using a little toothpick jar. 

Before the morning sun disappeared, the leaves were dry. Rather than realigning the oven's position every 30 minutes, I let it be. This kept the temperature lower so as not to burn the leaves. 

All in all, this experiment worked out just fine. I figure I could dry 2-3 batches of leaves each morning, if I wanted. That's ok. And it turns out that the Sun Oven dries more leaves per day than my other solar dehydrator design. The only thing I need to still work out is getting the temperature control fine tuned. 

Next, I plan to try drying other things -- fruits, veggies, macnuts. If this handles the macnuts, then it will be worth every penny I spent on it. 

Saturday, June 17, 2017

"Shade Tent"

As part of my livestock plan, I want to have a shade shelter back in the main pasture. Not that the animals need the shade (there's plenty of shade trees), but it would give them a dry spot out of the rain. And rather than making it a three sided shelter, like I would have done if I were back in NJ, I figure on leaving it open for air. We're in the tropics here, so the air is more important. 

Not having done something like this before, I checked out various shed plans and garden project plans in my books and on the Internet. I then inspected a friend's pasture sunshade to see how his was built, since it's weathered many a windstorm successfully. 

This is what I settled upon.......

This is my prototype, being built outside the pastures, by the pasture gate. I plan to use it to store various livestock supplies that I want to keep handy. And when I go out of town, I can stack the bags of haycubes there so that the caretaker can easily feed the sheep. I find this to the most difficult stage in building anything, getting everything started, leveled, and braced. Yup, there's some very interesting items being used to brace the frame, but of course they're only temporary and happened to be handy. 

Before the full day of labor is over, the "shade tent' is basically done, I'm minus one sheet of metal roofing, which will have to be purchased. Oops.....miscalculated! And one fascia board still needs to be put into place, but it's raining now. 

I had originally planned to install rain gutter on the lower end of the roof in order to catch rainwater and direct it to the water troughs. But no need. It rained late afternoon and instantly self-filled the trough below. How cool is that! I'll just drag over the second water trough and let it self full too. Looks like I'll only need to use the water hose during extended dry periods. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Fun on a Farm

Why does farming, or even gardening, have to be so serious, so dry, so dull. Ya know, if a government inspector sees a pretty, playful farm they automatically label it "hobby". Those farmers say they have a heck of a time qualifying for grants and loans. I've had several tell me this is far too often the truth. How sad. 

Farming and gardening can be fun. True, it's lots of hard work, but it can be enjoyable. I've seen other people's places where they have made crazy yard art out of farm discards -- fanciful animals, wind chimes, sun catchers and such. Others have made mazes, especially corn mazes for public enjoyment. Many gardeners, but also some serious growers, have odd shaped growing beds, herb spirals, plant towers, vertical gardens, and creative trellises. I've been in farms and spied some fun stuff in the corners -- garden trolls and little troll houses, dinosaur guardians, stick animals, colorful cartoonish signs and labels. Fun stuff. 

The Tin Man 

(Tin Man graces the yard of Bedlam Farm) 

I visited an herb farm many years ago. The farmer team, a husband and wife, had created curving beds, some with artistic designs. From the air, the beds created amazing Amish hex signs. They also arranged some of the herbs by color and foliage texture, making the place quite visually pleasing. On top of this all, they used crazy stuff for container gardens, crazy stuff that would either make you smile or shake your head -- an old claw foot bathtub, a toilet, a wheelbarrow, old kitchen cement sinks. This farm was a serious income producer, but the farmers could still have fun with it. 

I haven't gotten my own farm to the whimsical stage yet that I desire, but it's on the way. I've got some yard art here and there. And I've made some interesting fences and walls around some pastures. 

Another way to make farming fun is to sing and dance while working. Stick around long enough and you might catch me singing to the plants, or dancing in the gardens while working. Listening to music is great while I'm working, so it's not that too much of a stretch for me to suddenly break into fanciful dancing. 

Then there's Worldwide Naked Gardening Day. Been there, done that. Looking forward to next time. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Germination Failures

Last Sunday I lead a workshop on vegetable seed starting. I'm not a trained teacher, but I try to share some of my knowledge with others. Not sure how successful I am, but my talk and demo did result in questions after the event. Here's a few I'd like to answer publicly because perhaps someone else has the same unanswered question. 

1- Why don't you (meaning me) direct seed everything right into the ground? 
   Easy answer......I have too many things that destroy my emerging seedlings. Veggie seedlings must be far tastier than "weed" seedlings, because things often destroy my veggie seedlings before they get a chance to sprout true leaves. They get eaten by mice, rats, assorted birds including turkeys, slugs, cutworms, and a host of bugs. Believe me, I've really tried direct seeding everything. It surely would be a whole lot easier and faster. Prodded by one of the community garden volunteers, I tried planting an entire bed (3' x 22') with tomato seed and another with broccoli seed. We sowed three seeds in each spot....2 rows in the bed with seeds planted 24" apart. A lot of the seeds germinated just fine. By the following week, almost no seedlings were left. By two weeks, only one tomato and two broccoli seedlings survived. By week number three, all were gone except the one tomato seedling which had a severely damaged stem, most likely from a slug munching on it. It soon died. 

2- Why do you direct seed beans and peas? 
   Because these don't get destroyed as readily as my other veggies. By planting excess, I end up with enough adult plants. I normally plant twice as many seeds as I hope to have as mature plants. I check the seedlings daily and watch for cutworm activity. When I spot some, I'll snuffle around the adjacent soil looking for the caterpillar and destroy it. I also look for weak or malformed seedlings, which I'll remove in order to leave more space for stronger seedlings to grow. 

3- Why did my seeds ALL fail to germinate? 
   There could be a lot of different causes. Each would need to be considered, since I can't see your garden firsthand. 
...old seed. Unless stored under ideal conditions, seeds normally have a lifespan during which they are viable, that is, will be alive and can germinate. Some veggie varieties have longer lifespans than others. Parsnips are notoriously short lived (1 year) while others may last several years. 
...seed stored under poor conditions. Some veggie seed can survive poor conditions while others are real sensitive about it. If you've been tossing that seed packet into your desk drawer or workshop shelf, after a few months the seed may not be too viable. The constant temperature changes and humidity flucuations may do them in. Personally I find my best results with refrigerating my seed in a glass jar with a tight lid. By the way, freezing fresh seed may also kill it. Seed that has not had a chance to dry down correctly, plus many tropical seeds, can be killed by freezing. 
...wrong germination conditions. Some seed requires light to germinate. Others don't. So if you planted a container with lettuce seed and placed it in a dark spot, it most likely won't sprout. Seeds also like a bit of moisture, but not too wet. I've seen gardeners who kept their sprouting pots too wet or too dry. Semi shade is good for seed sprouting. Letting them bake in the sun and dry out can kill emerging seedlings. Temperature can be important for some seeds. Bean seed requires 60° or above. Papaya wants higher temps. Sowing depth can also be a factor. Some seeds seem to sprout regardless of how deep they go (such as corn), while others are depth sensitive. Some, like tobacco, want to be in the surface.  

4- Why did my seedlings die? 
   There could be a number of reasons, 
...fungal disease called damping off. This is quite common with non-sterilized potting soil. 
...too wet or too dry. Keeping the soil evenly moist gives best results. Totally drying out, even once, is a death knell for many seedlings. 
...too much sun or not enough. Some veggies can take full sun while others want semi shade or shade. So, one needs to gear it to the veggie being grown. 
...too much wind. Emerging seedlings are fragile. I protect mine from the full force of the wind. 
...too much fertilizer too soon. Emerging seedlings don't need fertilizer right away. And they can't handle a strong dose. 

What are some of the other failures I've had sprouting seeds? 
...One of the cats deciding to sleep on the tray of emerging seedlings. Guess it must have been a soft, comfy spot. She crushed all the tender lettuce in the center of the tray. 
...Trays getting knocked over and crash to the ground. Cats? 
...A rat getting into the mini greenhouse and eating all the cabbage seedlings. Yum, full tummy! 
...Farmer getting too busy and forgetting to water the seedling trays one day. Dumb mistake. 
...Farmer being in a hurry, grabbed the first handy metal water can and watered the seedling trays. Water was scorching hot because the dark green can had been sitting in the sun all day. I cooked the seedlings. 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Easier-to-Harder Scale for Veggies Here

I repeatedly get asked, "Which vegetables are easy to grow?" As with everything about growing food, the answer is, "It depends." It depends upon the conditions: soil type and fertility, amount of sunlight, temperature, growing season, rain, wind, etc. Plus how much time one wants to put into it. 

I can only speak from experience. In NJ, tomatoes and summer squashes were failproof. That's not the case here in Hawaii. But since I'm always asked for a list, for beginners around here, I suggest...
...radishes and daikon
...Cherry tomatoes onions
...annual herbs

And if successful, try...
...potatoes bok choy
...lettuce for baby leaf harvesting 
...bulb onions
...sweet potatoes for greens

Next, graduate to....
...Chinese cabbage
...assorted Asian greens
...assorted lettuces

A little more challenging for here are...
...sweet potatoes for tubers 
...some of the less common herbs and medicinals

The most difficult in my area are...
...squashes, both summer and winter. This includes pumpkins.
...tomatoes that aren't cherry or grape
...sweet corn