Sunday, April 22, 2018

Sweet Potatoes : questions 4 thru 6

Question #3- "Where do you plant-ground or grow boxes?"
Both. It depends upon the variety. All varieties can be ground in the ground, but some lend themselves well to container gardening too. What's the difference? Some varieties will develop tubers right under the mother plant. These can be grown in containers. Other varieties don't do that. Plant the wrong variety in a container and you're won't get any tubers.  I have some sweets growing in my pallet grow boxes. A gardener on the top of Oceanview has success growing them in smaller containers (half barrels and old coolers). 

From what I've read, ancient Hawaiians grew at least some varieties that produced their tubers right under the mother plant. They may have had other more far ranging types, but I've only read accounts of them making stone rimmed beds for sweet potato growing, and also making a puka (scooped out hole) in the ground and preparing it for sweet potatoes. Since they had dozens, possibly hundreds, of cultivars, I wouldn't be surprised that they had all the variations that we see today in modern cultivars. 

Question #4- "How far from the main plant are the potatoes located?"
That depends upon the variety. Some produce all their tubers right under the mother plant. On the other extreme, there are types that never produce tubers under the mother plant. Most tubers are within a few feet of the mother plant, but I tried one variety once where I would find tubers up to 15-20 feet away! The neatest growing variety I had once was a bush type with 3-5 foot long vines and which produced lots of tubers only right under the mother plant. It was an ok sweet potato for eating but it wasn't outstanding. But it was easy to grow and very productive. Sadly I lost the variety when my neighbor's cows destroyed the garden. They ate every bit of vine and tuber! I've never been able to find that variety again. 

Question #5- "How do you know when they are ready?"
That depends upon the variety. Some will be ready by 3 1/2 months from the time they were planted (for small tubers), others not until close to a year. For most varieties, check at about 5 months and see what has developed. If tubers aren't big enough, wait another 1-2 months and check again. If I know a variety's habit, then I can simply mark a date on the calendar for harvesting. But of course that date will vary a little due to the weather and time of year. They are slower to form good tubers during the winter and during drought. 

Tubers can be harvested at any size. I don't need to wait for tubers to get big. In fact, I prefer the smaller sized ones myself. I'll sell the larger ones. Some varieties tend to produce fibers in the tubers if they grow too slowly or get too mature. Thus another good reason for harvesting young tubers. 

"D" says that she's growing a purple variety and wanted to know when to harvest them. Not knowing which variety it is, I can only suggest that she do a little gentle digging and take a look-see. If it is an Okinawan type, I wouldn't expect harvestable tubers until 9-12 months. It's a very slow variety. But there are numerous purple types, some of which are ready at 5 months. 

She also asked if there was visual clue for when the tubers are ready. While there might be for some particular varieties, I haven't noticed them yet. Some varieties will flower, most do not. Some grow long vines which slow down in growth, others don't. Some start producing smaller leaves, some don't. I haven't seen anything consistent as an indicator. If there is one, I'd like to know about it myself. 

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Sweet Potatoes : questions 1 thru 3

(Note: I didn't have time to gather some photos for today, but if you're interested in pictures, I will upload some to this post tomorrow. Just check back sometime later. Thanks.)

"D" sent me a list of questions about sweet potatoes. Luckily, she also lives in Hawaii, which makes answering a whole lot simpler for me. While I'm no expert on growing this crop, I do indeed grow a lot of sweets. Basically I use the greens for livestock feed, but I also harvest the tubers. Plus over half the sweets I grow serve as a cover crop or living mulch. 

Above, a living mulch to shade the soil around the taro. This one us a bush variety so it won't aggressively spread. 

Above, sweets used as an aggressive ground cover. This one produces 15' to 20' vines, grows quickly, produces lots of side shoots, making it ideal for a quick ground cover. 

Question #1- "Any specific time to plant?" 
I've planted cuttings in every month with success. They always root. Their growth may be slower during early winter, or when things are dry and windy, but they don't die. They just wait for better conditions. My latest cuttings were planted in January and they're actually looking pretty good. Not at all stunted. If I had to name a month or two that are the least desirable for planting, I'd say November and December. Growth is slow those two months even if all other factors are even. But I don't hold off planting cuttings if I have them in Nov/Dec. Nope, they go into the ground anyway. Now for the best months to plant? For me I'd say Mar-May. 

Question #2- " Where you get starts?"
99% of the time I use tip cuttings from other plants. When I harvest or thin my sweets, I'll choose the healthiest tips to make cuttings, about 12"-14" long. I'm looking to plant at 3 or so leaf nodes into the soil while having 2 leaf nodes (plus the small tip) out of the soil. Usually I make the cutting and place it into fresh rainwater for 3-5 days until I see roots starting. Then I plant the cutting. You don't really have to wait for roots to develop. The cutting can immediately go right into the ground as long as you give it a good drink of water. 

Occasionally I'll make slips. Making slips means planting the tuber and havesting the shoots that come up. Those shoots are what is meant by slips. I'll snap them off the tuber when they are at least 6" long and plant then. I'll do this when I'm given a new tuber variety to try. On the mainland where it is cold, gardeners don't have vines to take cuttings from. Thus they plant the tubers in a warm area and create slips for transplanting out in their gardeners. 

I remember as a kid suspending a sweet potato in a glass of water, using toothpicks as props. Then over the next couple of weeks watching the sprouts grow. I guess we kids lost interest after a couple of weeks, because I never recall planting any of those slips. 

Question #3- "white versus purple versus orange"
All.  I like to experiment, so I grow all sorts. Sweet potatoes are highly variable. The skin can be white, creamy, gold, orange, red, pink, purple, even blotchy. The flesh can be white, cream, orange, purple...ranging from pale to intense, and adding streaks and blotches. Not only the color is variable, but all sorts of other traits too. I have tubers that range from smooth to lumpy, round to snakelike, big to small. Some tubers are oh so pretty, others are downright ugly. Some varieties are good for baking, others are better for mashing, and other yet better for frying. Some are dry fleshed when cooked, other very moist. And anyone who has grown several varieties of sweets will tell you that some varieties are incredibly sweet, others mid-way, and yet others not so sweet at all. Some varieties produce lots of tubers, while others produce very few. Some have blocky roundish leaves, others handshaped leaves, others thin lacy leaves. Some plants are thick and robust, while others have thin somewhat wispy vines. Plus there are bushy varieties, and aggressive running types with incredibly long vines, and dozens of intermediate length vines. Some sweet potatoes mature early, others very late, plus lots of varieties maturing somewhere in between the two extremes. Boy, there sure is variety in sweet potatoes! 

So back to the question, white vs purple vs orange. It comes down to personal preference. With me, it depends upon what I'm doing with the tater. Hubby prefers the non-sweet ones. I like them all. 

Friday, April 20, 2018

Growing Bananas Organically

Ok, one more post about bananas, then I want to give it a least for a few days. But you can still send me questions, which I'll eventually get to. 

Many oriole asked, can bananas be grown organically? Simple answer, yes. But to expand on that answer, can they be commercially grown organically? That's a different story because according to what I've read, it can be real difficult if not impossible in some areas. Yes, some farms can do it. Others cannot. The reason basically is fungal diseases and certain insects. Plus the higher cost and more difficult availability of organic fertilizers. To make it more confusing and difficult, some fruit wholesalers and shippers require fungicide treatments or apply and/or fumigate during transit. 

Commercial farms use quite frequent fungicide applications. Some farms also spray insecticides. Without these treatments, getting enough marketable bananas harvested in order to afford to keep the farm financially afloat might be difficult or close to impossible. The few commercial growers in Hawaii that I've talked to say that they can't go organic with their crop. 

Home production is a different story. Around here, just about all homegrown bananas are either fully organic, or are sprayless but using commercial fertilizer. I haven't heard of anyone in my area bothering to use sprays. I guess we are lucky and don't have bad banana insect problems in my particular region. I see leaf fungal problems but they don't seem to severely impact the production for the home grower. The home grower isn't worried about getting the highest production impossible. Another thing, home growers aren't trying to get blemish free, pretty bananas. They don't care about marks on the banana peel. But commercial growers have to stay very aware of the cosmetic condition of their bananas. Disease and insects can cause visual damage, making the bananas not suitable for supermarket sale. Face it, we consumers are snobs about our fresh veggies and fruits. We want them looking perfect. As a result, farmers often turn to chemical treatments to assure a sellable crop at a good price. 

Using commercial fertilizers is another thing that can keep bananas from being sold as organic. On this farm, I don't use commercial fertilizer on bananas. Instead I use two different approaches. A couple clumps of trees grow atop a hugelpit. The pit is filled very deeply with a wide variety of organic debris that slowly decomposes over the years, providing nutrients to the trees. My second method is used on non-hugelpit clumps. I top dress around the base of the trees with a shredded manure compost (about 3 inches), then cover that with grass clippings just enough to cover. This mulching is reapplied as needed to keep the soil covered and weeds controlled. This seems to do ok. Perhaps not as good as closely monitored commercial fertilizer mixes, but my trees produce a good supply of bananas for me. 

Since producing bananas is relatively easy using my methods, I don't opt to use organically approved sprays and fertilizers. So I guess that means that my bananas are "better than organic". 

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Banana Tree Waste

"M" asked me what I do with the discarded banana tree. Can it be used for anything? Do I just cart it off to the dump? 

First of all, I try to find a use for everything on this farm. Second, there's very little that I cart off to the dump. So yes, I will use this harvested banana tree. 

This particular tree was growing in a hugelpit. Therefore the leaves and trunk will be incorporated back into the hugelpit itself. The leaves and leaf stems go around the bases of the other trees. The truck gets cut up into manageable pieces, which are also placed around the bases where needed. The material in a hugelpit is constantly and slowly decomposing. Thus new material needs to be added. Recycling the spent banana tree helps maintain the hugelpit. 

Trees from non-hugelpit locations I often use to help fill pallet grow boxes. I'll cut off the leaves and put them into the box. The trunk is cut to appropriate lengths, which are then put in atop the leaves. 

One tree usually adds a single 6"-8" layer to one of the pallet grow boxes. But the tall bananas can make two layers. (I add a thin addition of compost or soil between the two layers to help with the composting process.) So those really tall trees actually do have value over the dwarf trees at times. I know of a lot of people who won't grow the tall varieties. 

While I've never used them in cooking, the trunks can be used in imus (an underground cooking pit) to provide steam for the cooking food. I have several people I know who use the trunks for this. They also use the leaves to wrap food in for cooking. 

My donkey and sheep will eat the leaves, though not the coarse stems. I understand that the zoos feed the entire young trees to the elephants in order to enrich their lives. It gives them something interesting and enjoyable to do. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Harvesting Bananas

The first time I harvested a clump of bananas, I carefully avoided damaging the tree. I was totally ignorant about banana production and assumed that the tree would recover and bloom again. I was surprised to see the tree die instead. And puzzled. Eventually I asked a neighbor about it, but so as not to reveal my ignorance (I was fairly new to Hawaii and still hung up on the idea retaining a good public image), I offered to help him harvest his bananas. Geez, yikes, oh my god......I was aghast to see him whip out a machete, give the trunk a couple of strong good whacks, dropping the entire trunk to the ground. I thought, egads man, you killed the tree! 

I've since learned a lot more about bananas. Things like -- each stem (trunk) produces just one bunch of bananas, then dies back. The stem, before fruiting and dying, grows a daughter shoot from its base, thus growing its own replacement. It's not uncommon for multiple daughter shoots to grow. Another tidbit -- a bunch of bananas is heavy. Heavier yet is the banana trunk. The trunk is engorged with water, thus seems far heavier than you'd guess. I give you this knowledge based upon personal experience! One more bit of knowledge -- banana sap flows readily from cut off leaves and cut off banana bunch. The sap looks like clear water but don't be fooled. It can be quite sticky, and can stain some fabrics a dark charcoal brown .... primary your best pair of shorts and the new t-shirt that you forgot to change out of. Of course it won't stain your work clothes. Zip. Nada. Not a mark on the work clothes. 

Harvesting the bunch of bananas takes some finesse, otherwise the heavy tree comes crashing down, breaking and crushing most of the ripe bananas. The first bunch I tried to harvest, I cut the tree down with a chainsaw, like it was a normal tree. Crash! Smash. I quickly learned that this wasn't the way to do it. Over time I tried other approaches, once having the trunk land in my shoulder and smash me to the ground. BUT the bananas were saved! Finally a friend showed me how to cut the trunk and slowly lower the tree to the ground. 

My preferred method nowadays is to make two diagonal cuts on the trunk about shoulder height. I use a box cutter with a new three inch blade. For the sake of the photo, I made notches instead of simple slices. That's just so the cuts could be seen in a photo. But in real life, I just make a simple very deep slice, one on the right of the trunk and the other on the left. 

Above, cut number one. 

Above, cut number two. That orange stick is the handle of the box cutter I'm using. I left the blade partially imbedded in the trunk so you could see what's going on. 

I then walk down to the drooping banana leaves, grab one and use it to gently pull the tree down. I can control the fall by pulling or pushing in the leaf stem. 

The tree will slowly come down so that the bananas don't get destroyed.  Pretty nifty way to harvest them intact. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Raining Worms

Last week it was both rainy and windy. What a combination. Sheesh. Not being able to work on the farm, I went to spend a bit of time visiting a friend down by South Point. I was puzzled by all the small, dried up worms on her roofed over lanai. When I asked, she said that it had rained worms. Egads! 

(Looking down onto the stone floor. The black thing on the left is the toe of my shoe.) 

Apparently it happened the night it was both raining and blowing. As the rain blew in under the roofed lanai, it brought with it tiny worms.....which later dried up and died when the sun came up. How odd! Sounds like one of those biblical plagues. 

I took a closer look, and they are indeed dead worms. 

The only thing I can figure is that these worms had crawled up the stems of the various plants growing near the porch. When the winds kicked in, the worms were literally carried away on the wind and deposited several feet away from their bushy perches. I'm sure the vast majority safely landed on the lawn, to crawl away and live another day. The luckless ones landed on the stone porch. 

Yes, the winds down around South Point can really be strong. And the constant wet we've been having has caused the worms to be quite active at night. I notice when I've  harvested bananas lately that there are dozens of worms way up at the top of the trees, hiding down in the notch of the leaf stem. Yup, worms have been crawling 15'-20' up the tall banana trees. Amazing little critters. 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Failed Gardeners of the World, Take Heart

Hold onto your hats!'s a confession --- Let it be known that I'm not a well organized person. I've been that way my whole life. I'm well meaning enough, but being neat, clean, and on schedule seems as difficult to me as climbing Mt Everest. In my professional life I hired employees to keep things in line and on time. Now that I'm running a homestead farm, I'm left to myself. I admit that I'm not good at some of this job. 

I say this because I've heard from folks who have the same problem and see themselves as total failures, or worse yet, they don't even bother to try to live their dream in the first place. They've failed before they've even started. I get readers who say things like, I wish I could live your life but I'd just fail at it. How sad. 

"R" wrote me that a third of his garden failed because he didn't get to it. Everything got choked out by weeds. "T" said she was discouraged because she let her zucchini get as big as baseball bats and most of her bok choy and spinach bolted before she got around to harvesting it. "L" asked about quicker maturing tomatoes because for the past two years her (I'm guessing it's a her, sorry if I got it wrong) tomato plants didn't get into the ground in time  to be able to produce tomatoes before frost. These people want to successfully garden and are looking for solutions. I suspect that there are plenty more like them out there that simply see themselves as failures and don't even try to seek out a solution. Let it be known that I, too, never quite get the weeds under control in all the pineapple beds, I have bok choy that I don't get harvested and bolt to flower, some veggies that don't get harvested in their prime, and some seedlings that don't get out into the garden on schedule. If 90% of the garden makes it, I'm still in the "A" range. Hurrah! I'm on the dean's list! (Old college analogy.)

I'm not a therapist, so I can't offer a "right answer". But I can say that I've done the same things myself but I persevere. I slog on. I look for solutions. I concluded that there are plenty of different solutions out there, I just have to tailor one to fit me. Being a rather independent cuss wanting to be fairly self reliant. I turn to myself rather than go out and hire employees to do it for me. Here's a list of things I do that help to one degree or another. But keep in mind, I often slip back to my old behavior. But I don't label myself a failure........I just say to myself that I need an adjustment. Adjustment - what a nice sounding word. That's far more positive than beating myself up. And it gives me the incentive to try again and improve. I don't ever expect in my lifetime to successfully become a neat freak, but I have waves of doing better interspersed with "falling off the wagon". That's as good as it's going to get and I'll accept that. Life is not about earning all A's and gold stars. 

Tricks I play on myself .....
...make a list, keep it short. When I used to list every little job I wanted to get done that day, I soon realized that I was setting myself up for failure. I couldn't get all that done, so some part in my brain simply gave up. I failed before I started. But I discovered that I do much better listing the top dozen jobs. When I'm done those, I feel great and eagerly dive into others not in my list. Ah-ha, simple trickery at work! How simple it is to trick my little mind. 
...break a big job down into small daily segments. I do this for a planting schedule. For example this Monday I need to sow a small flat of a dozen different varieties. I can do that in a short time. Then the next day's job list will have the next dozen listed for sowing.  For some reason, breaking it up and designating a specific day to do that task seems to work for better me. 
...having a very visual designated spot for something. I leave crap all over the place, with good intentions of putting it away properly later on. That never happens. Yes, I feel guilty. Same thing when I organized my kitchen but I did something different. I actually labeled the shelves as to what got stored I that space. It may look silly to an outsider, but hey, this is my kitchen and it works for me. Without the labels, the place is a wreck. I've seen other people draw the outline of their tools on the walls and shelves of their tool sheds. It's a great trick to help keep organized because it prods you to put the tool back into place. It's a trick that works for some people. 
...I have a routine morning job list that I do before I go onto anything else. It's called my farm S.O.P. - standard operating procedure. Things like feed sheep, check their water trough. Feed chickens, check water, add grit, collect eggs, rake bedding. I have 10 "first thing" items on my SOP and I don't even have to think about it. They have already been thought out and I just go down the list. Bingo...done. Just another successful trick in tricking myself. 
...I have a time budget. This is just so that I can get things done, otherwise I fixate on some particular task, get distracted, putz around, and feel like I didn't get anything accomplished at the end of the day. So I designate set times from whence to whence for working on personal stuff, farm work, house building, etc. I do allow myself to deviate from the program without calling myself a failure, but the schedule surely helps me feel good at the end of the day.  
...I try not to call myself a failure. And I never, never say it outloud. For some reason, if I say it outloud my brain tends to believe it. I'll just say things like....I was a bit distracted today, I was slow, I bit off too big a chunk for today. That sort of thing. 

For all of you who have written to me seeking help when you feel that you have failed, take heart. I have those shortcomings too! And I've been called a failure at times, but after the initial depression I just get pissed. I'm just too obstinate to accept that I'm a total failure. (But if pushed about it, I've been known to purposely fail, then walk away.) I look for solutions to my not-so-perfect effort. I tell myself that I'm learning, I'm practicing, I'm acquiring experience. My solutions aren't perfect, but then I don't expect them to be. Expecting perfection, expecting constant success just sets one up for a big fall. So I try to adjust my goals and visions to fit reality, the real me, not the false me that somebody else thinks I should be. And ya know, if they don't like it, they can go do it themselves....or go eat worms! 

So if you ever get lucky and see my farm, you won't find the picture perfect farm one sees in the magazines. You'll see a functioning, albeit not well organized, homestead that is on the verge of successfully supporting this family with extra income to boot. It's got it's problems, but as Stitch says...... It is small, it is broken, but it is good. (yeah, I paraphrased that from Lilo and Stitch movie)

Keep in mind, you're not a failure, you're just in the learning stage. Things will get better as you acquire more experience.