Friday, September 8, 2017

Azolla

For awhile now I've been growing Azolla in most of my ponds. What's Azolla? It's a small floating water plant. 

(photo- the azolla is the lighter green stuff floating atop the pond water.)

I started it with a very small handful from another person. Just about two dozen tiny plants. If given the right environment, they grow so rapidly that they double their numbers in about two weeks...slower when conditions aren't ideal. But they're aggressive growers none-the-less. And they didn't need any help from me to do that. The fish waste from the koi, guppies, and tilapia seems to be all they fertilizer it needs. 

(Hubby modeling a handful for the camera.) 

My initial reasons for getting azolla, besides the fact that it was cool to look at, was to help shade the water in order to keep it a cooler temperature for the fish. Without the aid of shade, the shallow pond water heats up too high. Plus azolla helps filter waste from the water, again for fish health. None of my ponds have filter systems, so the plants do that vital job. After a few months I saw that I was getting an abundance of azolla, so I started looking into what other uses it could have. I was developing a resource, so how would I utilize it? 

Chicken food: Most evenings I toss one jumbo handful of fresh azolla into the chicken pen. Sometimes I gather several handfuls for them. I don't hang around to see who eats it, but my morning it's gone. 

Soil amendment/fertilizer/soil conditioner: I've read that adding azolla to compost or directly to the soil is a common practice. I haven't used it in the compost, simply because I already have lots of other green material available and I don't yet have bucketfuls of extra azolla to dispose of. But when working with dried out soil, such as during a drought period, I plan to till in some azolla last thing before calling it quits for the day. By the next morning the soil should be easier to work due to being moister and it accept water better (dry soil here tends to repel water). Being that the azolla is small individual plantlets, it's very easy to till in...or even scratch in by hand. 

Fish food: I've read that fish will eat azolla. Honestly, I've never witnessed the fish eating it. But I do know that it took a long time for me to get it established in both the koi and the tilapia ponds. So I suspect they were consuming it. But now that it is well established, if indeed the fish are eating some, the azolla is out growing the fish's appetite for it. 

(A close up look.) 

Ok, azolla can be used as a livestock feed and a soil conditioner, or for fertilizer. They're good enough reasons to add it to this farm's resource list. It's a keeper. 

Cardoon Cooking Info

Shortly it will be time to try our second sample harvest of cardoon. On the first attempt, the cardoon was too bitter to eat. Several readers have asked for more information about this veggie, but alas, I'm a complete novice. So I gleaned the Internet for some gems of knowledge. 

The part of the plant that is harvested is the central core of fairly soft, light grey-green stalks & leaves. This core is cut away from the plant and should feel heavy, be moist but not crisp (like celery). The cut end will discolor but will be discarded during preparation. Care should be taken not to bruise or damage the stalks. 

I discovered that new shoots will regrow from the cut stem that is left in the ground. About 5 shoots grew and I plan to thin them to 2 and see what happens. 

Once harvested, the stalks are bunched together, making the cardoon look somewhat like celery. The abundant leaves above the main stalk bunch can be cut off, since it is the stalks that will be eaten. Wrapped in a damp towel, it can be stored in the refrigerator and should last 5-7 days. 

To prepare it for cooking, cut off the bottom in order to free the stalks, remove any leaves and spines. Oh, I forgot to mention that the stalks have nasty spines along the outer edges. Yes, cardoon is in the thistle family. I'm growing a so called "thornless" variety, but it still has small thorns. I suppose the thorny varieties are truly thorny! The next step is to remove the strings of tough fiber from the outside of the stalks, kind of like the strings in celery but far more wicked. I notice that the stalks are not solid like celery, but semi-hollow inside. A vegetable peeler should work. Then cut the stalk into pieces (anywhere from 1" to 4" seems to be recommended) and immediately place in a bowl of water that has some lemon juice added. This is to prevent discoloration. Yet other cooks advise to soak the cardoon chunks in a bowl of water to which 2 tablespoons of white vinegar has been added. Soaking for 30 minutes is suppose to reduce bitterness. (I haven't tried this yet, so I don't know how well it works.) one other site I visited said to soak the chunks in salted water for an hour before cooking then rinse, and recommended 1 tablespoin of salt per 1/2 gallon of water. 

Now....the cooking: 

Some sites recommend parboiling in salted water prior to the actual cooking process. The water is drained off, then the cardoon chunks are cooled before cooking. After this step, there appears to be a variety of favorite ways of cooking cardoon. Some say to simmer in water, vegetable stock, or chicken broth until tender. One says to microwave in a bowl with a little water, until tender. Another suggests dredging the chunks in seasoned flour then dip into beaten egg before frying in olive oil. I gather from reading the many recipes, cardoon can be braised, sautéed, boiled in soups and stews, or battered & deep fried. The actual cooking time can vary, apparently due to the age of the stalks, and can be up to one hour before the stalks become tender. Ah-ha, perhaps that's one of the reasons behind the suggestion to parboil first. 

There seems to be a lot of prep work to do before cardoon hits the dinner plate. But just about every website said that it was worth it. Apparently the flavor is quite appealing, along the lines of artichokes. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Cardoon Update

My first attempt with cardoon was a semi failure. I grew it successfully but the dang stuff wasn't edible. Too bitter.  Yuk. 

Ok, Hawaii isn't the ideal location for it. At least my place isn't.  I'm told that I'm too warm at night. Others have told me that cardoon should have decreasing light when harvested, that meaning, November/December. Yet others have said that it needs to be blanched. There's nothing I can do about the warm night temps, but I can change my planting time so that the crop matures in late fall/ early winter. And I can blanch it. 


Above is a photo of the first blanching experiment. One of the community gardeners wrapped cardboard around the harvestable central parts, hoping to keep most of the sunlight out. We will try leaving it on for a month to month & a half before trying a harvest again. In the meantime the plants will be fertilized and kept moist so that they keep growing. 

In a couple of weeks I'll give you an update after we sample the next harvest. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Which Garden Method?

"P" asked me, "What kind of farming method do I use? I've read some of your blog and can't figure out if you're organic or natural farming." 

Frankly, I'm my own "whatever-works-for-me" method. My aim is to be fairly self reliant, low input, low impact. Sort of like permaculture without the "cult" part. Thus I'm not a diehard advocate of any one particular system. On top of that, I'm always adapting. When I find something that works better, I use it. 

Organic?  That sounds great, but I don't use the chemicals like they do. So I guess I fall more into the "better than organic" classification. But there's that pesky tad of roundup used on the driveway and fence line, a problem for organic proponents. 

Biodynamic? Some of the woo-woo stuff makes my eyes roll, but otherwise it's ok, though I'm not a diehard follower. 

Biointensive? I use a few principles. But frankly, double digging on my farm surely will never happen in my lifetime. I'm glad if I can get "8 of soil! Gardening atop lava rules out biointensive double digging. I actually have some garden spots with only 3" of soil, for real!. Yes, I successfully produce food in those beds, but it takes a bit of creativity. 

Moon cycles? No. Tried it one year and didn't see any difference at all.

Companion planting? Not normally. I only have a few crops that grow among each other, and I don't even know if they are on the companion gardening charts. 

Polyculture? In some areas, yes. But not everything. My annual veggie beds are not polyculture. But the majority of my growing beds are small and are tucked into places here and there among other vegetation. But other areas are definitely polyculture. It all depends upon the crops and the location.

Korean natural farming? I use some principles, but not the system as a whole. 

Hawaiian methods? Somewhat. Old Hawaiian farming methods help quite a bit on this farm and give me ideas how to solve some issues. 

Heirloom gardening? Although I do indeed grow some heirlooms, I also grow plenty of modern varieties and a few hybrids. 

Ruth Stout method? There's a lot to be said for her methods, and I use plenty of her ideas on this farm. But my young soil isn't to the point yet where I can use solely her methods. 

No till? Other than for grass type crops, I haven't had much success with my no till experiments. Yes, I a tiller. I till between annual crops. No-till is left for the areas that include the orchards, hugelpits, and pastures.

As you have guessed, I'm not a diehard advocate of any particular gardening method. But the closest thing I'd say is permaculture. Permanent agriculture. I'm surely not 100% on board with this either. I use propane and gasoline, although not a lot. And there's that nagging tad of roundup. 

Low input, low impact......lots of my own labor. "L, L, & L". That sums it up. Soooooo, what to label it? Yeah, there's lots of people out there that insist on things having a label. Ok, how about the "li-li-lomol" method.  😉



Monday, September 4, 2017

Thoughts About Garden Mistakes

For some reason people seem to get the impression that I'm some sort of gardening and/or homesteading expert. Far from it! I'm constantly making mistakes and hopefully learning. I see no problem with making mistakes.....in fact, I'm pretty good at it. No shame. No embarrassment. No fear of admitting it. For some reason there is a great burden of shame attached to making mistakes. Earlier in my life even the slightest mistake caused me great stress. But I've grown past much of that, at least when it comes to my homestead farming. Making mistakes in other aspects of my life can still spell disaster, but when it comes to my farm, no problem. It's something I can accept without embarrassment. 

Here's a list of common garden oriented mistakes I see being made. And I'll note which ones I've managed to make myself........
... Planting the wrong plant in the wrong place. Been there, done that. Example: planting beans in the partial shade resulted in few beans. Fail! Some plants require full sun, others prefer shade. Some want constant soil moisture, others need dry conditions. Yet others need winter chill or freezing, while tender tropical storm get killed by such low temperatures. A gardener needs to learn the individual requirements of each plant species in order to be successful. Of course, master level gardeners and landrace innovators push the envelope, testing for varieties that can survive and produce outside the normal parameters. For them it's fun and a challenge. 
... A variation of above, not knowing one's USDA growing zone. This can spell disaster in the garden. Especially for orchard trees and perennials, knowing the zone is important. Planting outside the zone limits can result in a dead plant or one that won't produce.  
... Planting plants too closely, or conversely, too far apart. Yup, I made this mistake plenty of times as I was learning. 
... Improper planting. Examples- planting seeds too deep or too shallow. Same for transplant seedlings. Did this mistake a few times. 
... Planting self sterile plant without its mate, or all female flowered plant without a pollinator. I didn't make this mistake with my orchard trees, but I did do it once with a special hybrid watermelon. 
... Planting at the wrong time of year. Well, I did try planting beans before the soil warmed up enough one winter. Failed to germinate. I don't get frost, so I can't make the mistake of planting too early in the spring. Hawaii saved my butt on that one. 
... Improper watering...too much or too little. Most learning gardeners make the mistake of only getting the surface soil wet and not soaking things down to the plant roots. I've managed not to make this mistake, but I'm not sure why. Luck, I suppose. 
... Improperly timed watering. Now this I'll admit to. I get fairly busy at times and will put off watering, hoping for rain. Sometimes it rains. Other times it doesn't and the gardens get too dry. I'm still having this problem with myself, but hope to correct it as I get better with my garden schedules. It's one of my current failings.
... Not watering in the freshly transplanted seedlings. I've avoided this mistake too. But I see lots of dead seedlings in people's gardens simply because they weren't aware of the need to baby the new transplants and keep them moist. 
... Not preparing the soil prior to planting. With the recent fad of no-till, I'm seeing more of this problem than before. So many young people tend to believe that one can simply scatter seeds on the surface of unprepared soil and expect a grand garden. It doesn't work well, if at all. I'm a believer in preparing the soil as best as one can prior to seeding. 
... Not mulching. Many gardeners don't mulch. I'm a mulcher myself. But at times I don't have enough material to meet all my needs. 
... Not fertilizing. I'm constantly using organic material as my source of soil nutrients, so in this way I'm not guilty. I'm well aware that my soil needs fertilizer on a regular basis. But I could use more than I presently have available, but at least I'm working on it. I've seen some people's gardens that were very, very sad because no fertilizer of any type was being used. 
... Not doing a soil test. Without testing, one is only blindly guessing about the availability of plant nutrients. I like to do a simple pH test several times a year plus a full spectrum lab test once a year. That once a year test is important to me because I'm constantly adding stuff and fiddling with my gardens. Perhaps once my soil matures I can cut back to every other year or every third year for a complete test. Now on the other hand, people have been doing agriculture for thousands of years without doing soil testing. That's correct. But I consider these other factors : I don't have a balanced system to start from; I'm growing veggies on land better suited to dryland early succession forest; I'm  constantly adding soil amendments. 
... Using the wrong chemical or not following instructions. I've seen people do this all the time. Amazing. I guess people just think that reading instructions isn't necessary. And when it comes to killing bugs, any pesticide will do. No wonder most chemicals require a pesticide license to use them. 
... Listening to other people without checking out the facts. Without getting into a political rant, I'll just say that I see people doing this all the time. Geez, since you've got internet access, learn to google the answers and information. You wouldn't believe the number of times I've had people tell me "my hairdresser said to plant potatoes this way", "my neighbor said to do it this way", and all the time the advice was dead wrong. Oh my. I always have an ear open for new gardening gems of knowledge, and I like to learn from others experiences, but I try to remember to check it out. Not every piece of gardening know-how that I hear is based upon reality. 
... Trying to do too much. Guilty! Yes, I'm guilty!!!!! I'm always trying to do too much, but I'm willing to accept the consequences. 
... Not enjoying the gardening effort. I don't quite understand it, but I've met a few people who tell me how much they hate gardening. How they despise weeding. How they take no pleasure in harvesting. But they still garden. No, I don't get it. This surely isn't a problem for me. 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

More Benefits of Homegrown

"C" emailed me about my post talking about growing your own food - is it cheaper? She wanted my ideas about the other benefits of growing your own, other than saving money. Off hand I can think of lots of benefits I get from growing my own.......

... Freshness. You just can't beat picking dinner right before it goes into the pot. 


... Flavor. Homegrown is better than purchased when it comes to natural flavor. 


... Variety. I grow veggies that I couldn't buy, like red roma beans, okinawan spinach, nasturtium flowers, etc. 


... Satisfaction. This is a biggie for me. Sitting down to a meal that I produced myself is amazing. 
... Exercise. While working to grow food can be tiring, it is great exercise for me. Love it. 


... Mental health. There is something about working in a garden, large or small, that improves mental health. It's not just the feel-good exercise. It's something about connecting with life in general. 
... Chemical avoidance. By growing my own I can avoid the contamination, both chemical and biological, that is so persistent in our foods nowadays. 


... General health. Since commercial foods and over dependence upon simple carbohydrates are tied to the obesity problem, growing my own foods help improve my overall health. I can better control what foods are available to us. 

By the way, the pictures above are a sampling of the weekly harvests from a small community garden on my farm. Every week's harvest is different. Everyone who attended that gardening session that day shares in the harvest, having the opportunity to sample fresh picked produce. In addition to the veggies pictured, the garden also produces a selection of herbs, tender greens, and onions which participants harvest at will. So I'd like to add one more benefit of home growing - socialization. Invite a few friends over for a gardening get together and enjoy a couple of hours of pleasant socialization! Catch up on the local news & gossip, empathize with one another, share tidbits of knowledge, and relax at the end of the session with a simple lunch. 

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Cheaper to Grow Your Own?

First of all, I can't recall if I've already covered this topic or not, but here it goes anyway........

A question I get asked a lot is, "Is it cheaper to grow your own food?" My response, "That depends."

... Do you already own enough land that can be used for food growing? 
... Do you already own the necessary tools and equipment? 
... If your equipment requires an energy source, have you factored in the cost of electricity, gasoline, propane, etc? 
... Will you need to buy your seeds, plant starts, and fruit trees? 
... Will you need to buy fertilizer, lime, and chemicals? 
... Do you plan to maintain your equipment yourself or will you need to pay for repairs and maintenance? Have you factored in routine maintenance costs? 
... Do you plan to be a DIY gardener or will you need to buy garden things, such as trellises, irrigation set up, etc.
... Do you already know how to grow stuff? Or will you buy books, magazines, sign up for courses, etc? 
... Do you have the time to do it, or will you need to hire a helper at times? 
... Are you planning on storing your excess? Will you need a freezer? Canning set up? Dehydrator? 
... Are you in a location that needs a cold frame, poly tunnels, or greenhouses? 
... What is the food costs you are using for comparison? Organic? Non-organic? Commercially prepared foods? Restaurant meals? 
... Are you the type of person that wants to factor in your own per hour wage? 
... Are you REALLY going to eat the foods that you grow? (Surprisingly, many people don't!) 

I'd venture to say, that for beginner gardeners, there is no cash savings the first couple of years. The initial investment in buying garden tools and setting up the garden will negate any savings. That's how it worked for me. And as the years go by, I'm seeing more savings because I now don't need to purchase more equipment, much of my seeds, soil amendments. Less cash out, more food in.

I didn't have a goal of cash savings when I started this farm. I was looking for independence and self satisfaction of doing it myself. But I'd say that my costs for growing my food now is lower than if I were buying it. But I'll let you in on a secret........I could improve tremendously if I fix one important failing that I have. I'm abysmal at caring for some of my gardening equipment. Though I pick much of it up at yard sales and thrift stores, I could save a lot of money if I did a better job of caring for my stuff. Yeah, we all have our failings. Maybe, before I die, I'll learn to put a shovel away when I'm done with it. 

Now for the nitpickers of the world......... If you factored in the cost of buying my farm land and assuming that I'll die before it sells, then of course there is no way in heck that I ever save money growing my own food. Or if you factor in the hours of labor I put in, then again, I'd be better off buying food. But nitpickers of the world begone! I'd have this farm anyway because my quest was to make my own house, create a farm, and farm it. Being able to grow my own food is what I want to do, regardless of cash savings or not. 

But getting back to the home gardener, if you already own the land or have free access to land, then you might actually save some money growing food as long as you take time to learn about it and don't go overboard buying equipment and supplies. But it may be wiser to focus upon the rewards of freshness and variety, of non-contaminated foods, of the joy of gardening, rather than worry about pinching pennies. And depending upon where you live, you may indeed see savings far quicker than other people. 

One final word......if you can sell some of your excess, then it could quickly push you into the plus column. Ten small bags of fresh green beans (believe me, it's easy to end up with this sort of excess) can easily pay for a brand new shovel!