Thursday, March 31, 2016

Rock Removal - Two Different Approaches

I just prepared this garden bed for the next crop. I did a bit of digging....adding manure and shredded paper. And in the process, I removed a pile of rocks. 

Everytime I dig this bed, I remove more rocks. I think I've harvested 5 or 6 crops by now, so that's 6-7 times I've taken out a pile of rocks. 

Ok....go ahead and ask. Why didn't I just remove all the rocks the first time I dug up this bed? Good question. 

I've discovered that people have different approaches to rock removal. I learned this by watching the community garden volunteers. Their method is to remove ALL rocks up front, then deal with the garden from there. Because of the large volume of rocks being removed, this means that there is very little actual soil left to plant into before one hits solid pahoehoe lava. Of the soil that is left the volunteers shovel it up to make areas of 3-4" deep soil, thus leaving other areas devoid of soil....just bare lava. Thus out of a 22' long garden bed, it is not unusual to have 5-6' not useable until replacement soil can be made. 
(The bare stretch beside the shovel is solid lava, no dirt.) 

Now, I personally have a different approach. Actually, I have to say that I was surprised to see how the community garden volunteers handled the situation. It would have never crossed my mind to take part of the garden out of use. But then again, I'm focusing on being able to feed myself from week to week. 

My method: 
...plant between the rocks. Get a crop. Then remove some rocks but replace twice that volume in compost & manure. Plant and harvest a crop. Remove more rocks and add more compost & manure. Repeat, repeat, repeat until all the rototiller-eating rocks are gone. This way the garden area is still producing crops during the rock removal process. Yes, my method can take a few years before the rototiller can be used. But at least I'm getting food in the meantime. 

Which method is "right"?  Both!  It's just different strokes for different folks. Ya do whatcha wanna, if it makes you happy. Since I don't use a plow, I really don't have any issue planting around the rocks. While I'd prefer to use my little rototiller, a shovel or fork is fine with me too. The tiller is just faster and uses less muscle power, which at my age now, is something to take into consideration. Yes, it would be nice to have deep soil that I could quickly rototill in all the garden beds. Some day that will be the case. But I'm still in the process of creating all those little garden plots. Since I'm only one person, it will take years to remove all those rocks and replace them with homemade soil. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Speaking in Superlatives

Frequently I get unsolicited advice that starts out with the first line containing a superlative. Examples:

The most effective way to control aphids
The best tomato to grow
Ten best garden tips
How to grow the ultimate potato
Best container garden 
Ultimate gardening method
Most effective weed controller
Worst foods to grow

I'm not a real fan of superlatives. They've been overused in the news (ex.- "worst storm of the century") to the point that they don't impress me nor catch my eye. And besides, superlatives are relative. What's "worst" for one person or area might be not so impressive for another. 

You won't see me posting...

The best garden tools ever
The worst pests in the garden
The ultimate compost maker
The greatest chicken breed to have

What works for me may not work for you, and visa versa. And just because I might have a current infactuation with a certain style of hoe doesn't have anything to do with some other gardener's preference. And heck, I'll probably change my mind 6 months down the road anyway. 

I love reading about other gardeners' experiences and preferences, but when those superlatives start popping up all the time, I tend to shy away. 

By the way, the other word that tends to make my eyes droop and mind turn off is the word "should", as in.....

You should plant your potatoes this way.
You should be using drip irrigation. 
You shouldn't be tilling the soil. 

The would "should" and I don't get along very well together. Perhaps it's a hangover from my previous life where everyone seemed to be telling me how I should live. I think I reached my "should" quota several years ago. Not only don't I like to be the recipient of "shoulds", I don't like using the word when I talk with others. About the only time I use "should" is when I'm talking to myself or my animals........and sometimes my plants, but they don't listen to me. Hey, come to think about it, neither do most of my animals. Su, you should go do something about that! 

Monday, March 28, 2016

Another Orchid?

With the abundance of rain this past year, the homestead is blooming every direction I look. Today I noticed that there is some sort of orchid-like plant blooming here, there, everywhere. They're along my driveway, around the house, and back in the woods. 

In the past I've notice a few here and there, but this year it's like they are on steroids. And hey, I didn't even have to do anything to encourage them. Free flowers! 

And I've noticed that I have dozens of new plants popping up all over. Ah, the past rains have been good to this plant. 

The flower looks like an orchid to me. Anybody have an idea what it is? 

By the way, I took a walk down in my Secret Garden and discovered that one of my unknown orchids is blooming. How cool is that! 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Gourd Craft

The community garden volunteers are a talented lot. Many recently took gourds and crafted them into absolutely beautiful and interesting items. Everything was done by hand and used a special internal dying technique. 

Gourd craft could be a valuable skill for a self reliant homestead. What farm wife couldn't use a nice bowl or container. Gourds also can be used for drums, lamp shades, utility items, and for decoration. Historically they have been used for food and water storage. Wow, grow-your-own, how appropriate. 

Gourd craft could be used as a supplement to farm income. Targeting the right markets, there is a demand for certain types of gourd-craft. I just wouldn't expect to be able to support my farm on  just gourds. Diversify, diversify, diversify. 

Have I tried carving a gourd yet? No. I do plan to eventually. But I've been watching these artists turning their green "pumpkins" into art pieces and it interests me. So some day....

I give these people a lot of credit. They all have good ideas. I fear that I might be awefully utilitarian by contrast. 

Growing gourds here is not simple. By "here", I mean on my farm. I battle mildew, squash borer, pickleworm moth. Sometimes it's too wet for good gourds. Other times the wind damages the surface of the gourds. But when luck goes my way, the farm indeed can produce nice gourds. Aaahh, just one more crop that a homestead farm can produce. They all don't have to be food items (although some gourd types are indeed edible). 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Shredded Paper

Having just harvested sweet potatoes, I'm digging in some rabbit manure and shredded paper. Why shredded paper? Because I'm out of compost at the moment. And I'm low on grass clippings. But I do happen to have 6 trash bags full of shredded paper. Sooooo, use whatcha got, is what I say.

While shredded paper lacks most of the attributes of compost, it does have a few assets. It will help retain soil moisture, first off. The location of this little garden bed is heavy with cinder and a powdery "soil" which strives to be hydrophobic. Getting it to stay moist is a challenge. A couple of years ago it was an impossibility. The absolutely only crop that would survive was sweet potatoes, and even those struggled. But now I can get a variety of crops to produce. Every year things get a bit better. 

The shredded paper is also liked by the worms. When I've used shredded paper in the past, I notice quite a few more worms. 

Basically shredded paper is a soil conditioner. I wouldn't rely upon it as a fertilizer. And I don't apply it thickly, causing paper mâché gobs to form. I just mix some in to help with moisture and to lighten up the soil. 

Is there an ick factor with paper? Possibly. I'm not sure. Most of what I read claims that shredded paper is safe. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Lesson Learned

Back last November, I learned a very important lesson ...... Don't piss off a donkey ! 

Well, my old ram, E-Ram, is just now learning the same lesson. While feeding the flock their hay cube treats, E-Ram got it into his head for some reason that Dink wasn't going to be allowed to get her share of the cubes. He repeatedly maneuvered to block her way to the trough. I didn't think much of it, figuring that E-Ram would soon tire of the game, start munching on the cubes, then Dink could easily move in, as usual. Well.....not this time around. 

The whole time I was occupied cleaning up manure and filling the water buckets, E-Ram and Dink danced around the feed trough. Must have been going on for close to ten minutes. Suddenly E-Ram attacked, ramming Dink in the belly and lining up for another charge, which was not to be. Dink had enough of these shenanigans, returning with her own charge. Luckily she meant no physical harm, dishing out just a mental intimidation lashing. She drove E-Ram all over the pasture, eventually putting him up against the fence and in the weak cover of a few ferns. She then proceeded to stand guard, not allowing him to leave his spot for close to an hour. 

That was one pissed of donkey! She'd rather punish that ram than go eat hay cubes. She'd slowly wonder off, heading in the direction of the hay cubes, and E-Ram would attempt to sneak away. Back would come Dink, in full threatening charge. She wasn't happy until she had E-Ram right back in the same spot along the fence. You talk about a good herding animal! Dink was as good as any Border Collie I've ever seen! 

When I was done my chores and not wishing things to escalate, I opened one of the gates allowing everybody access to one of the other pasture paddocks. It instantly took everybody's mind off the drama. ........ Lesson learned. 

ps- Three days later, all is well. No more confrontation. But E-Ram is showing Dink a lot more respect. 

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Calcium Foods on the Homestead

Ella asked in an email, "I know that you're not vegan and do eat dairy. But I'm vegan and want to start growing some of my own vegetables. Which ones should I grow for calcium?" Elsa lives in Southern California. 

I'm not familiar with what will or won't thrive in Ella's region, but I am aware of which veggies, able to grow in my area, are considered good sources of calcium. 

Beet greens
Bok choy
Broccoli rabe
Dried beans
Fresh soybean (edamame)
Mustard greens
Nopales (prickly pear cactus pads)
Sesame seeds
Turnip greens

Almonds and stinging nettle are also decent sources for calcium, though they don't grow in my area. I think both will grow for Ella. 

Truthfully, I don't think about which veggies to grow according to nutriental content. Perhaps I should. But I believe that if I'm eating a wide variety of fresh foods and stay away from most commercial foods, I'll be doing fine with the nutrition. Once upon a time I used to micro-analyze stuff. It was an aspect of my job. But I've drifted away from that. 

Wide variety makes sense to me. I tend to grow a little bit of lots of different things. I have dozens and dozens of micro garden beds, so often whatever is ready to pick becomes dinner, with nothing leftover. This habit causes my neighbor to shake his head. He wants me to grow large beds of one item, more like a traditional farmer. Then sell or store the excess. While I may only plant a small part of a seed packet at a time, he will invariably plant the entire packet no matter how large. ..... Different strokes for different folks. 

By the way, my homestead also produces dairy (via trading), meat, and eggs. Sources of calcium. And I could always trade for small fish, pressure cook them, and eat bones 'n all. Calcium isn't difficult for me to find. And heck, there's always coral sand......a bit gritty but edible. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Weeds Can Be My Friends

Most gardeners and farmers talk about weeds as though they are an anathema. Once upon a time, I was one of them. I spent lots of hours trying to eliminate every weed. Not any more. I now don't mind if some weeds co-exist in the gardens as long as they don't over proliferate. And I now see weeds as a resource to be utilized. Not that I want my gardens to be so weedy that it deminishes my harvests, but weeds can at times be beneficial. 

Certain weeds can be used as catch crops for pests. I notice that whitefly seems to infest the volunteer nasturtiums before invading the rest of the garden. Thus I can aggressively treat the nasturtiums without jeopardizing my edible crops. 

Some weeds are liked by the rabbits and chickens and make a nice addition to their diet. In fact, I now intentionally grow purslane, elevating it from it's weed status to a fodder crop. 

Most weeds, except the Bermuda grass, can be cut off at the soil level and controlled, acting as mulch. I will pull & drop, or chop & drop, weeds all the time. Why bother carrying them to a compost pile if I don't need the fill? Just leave it where it drops and let it become mulch. 

I use some shade loving plants to grow in areas that I can't use for most vegetables, like in the photo above. They are weeds, but I use them as a resource. They grow where little else will. I harvest their leaves to use as mulch and compost. They grow back without any assistance in my part, so I can re-harvest them again in the future. Pictured above, a type of philodendron grows under the coffee trees. A type of fern also grows there. Eventually they get prolific enough that I can quickly harvest trashcanfuls. 

It doesn't take long to clear under the trees. I used these leaves and stems as fill for a pallet grow box. And even though the ground looked clear after pulling, I know from experience that the plants will grow back again. So you could say that thus area has given me a harvestable crop -- weeds. 

Weeds also help trap fallen leaves that would otherwise be blown away in the tradewinds. In areas without weeds, the ground tends to be bare. With weeds, the ground gets coated in a natural leafy mulch. 

One other thing that I've noticed about allowing weeds to grow and be harvested in my shade areas. The soil there has a much better look to it. I don't know why. But the soil looks better than in shaded areas with no weeds and those shade areas where I don't harvest the weeds. I guess there is something going on with the weed regrowth process and soil health. So totally excluding weeds doesn't seem to help the soil, nor does allowing weeds to totally fill in and maintain a status quo. There is something to the repeative partial clearing. I don't understand the science behind it. 

I've also taken advantage of weeds to help establish my pastures. A friend was eliminating weeds from her landscape gardens, including among them a viney weed that livestock love to eat. The weeds were heavy with seed. So I brought the bags and bags of weeds to my pasture areas, allowed the weeds to dry out, them carried them around the pastures giving them a good shake to scatter the seeds. Many of those seeds are germinating, helping to fill in bare spots in the pastures with edible weeds. The sheep will appreciate it. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Pig Tilling -- Second Thoughts

Last year I had used my pigs in their portable pen to root the soil. Natural tillers, so to speak. Initially I thought it was a great idea since they ate up most of the burmuda underground stolens and flipped up lots of the rocks. Getting rid of that grass was a big advantage. Digging down and loosening rocks was another.

But last year was also a wet year. The ground was constantly getting soaked. Thus the pigs' pen easily turned into a boggy mess with just a couple of days worth of rooting. I've discovered that I made a mistake allowing the pigs to stay in one spot until they destroyed all the Bermuda grass. I was so focused on ridding the ground of that grass that I failed to consider what was happening to the soil. The soil became waterlogged, boggy, and compacted. When it dried out for a few days after the pigs were removed, it looked like this"..........

Yes, all the Bermuda grass gone. Yes, rocks popped up that could easily be carried away. But cracking, compacted soil. Not good. 

Reclaiming this soil has been work. Every shovelful comes up as a soil block. Each block has to be hand wacked into smaller chunks that the rototiller can handle. Even then it's a bucking-horse ride with the tiller. But by tilling in a layer of compost/mulch with the last tiller run I've ended up with a nice looking garden bed. It just was a lot of work getting to that end point. 

A note: my soil lies atop pahoehoe lava. Think of it as soil atop an irregular, somewhat cracked concrete pad. So I don't have to take into consideration the formation of a hard pan layer. But I suspect that's what would have been created by the pigs in some other soil situation. 

One other plus to using the pigs was that they fertilized the soil with their waste. I can already see the effects of that with lush, green regrowth of a few weeds. My first new crops are being planted into these pig areas, so I'm expecting to see good response to the pig fertilization. 

What would I do different? I'd still use pigs but I'd be more careful to limit their time rooting when the soil gets wet with rain. Even during dry times, the pigs could easily cause compaction, so I'd move them more frequently. Before returning the pigpen to an area for repeat rooting (in order to rid the soil of Bermuda grass), I'd try breaking the soil with an oo bar or fork first so that the pigs didn't compact it as badly. They'd be able to reach those stolens faster, thus be moved off the spot quicker. And I would no more leave the pen in one spot for more than 24 hours. I'd try to move it at least twice daily. 

Right now I have 6 little piglets in a moveable pen. They are not good rooters yet, but they scuffle the surface pretty well and eat up the surface grass & weeds. The weather is on the dry side right now, but I am still moving their pen at least once a day, often twice. I'll see how this method helps prevent compaction. 

Using pigs to till is something new for me. So I'm still in the learning stage. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Reasons To Grow Your Own Food

Home grown food. What a concept nowadays. 

I believe it's a good idea, even if folks can only grow a little. Perhaps a few lettuce plants in pots, or a couple of tomatoes. But you know, I've seen some people start out real small and gradually make the switch over to mostly home grown veggies. So even that one tomato plant on your back porch can lead to a significant life change. Ya never know. 

Some reasons to grow food......

...better nutrition. A home grower can choose to grow those varieties that have better nutritional levels of minerals, antioxidants, vitamin levels, etc. Often these healthier varieties not commonly grown on commercial farms.
...better flavor. Many new gardeners are amazed at how tasty fresh picked corn or peas can be. 
...fresher. Can't get fresher than picking your veggies right before making your dinner! Supermarket foods can easily be, often weeks old. 
...less toxic chemical contamination. A gardener can opt not to use chemicals. And of course, they totally avoid the fumigation that is done in the shipping containers, storage warehouses, and anti-sprouting treatments of potatoes and other crops, and all the other chemical treatments our food is subject to. 
...personal political issues. For example, not supporting the use of roundup or other herbiicicles. Not supporting the clearing of forests to create ranches, plantations, and farms. Not supporting the poor conditions and financial situation of certain farm laborers. Not supporting the pollution that commercial farming can produce. Other issues that some individuals have would be not wanting food from certain countries, not wanting GMO, not supporting big seed companies or large ag businesses. 
...humane treatment of animals. A home grower can provide more attentive care to their livestock, giving them a better quality of life.
...independence from the commercial food supply chain. Independence can mean that local trucking strikes, weather disasters in the nation's growing areas, store closures due to civil unrest......they won't have a disasterous effect upon the independent food grower. 
...avoiding the contamination associated with commercial meat & egg products, particularly e.coli, salmonella, etc. I know of many people who have gotten a few chickens in order to avoid contaminated eggs. 
...avoiding residual antibiotics and other veterinary chemicals. When raising one's own meat, you control what antibiotics and medications the animal is exposed to, if at all. 
...having a food system where it is easier to avoid falling into consuming premade and modified foods. Many people who start growing their own foods gradually eat less and less commercially made foods and snacks.
....eating "real food". I've read some ingredients lists on store bought foods that are mind-boggling. Fruit juice with no fruit in it. Blueberry muffins with no real blueberries. Cheese that isn't really cheese at all. That sort of thing. Plus chemicals I can't even pronounce and haven't the foggiest idea what they are. 

In my case, it's some of all the above but also because I like to. I really like growing my own food. 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Time To Restart Yacon

Last year I started the yacon April 8th. This year I'm starting it exactly one month earlier, March 8th. Will it make a difference in harvest date? Will it result in larger tubers in general? We shall see. 

Since the yacon grew and produced well in the pallet grow boxes, I'm going that route again. I've refilled three boxes. I laid the tubers atop the fill, then topped the box off with coarse mulch. 

Since some of the tubers were already starting to sprout before planting, it only took 4 days for them to pop up through the mulch. In the above photo you can see just how coarse the mulch is. I found that this works ok with yacon in grow boxes. 

As time goes along, the material in the boxes will decompose and settle. The level will sink at least 50%. But that's ok. With yacon, the plant is tall and tends to flop over in the wind. So the sides of the grow box will give it some wind protection and support. 

So to date, I have three boxes planted with yacon. I still have tubers left over. So I'm going to make 2-3 more boxes and plant the rest of the tuber starts. I'll plant them closer to April 8th so that I have a comparison between the two different start dates. It should be fun to see if there is a difference at the end. 

Saturday, March 12, 2016

New Garden Spot

New food production site --
I featured this new gardening site in my succession gardening post. 

Along the rock wall I opted to plant some vine type crops. There's already a bit of a fence there (to keep the farm dog from jumping the rock walk). It could work out to be a good trellis. So in went some seeds for pole limas, pole beans, and indeterminate tomatoes (yellow pear, this time). I still have a goodly section available for planting, and I'm considering trying pole type snow peas. 

It hasn't taken long for the beans to sprout. 

Further out from the rock wall I've planted seeds for a landrace variety of winter squash. I'm currently searching for something that has decent resistance to the pickleworm moth, which can make growing certain crops here difficult if not impossible. For this experiment, I'm using a Mexican Chihuahua landrace squash seed I got from Native Seed Search. 

It only was less than a week and the squash seeds germinated. 

Across the driveway from this patch I'm sowing seed for another landrace winter squash. This one is a Taos variety. So well see which one grows better in our upcoming drought this spring. 

I also needed a spot to plant some taro plant babies that I recently harvested. So I'm using the space between the squash plants. By the time the squash vines reach the taro, it should be tall enough to easily compete. I've interplanted taro with sweet potatoes before and everything did fine. So I'll see what happens if I interplant taro with winter squash. 

After I planted everything I top dress the soil with a light amount of horse manure. Over top this I mulch with about two inches of fresh grass clippings. Once the clippings dry, it will only be 1/2" thick. So I will need to add more layers in the future. Perhaps some compost, chicken litter, chopped weeds, more grass clippings, chipped tree branches. Plus dustings of coral and lava sand, bone, ash, biochar. 

Friday, March 11, 2016

Non-Sifted Compost

Millie asked via email, "Does compost have to be sifted before using it in my garden?" 

I don't always sift my compost. I usually only sift it when I plan to add it to existing garden beds where to coarse material would interfere with the rototiller. 

In my taro beds (pictured is the one that's growing on a concrete slab), I never sift the compost I add into the aisle ways. 

When I initially plant the taro, I scoop up the old compost in the aisles and add it to the mounds where I actually plant the baby taro. The mounds stay about a foot deep in plantable soil. Then later when extra compost becomes available, I'll fork a good 6 to 12 inches of coarse compost into the aisles between the plants. 

And I'll also add it as a border around the bed. 

As you can see in the photos, the material is chunky with lots of stuff that hasn't decomposed yet. That's fine with me, because over the next 6-9 months most of it will break down a lot more. 

Why don't I sift it? 
1- No need. The plants do fine. 
2- It will drain better if we happen to get a deluge. Once we had 13 inches of rain in 24 hours! 
3- It's a lot easier on me and takes up less time. Time is in short supply around here.

ps- I will cover the compost with a layer of grass clippings when I get a chance to make some extra. 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Compost Soil I've Created

One of the side benefits of using pallet grow boxes is that I get a half cubic yard of compost/soil out of one at the end of each crop. Sometimes I just add more organic material on top of the old stuff, then plant another crop. Sometimes I use the old compost/soil to inoculate the next pallet boxes. But other times I harvest it, sift it, and add it to my garden beds. 

Oh yes, to comment upon the title of this post. Mother Nature created this soil. I just set things up. 

I just harvested the yacon from this box, above, it's easy to see how the organic material has composted down half the height in the pallet box during the year long growing season. 

The top layer is still very coarse, essentially acting as a mulch. 

But further down in the pile, the organic material has decomposed some degree or other. 

From this particular pallet grow box I'm harvesting the soil for some of the other garden beds. So I'm forking it out then sifting it to remove the biggest pieces of non-decomposed material. I prefer to sift directly into a wheelbarrow, making it easy for me to wheel the soil to whatever garden bed that needs it. 

The sifted stuff looks, feels, and smells great. It's crumbly and moist. Not too super fine nor dusty. 

And it's full of worms of all sizes. Love seeing those worms! 

I've tried a variety of things to use for sifting the compost. My current favorite is an old plastic greenhouse tray. It's easy to hold, shake, and carry around with me. It's lightweight and does the job quite nicely. And it's simple. 

The coarse material will go back into another pallet grow box or be used in filling in a hugel style pit. The coarse stuff is mostly tree twigs, fern stems, bark, and woody stuff that takes a long time to breakdown. 

Monday, March 7, 2016

Succession Gardening Concept

A topic that don't see being discussed when it comes to gardening methods is succession planting. Everybody seems to believe that you get your growing area fully ready for your primary crop, then go ahead and plant/produce it. It's all done as one giant step. But sometimes I see valid reasons to get a garden developed via steps, such as succession gardening. 

I always have plenty of projects going on and don't want to wait until the soil in a particular garden spot is "perfect" before planting my target crop. It could easily take a couple years to get a new area perfect. Thus in the meantime, that area is producing nothing unless I use the concept of succession gardening. I don't see the need to put off producing a crop on my farm just because the rocks still need removing (could take years) and the soil needs a long series of amendments (could take years). 

After a natural devastation (volcanic explosion, massive flood, landslide, etc) Mother Nature gradually returns the land to greenery, but it's a slow, successive type process. I mean, maple trees and meadows aren't the first thing to return to devastated land. Hardier vegetation takes hold first. As the soil quality changes and favors less hardy vegetation, then the next plants in the line of succession take over. Several steps like this occur before the mature forest reappears. 

So on my farm, I'm taking a hint from Mother Nature and using the idea of succession to help expand my food production. I'm not exactly following Mother Natures recipe, though. But it's the general idea.

So here's one of my projects I've been tackling lately. I have a section of front pasture that I'm converting to garden. The livestock (sheep, goats, chickens, horse) grazed this area for seven years. (Crop #1 from the land - meat, eggs, manure). Even though it received many years of manure and urine additions, it suffered from the compacting effect of hooves. Plus, tropical soils in my area leech plant nutrients....and many weren't even there to begin with! So the soil is low fertility. And of course, the ground is just lots of lava rocks with a bit of soil between the rocks. Not an ideal garden soil for annual veggies. But these veggies are my ultimate goal even though they won't be successful in this spot yet.

For two years now I've been harvesting the grass in this area for clippings, not allowing tree saplings and brush to grow back. (Crop #2- mulch). Thus no tall perennials nor trees at this stage. That's step one. In the past couple weeks I've moved to step two......grass suppression. I've mowed as close as possible for two weeks, then followed up with weedwacking right down to the soil, leaving the wacking debris in place. 

Above: grass in lower left of the photo is two foot tall, still being grown for mulch. Short grass in upper left has been mowed closely once so far. Grass on right side of photo is the area I've mowed closely twice in order to stunt the growth, then just recently weedwacked down to the soil line. That's my weedwacker, a battery powered Ryobi that is my current weedwacker of choice. A surpringly effective tool that is cheap, lightweight, easy to use, very functional. 

Here's a view from the other side. I've gotten one swath ready for the next step. 

Now some folks will say, "Why don't you just cover the area with real thick mulch to smother the grass and then plant through it." Good suggestion, but I don't have truckloads of mulching material available. Nor is the soil very productive initially, even for grasses. And then there are those pesky rocks. So I've come up with an alternative method to get the land producing asap, but also giving my time to work on the soil. Besides, I know that there is more than one way to deal with this problem, and I'm using just one of them. 

Anyway, after getting two "crops" off this land so far, I'm ready to move in to the next step in succession. I will plant a crop which can grow in the less than ideal soil, succeed in some fashion in spite of the rock, and be able to compete with any grasses that grow back. I've had good results with sweet potatoes and winter squash/pumpkins. Both will shade the soil, root through whatever mulch I apply, grow even in semi shade, grow in spite of the fertility issues. I won't get many good sweet potato tubers, but there will be some that will be nice enough for the table. The rest will go to feed the livestock. The greens will become livestock food and provide starts for the next crop. The winter squash/pumpkin will produce decently in spite of any grass regrowing. While these are growing, I will have time to add various organic mulches, soil amendments, and compost mulches. Maybe even pop some rocks out if I have time. 

Following these crops, I'll plant something that is individual large plants, as opposed to beds or rows. This means that I only need to remove a few of the rocks in order to plant. Depending upon the actual site, I've planted sugar cane, taro, tomatoes, and pipinola. I haven't tried others, but I'm guessing that other veggies could work too, ones that don't require lots of great soil. As long as it's individual plants, I'd have room around the plants to apply manures, compost, etc......thus gradually improving the soil, encouraging worms, improving soil moisture, etc. I would have the time to gradually make the improvements, plus remove more rocks here and there. As time went on, I could be harvesting, then growing the next crop, keeping up with improvement efforts so that eventually the area would be ready for bed type gardening. This step could take one year or ten to become a good garden site. But at least it would be producing in the meantime.

So rather than spending years creating the perfect garden site first, I find that I can be harvesting some sort of crop as I'm working on my creation. It's sort of along the lines of succession regrowth. But my succession goes like.......grass; vines; large individual vegetable plants; small clumps of veggies; larger veggie beds; large garden area. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Aphids on Onions

The garden's latest pest-du-jour actively competing for my moans & groans along with the cutworm is the black aphid attacking my onions. They've been at the garden for about two months now, going from one chive bed, then to the leeks, and next to the onions, then back again. 

(Not a great or well focused photo, but it shows how thick the black aphids are.)

At first I only saw an aphid here and there. I made a big mistake by not aggressively killing them when I first saw them. Within a couple of weeks there where massive armies of black aphids covering the plants. I find hundreds of them on one plant lined up all along the leaves. Bad news. Real bad news. 

Since this is the first time I've had to deal with these, I really wasn't sure what would work. So I brought out the safer soap spray to see if that would work. Pumping up the sprayer with a lot of pressure, the spray actually blew most of the aphids right off the plants. What still clung to the plants were dead by the next morning. But over the next few days, fresh aphids arrived. Because I had neglected to kill off the aphids when they first showed up, I had newly hatching aphids to deal with. Multiple generations of aphids.

By now I've been fighting these aphids for a couple weeks and their numbers are down to just a few new ones each day. But I'm learning......don't stop now. I will continue to check the onions, leeks, and chives every day for the coming month, and spot spray any aphids I find.

I'm happy that soap spray is successful against these aphids. Although I started out using safer soap during the worst of the outbreak, regular ol' soapy solution is successfully taking care of them now. A simple, easy, and cheap solution.....just time consuming. 

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Cutworm Attack Once Again

It's been a while since cutworms were a problem for me, but after a wet season last year that resulted in rampant grass growth, the cutworms are back. For some reason, I see lots of cutworms where grasses have invaded the garden beds.

Recently the community garden volunteers transplanted several dozen little broccoli plants into the garden, only to have 2/3 of them destroyed by cutworms. That rate of damage isn't acceptable, so war needed to be declared upon the cutworms. I'm not one to throw lots of toxic chemicals into the food gardens, so I opt for making cutworm protective collars. Their easy to make and are quite effective. 

Last time I posted about cutworms, people asked, "How do you make them?" So here's how......
I take cheap plastic drinking cups (in this case they were free because I got them from a person throwing them away). I use a sharp utility knife to slice off the bottoms. I discovered that this was easier to do if I had cups stacked inside each other because an individual cup will tend to flex and crack. 

If the blade is sharp, the bottom slices off quite nicely. 

I'll slip this bottomless cup over a seedling, twisting the cup about an inch or more into the soil. The majority of the cup is above the surface, creating a barrier that the cutworms cannot scale. Surprisingly, mice too don't bother to look over the cup most of the time, thus saving the tasty seedlings from being devoured by them. 

The garden might look a tad strange with its rows of cups, but the method is fairly effective. Once the seedlings are larger, the cups can be removed as long as I do it before they are too large to gently pull the cup off. If I miss the opportunity, then I could leave the cups in place or else cut them off. The cups are thus sacrificed and go into the trash. Normally I retrieve the cups in time and can get 2-4 uses out of them before they crack due to sun damage. 

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Surprise in the Chicken Pen

One thing I can say about having animals is that they always can surprise you. A hen did just that today. I visited the chicken pen first thing this morning and found a mama bird protecting her single chick. Heck, where did THAT come from? I pick the eggs from the nest boxes every day, usually 2-3 times a day. Sometimes I find one on the ground and I take that one too. 

But this wiley hen somehow snuck an egg past me. The only thing I can figure is that she had a nest secreted away in the floor litter somewhere and must have been sitting on it whenever I came in. Honestly, I never once saw the egg. 

Poor mama was going nuts trying to fend off the other 40-50 chickens in order to keep her chick safe. So I picked her and her chick up and moved them to an empty pen where they can be alone. 

Goes to show you, every day can hold a surprise. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016


Well, I've obviously filled up all my available time allotted for working each day. Filled it up so completely that I no longer have time to blog. Not good. Changes will have to be made. The time has come to incorporate some equipment, tools, and new systems that my mother so proudly loved and called "time savers". Part of being successful in life, as far as she as concerned, was having the latest and greatest time savers in her home. 

I've been looking over my daily routine and seeing where I could make some adjustments, perhaps adding a timesaver or two. One task, making Mom's Famous Slop & Glop, has some promise. One solution -- I could cut out making my own livestock food altogether and switch to strictly commercial feed. That would free up a significant chunk of time. That's one option, but not one that is appealing to me at this time. Another is to somehow quicken the process. The bottle neck in the process seems to be grinding the feedstock. Currently I'm using a blender, which of course only holds a small portion at a time. I think switching to using an old kitchen garbage disposal for grinding could cut a major chunk of time off the process. I know where I can get one real cheap, in fact I'll can trade a few buckets of vegetables for it. So this is going to be a project I'll focus on this coming week. 

Another task where I can see I could save time is in watering the various gardens. Right now I hand fill large jugs with water from the irrigation catchment tank, transport them to the gardens via the ATV, then hand water the garden beds. This method worked well when I only had a few gardens but I've been constantly expanding. Now I'm too big for the hand method. But I'm not productive nor big enough to justify installing a large pump (remember, I'm on limited solar power) along with an extensive irrigation system. Going with a gasoline powered pump doesn't make sense to me at this point. Nor is buying a portable generator economically sensible. Plus my growing beds are scattered, incorporated into the landscaping and terrain. There is no central garden. Hoses or pipes would have to go every direction. But I do have the capability of transporting a half ton of water in my pickup truck. So I'm thinking along the lines of transporting a large volume of water then using a DC transfer pump to water the various gardens. I could drive all the the water I need directly to the gardens, then run the pump off a couple of deep cycle batteries. I already have the batteries available, and a used transfer pump that I rebuilt and now works fine. So I plan to give this idea a trial run and see how much time it saves me. 

Another area where I believe I'm using too much time is my greywater use. Presently the kitchen sink and clothes washer drain into trashcans, whereupon I bucket the water out and water banana trees, flower beds, fruit trees. This system is another big time user. I need to design a simple system for the kitchen sink so that the water can be self delivering to either the banana trees or the orchard trees. The sink doesn't generate a lot of waste water, so it shouldn't overburden the trees if all the water goes directly to the them. The clothes washer generates a lot of greywater, more than I want to be going directly to trees and flower beds all the time. So a simple storage arrangement needs to be set up and delivery system needs to be made. I already have an assortment of supplies for making such a system, but I'll need some hose connectors, values, and perhaps another hose or two. If I'm successful in creating a greywater irrigation system for the wash machine, it will save me a good chunk of time. 

So the plan is to focus on setting up time saving projects and see how that helps my problem of not enough time.