Saturday, April 30, 2016

Improving Soil - My #3 Method

So far I've told you about two ways I start out improving my soil. But I also discovered a third way. Mulch. (Just about everyone has mentioned mulch in response to my first two posts about improving soil. Smart gardeners! Far more observant than I was when I started.) My most commonly used mulch is grass clippings. But all sorts of mulching materials are out there and could be used. Actually my favorite mulching material is the county mulch from the Kona side of the island. It has lots of coconut tree material in it. But it's no longer free for me to get I to my homestead and it's now more difficult to get. 

Compared to the first two methods for improving soil.....compost and planting sweet potatoes......mulching can be a bit trickier. Problems can develop. The top mistakes I've made? (***disclaimer warning! These mistakes apply only to my homestead farm. The effects of mulching can be far different at other locations. Gee, even 5 miles away at my seed farm I see different results to my various experiments.) -------

1- Applying too thick a mulch atop dry soil, thus blocking out the rain. Since most of my rain arrives at under 1 inch at a time, the moisture never got past the mulch. The soil underneath stayed bone dry. 
...remedy: while I could have removed the mulch, I opted to bring in water instead and pump it onto the land. Each day for three days in arow I trucked in 300 gallons of water, thus well watering the area. That solved the moisture issue and things progressed well from there. 

2- Applying a mulch that creates a gley or biofilm layer that prevents wet from reaching the soil below. I once tried spreading a 12" deep layer of fresh grass clippings, then using a sprinkler, watered the area well. (note- I went a tad crazy when I purchased a riding lawnmower and spent a day mowing truckloads of clipping.) Yes, I got the soil beneath the mulch nice a wet. Over the course of the next couple weeks, the grass clippings matted down. Things looked nice. Then we got a heavy rain. When I checked the area the following day, the soil was only damp under the mulch. It looked like no heavy rain had touched it. But the grass clipping mat was soaked, slimy, stinky, and like a felted mat. It had not allowed the rain to penetrate, instead soaking it up and then having the excess find drainage channels. By the way, that grass was slicker than goose shit. One misstep and I'd be at risk of breaking my back in a nasty fall. Super dangerous. 
...remedy: laboriously remove all that slimy, real heavy muck. I used it as part of the fill for some hugelkultur pits. Reapply a reasonable layer of mulch. 

3- Using cardboard for mulching. While I still use cardboard to smother grass, I'm ultra careful around it. Cardboard can get super slippery when it's been wet for awhile, making it ultra dangerous to walk on. It's an accident waiting to happen. I was fooled initially. But after a couple of weeks, the wet cardboard began to get slick between the layers. The more I ayers of cardboard, the worse the problem seems to be. So now when I use cardboard, I never ever walk on it. After it is down for 3-4 months killing the grass, I will pick it up and throw it into a hugel pit or grow box. I don't leave it atop the soil as a mulch where I could walk upon it during a distracted or forgetful moment. 
Above, I used cardboard topped with a bit of grass clippings to smother the grass around young coffee trees. It's time to remove it and replace it with a safer mulch to walk on. 

Above, I've pulled some of the grass clippings aside to show the wet pasty cardboard layer below. Believe me, it's slick! No, I'm not going to film a demonstration video of me walking and slipping on that cardboard. Gee, I already have too many bruises that I'm recovering from due to other farm related knocks and falls. I pass on this one. Just use your imagination. 

4- Using whole eucalyptus leaves for mulching. Like cardboard, these can get real slippery. But it doesn't take so long for it to happen. Once the leaves get wet, it's a case of slip sliding away. If I chop them up with the lawnmower, they don't get nearly as slic, and they decompose faster. So now I just suck them up with the lawnmower along with the grass. It turns out to making a decent mulch. 

5- Applying too thin a mulch. The idea of a mulch is to protect the soil below from the wind and sun. When I spread a thin layer of mulch material, it was just a waste of time. When I went back and checked, the soil beneath it was too dry. I learned that too little mulch was just as much a problem as too much mulch. Nowadays I use 6" of fresh grass clippings, which settles down to 1 1/2" to 2" mulch layer. 

6- Failing to renew the mulch when needed. This is still a failing on my part, basically because I always seem to be in need of more mulch than I have on hand. Over time the mulch settles down and starts to decompose. In most situations I really need to reapply mulch every month. And sometimes even more frequently than that. 

So why does mulch help the soil improve so rapidly? I'm guessing there's a number of factors involved. Mulch helps keep the moist by preventing the sun and wind from drying it out. Moist soil is more hospitable to soil microbes, worms, insects, and other soil denizens. These critters physically move the soil particles about hither and yon. The mulch supplies food to a host of soil life, which in turn leave worm castings, waste, and "dead bodies" in the soil.....which in turn feeds more soil denizens. Ah, the circle of life.  -----  At least, that's the way I figure it. 

Regardless of how things are working, I see that mulch helps poor soil improve fairly rapidly. I've mulched areas where even grasses and weeds were doing poorly, and six months later the soil was ready for a garden. Hard compacted soil back in my rear pasture became for friable under a nice mulch of several months. 

My mulching techniques for new areas..... grassy or heavily weedy area, weedwack everything down (or mow it if that is an option). Then lay down one to four layers of cardboard depending upon how thick and aggressive the grass is. Top it with either a few inches of any kind of mulching material or a light covering of soil, enough to keep the cardboard for blowing away. After 6 months or so, remove the cardboard and start creating a garden. areas with few weeds or where I have pulled most of the weeds out, skip the cardboard. Water the ground so that they soil will be moist. Top it with 6" of mulch. 3 months later, start creating a garden area. 

One more thing ----  newspaper. I often use newspaper for a mulch the way I use cardboard. Using thick layers blocks the regrowth of grass and weeds, but it tends to get slippery just like the cardboard. But using only 1-2 sheets thick of newspaper with a mulch topping, I don't get that slick problem. But then, only new seedling weeds get smothered out. Some of the established tropical grasses come right through. So I find that using thin layers of newspaper isn't worth the hassle of trying to get it laid down without it blowing away. I get nice tradewinds where I'm located, so finding a windless day in order to use newspaper is difficult. 

What else could I use for mulch? Just about any organic plant material as long as it isn't a plant that will root from the cuttings. Grind it up with a lawnmower or shredder, chop it with a machete or pruners, rake it up if it's already in small pieces like tree leaves. It's all usable. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

Improving Soil - My #2 Method

Now this is based upon my own experiences. I've never read this someplace nor heard it being preached at a lecture. What the second best thing I do to improve poor soil ? Plant something! Yes, it's that simple. 

I accidently learned this while I was in my rush to create garden beds. I had too little compost and manure available, actually none to spare, but I had the energy and time to create beds. I was eager to grow. So I just went ahead and planted anything I had on hand. Being a somewhat cheap person, I didn't want to waste expensive seeds on unimproved soil, so I planted cheap livestock feed and plant cuttings from around the farm. That meant, racehorse oats and sweet potato cuttings. 

Quite honestly I was surprised to see the change in the soil structure. When I later went back to "harvest" the greenery to feed the rabbits, I took a handpick to the ground to loosen it for its first "real crop", the soil looked visably improved. It was "lighter", more friable. It had worms. It was no longer hard. Oh, the rocks were still there and needed removing. But it was far easier than if I hadn't grown something there first. Funny thing, but just having the grass and weeds growing in place didn't improve the soil. But the oats and sweet potato combination did.

Later, in other spots, I've used taro starts. I applied a grass clipping mulch around the taro starts and let them grow pretty much ignored. The taro fared mediocre, not producing much in the way of a corm, or even leaves. But I got small plants that I could harvest for livestock food. Once again, I found that the soil structure had improved, although not as significantly as with the sweet potatoes. No soil amendments were used other than the grass mulch to keep the weeds down around the baby taro, and I didn't follow that up with more mulch later. But the soil was more friable, hosted worms, was retaining moisture. In this case, the mulch was a contributing factor.....or possibly the primary factor. 

While I still consider the addition of compost to be my number one soil improving strategy, the simple act of growing an initial crop (even if it grows poorly) is my number two best strategy. Over time I've refined my "first crop" to just sweet potato cuttings. I don't usually see much in the way of tubers being produced....small ones, if any. But the vines are all harvestable for livestock fodder. I always have sweet potato cuttings available and it only costs me my labor to put the crop in. 

So now, anytime I open new ground, I immediately plant sweet potato cuttings. I space them close, 6"-8" apart in all directions. I let them grow for 4-6 months before I harvest the vines by either cutting them & feeding them to the rabbits, or letting the bigger livestock graze them off. Then I'll use a pick of some sort to rake through the ground removing some of the bigger rocks. Now I have a choice......
1- leave the tubers in place and allow the sweets to go back. And repeat the harvesting process in 4 months. At this stage, the soil will be as friable as it will get without more work. So I'll go remove rocks, tubers, add various soil amendments, then plant a crop. 
2- harvest the tubers, add soil amendments, and go right to using the area for crop production. 
Either way, I'm a winner.....the soil is looking better, although option #1 makes for nicer garden soil faster. 

I haven't experimented with using other types of nurse crops yet. Since I have abundant sweet potato vines, that's what I use. But I'd venture a guess to say that other plants would work too. Once I have an over supply of homegrown bean seeds, I think I'll try using beans and see what happens to the soil. Will it look as good after beans as it does with sweet potatoes? Or perhaps it will nicer. Who knows. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Improving Soil - My #1 Method

What would I suggest as the number one thing to improve soil? Compost...hands down. Infertile soil? Add compost. Dry soil? Add compost. Rocky or sandy soil? Add compost. No soil? Use compost. Compost isn't the solution for all soil problems, but it's a good start. 

I'm no soil scientist. I wouldn't know how to identify soil types if my life depended upon it. I couldn't recognize a deficiency by looking at a handful of soil. But even so, I observe from the results I've gotten in a variety of gardens that repeated generous applications of good compost can do miracles. Even poor draining soils can be helped by incorporating coarse chunky compost, but around here, adding generous amounts of lava cinder with coarse compost is an even better option for that type soil. 

I've used all kinds of, cold, layered, dug in, mulched. I've made well aged compost that's 6 months old, and on the other end of the scale, a chopped in a mix that only heated up for a few days before being used. They all improve soil. I've had success with my pallet grow boxes, which are just giant compost bins. I've had success creating gardens atop rock, atop even a concrete pad, by layering lots of compost. Filling containers with soil and compost also works for container gardening. 
Above-- weeds composting in a bin beside the garden. 

While I've read some fancy recipes for making compost, I don't see where one needs to be all that precise. Yes, there are complicated, precise recipes out there. Some gardeners are compulsive about adhering to them. But I just adhere to a 5 basic rules....
...if too wet, add dry stuff and keep out the excess rain, and aerate (via fluffing or turning but don't leave gaping air pockets)
...if too dry, add wet stuff or water. Cover the pile to keep moisture in. 
...if not heating up, add a nitrogen/sugar source (grass clippings manure, urine, fresh weeds, discarded fruit, even kitchen waste if nothing else is handy)
...shoot for half green/wet/nitrogen and half dry/high carbon/low nitrogen when creating the pile 
...chop everything into small pieces

Compost doesn't have to be plowed into the soil. Nor tilled in, even, although incorporating it into the top few inches will start the improvement process faster. Even if you can't till or dig, layering compost atop the ground will gradually improve the soil beneath. 
Above- coarse compost being used to fill a trench between the rows of taro. 

And compost piles don't have to be made in order for the organic material to be useful. Basically compost is organic material that is decomposing to some degree or other. But compostable material can simply be buried into the garden in spots or in trenches. While compostable materials could be used as an uncovered mulch, much of the nitrogen will be lost by this method. Better to apply it as a layered mulch, covering the nitrogen/wet layer with something carbon/dry (example: chopped straw, dry brown lawnmower clippings, shredded tree leaves, or even a light soil covering). 

I surely don't have broad experience with soil improvement. In fact, I've never worked with most soil types that are out there. But from what other gardeners have told me about their own experiences plus my own experience setting up gardens for other folks, incorporating compost into just about any soil makes dramatic improvements in the ability to grow things. About the only soil that compost doesn't improve is wet, boggy, swampy soils. But then, not too many people have tried planting a vegetable garden in a swamp, so I haven't gotten much feedback on that situation. 

I have heard from blog readers who tell me they have had success growing in sand, clay, gravel, and even worn out abused soils by constantly adding compost and using mulches. And I myself have had good success turning my hydrophobic soil on my farm into hydrophilic soil capable of supporting a nice vegetable or flower garden. 

I aim to add a bit of compost to the soil between each crop that I harvest. If I'm out of compost, then I'll use newly started compost as a mulch for that garden bed. One way or the other, I try to get compost added to the soil 2-4 times during the year. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

World Naked Gardening Day

(Photo from

Nope, that's not me. I can only wish I was that young in body! Hubby says I looked that good when I was young.....aaaaawww, nice hubby. Smart answer. But ya know, I just don't look good naked anymore -- (hey, that would make a good song title.)

Ok, joking aside, World Naked Gardening Day really is coming up. For real! Come on, I just can't make up stuff this good. I was alerted to it by "M", though the website she got the info from has the wrong date posted. WNGD is always the first Saturday in a May. 

So do you plan to participate? I sure do! Aughta be fun. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

Driveway Hill Garden

As though I don't already have enough projects, I've been spending some time recently working on the dry hill that is near the top of my driveway. It's an area that was just molasses grass and ferns. After grazing the sheep through a few times, it became just ferns. Even the livestock won't eat that stuff. 

So here's what the hill was covered in.....solid ferns >>>
While the ferns are pretty and they prevent erosion, I wanted to have the area be more beneficially productive. I wanted it to produce something edible for the livestock. I have plenty of areas for human food, so I'm looking at livestock fodder for here. But if course, it's not below me to eat some of the animal fodder crops myself! Hey, a bean is a bean, a sweet potato us a sweet potato. 

Step one -- weedwack down the ferns. Hand pulling them was too time consuming, although I did yank some when I needed material to fill a grow box. The weedwacker was so much faster. I wacked those ferns down, then rewacked them about two months later. Another two months later the ferns are regrowing but they are spindly and thinner. One more good weedwacking and a good portion of the ferns are conquered. final wacking to do. This time I dig deeper with the wacker, thus keeping most of the ferns from quickly regrowing.>>>

Next step I wanted to do was re-do the rockwall along the driveway here. Years ago I had piled up some rocks but never made them look like a real wall. So I spent a few hours tidying them up. >>>

Over the past several weeks I've been carting excess rocks in order to create terraces on this hill. Nothing fancy, just simple low walls. Below, I just started this area.>>>

Over in another section I had created the terraces a couple months ago. I then planted sweet potatoes and extra ornamentals that I had - some succulents and bromeliads, and on the top terrace, garlic chives.>>>
From this early start, pictured above, I've already started harvesting some of the sweet potato greens to feed to the livestock. And the goat relishes the garlic chives. Crazy goat! I'm pretty happy with the way this terraces is turning out. 

I figure thus project will take another month or two to complete. I plan to be growing perennials : sweet potatoes, chives, moringa, bananas, Okinawan spinach, New Zealand spinach. Plus various annual type plants to provide greenery : beans, peas, corn, oats, kale, and more. Although most of what will be grown will be livestock fodder, it will be a pretty growing area, pleasing to the eye. And it will produce a lot more livestock feed than the original molasses grass & ferns ever did. 

What have I got planted so far? Two areas of sweet potatoes, two beds of green beans, a short row of garlic chives, two moringa trees, three banana trees, one bed of taro. That's a start. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Secret Garden Edibles

"K" recently read about my secret garden project and decried the waste of time and effort on something that was not producing food. He felt that this project had no place in a working homestead farm. Not actually criticizing your opinion "K", but that's not my point of view on this garden project.

Ok, I'll explain. While I can see the sense in focusing upon food and livelihood, especially in the beginning of creating a homestead and especially if food is critical, there came a time for me that I was ready to tend to my mental health too. And this project does that. While I can grow food in this garden, I can also grow flowers, dream of and create whimsical garden art, make meandering walking paths and serene sitting spots, make small fish ponds. I can have fun....plain, simple fun. It's food production for the soul. 

"K", it may make you feel better to know that I have indeed incorporated food plants into the Secret Garden:

Above- Mexican oregano. It grows best in full to semi-shade, perfect for this garden. 

Above- freshly planted Okinawan spinach cuttings. I planted them in a semi-shaded area. I'm not sure how they will do, but we shall see. 

Above: sweet potatoes in with ornamentals. The blue tub is a half barrel that is being made into a micro fishpond. It's not finished yet. In the background you can see part of the secret garden where I have cleared out the ferns, made some rock enclosures for gardens, and spread forest litter between the trees. Eventually all that bare area will be growing plants, mostly edible ones for the livestock. 

Above, more sweet potato cuttings that I'm planting today inside a semi circle of rocks. As the various little gardens expand in size, those rocks can be moved out further or even completely removed, opening more space for plants. 

There are already bananas, pineapples, sugar cane, numerous patches of sweet potatoes, pumpkin vines, turmeric, and taro. As I open up and create more beds, I plan on some colorful veggies like Swiss chard, beets, lettuces. And some more contrasting textures, like gingers, millet, wheat, cardoon, green onions, kales. The sunny areas are limited, so there won't be lots sun crops. There will be far more semi shade tolerant things growing. 

It's always a joy for me to spend an hour in the secret garden. It's my personal playground where I can dream and create without having to be serious. 

While I haven't done it yet, I plan to add food trees to this area. Yes, there are bananas already. But I was thinking along the lines of citrus, mulberry, and mamaki since they are semi shade tolerant. And of course, there is always the option of coffee, a good for even full shade. 

My aim is to have 90% of the plants be some sort of edible. As I've mentioned, they will be mostly for feeding the livestock. This area previously was covered in ferns and offered zero in the way of livestock food. Thus making it into a garden actually increases the food inventory on my farm. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Quick Q&A

I've been flooded with questions lately, so I'll give some short n sweet answers to catch up the growing list of inquiries. Eventually I'll use some of these questions for blog topics. 

What's your favorite food plant to grow? Banana. Easy. Love to eat them also the truck and leaves can be used for livestock. .

What's the easiest veggie you grow? Pipinola. No disease or pests. Don' t have to do a thing. Let them run on the ground if I don't feel like trellis training them.
What's your favorite breed of chicken?.....For strictly eggs, the red star or red production (basically the same "breed" but from different hatcheries.) For meat, the rock Cornish cross. For a brooder hen, a feral. 

What has been your favorite house building project? None. They have all been difficult because I had to learn as I went along. But it will be that last nail, tye last piece of wood, the last stroke of the paint brush that will surely be my favorite task. 

What kind of truck do you use for the farm? 4x4 full sized pick up with a towing capabilities. Brand doesn't matter. 

What kind of tractor do you use? What kind of implements would you recommend? I don't use a tractor of any kind. Nor a bulldozer. 

How much does your farm make a year? ( variations: what's the farm income? Does the farm support your family?) Up until now, zip. It's been paying most of its expenses and providing us with resources, but losing money. This year I'm focusing on making a small income. 

Where does a person living in Hawaii go for vacation? In our case.....Hawaii, of course! Who wouldn't love a Hawaiian vacation? We combine business trips to the other islands with a bit of relaxation once the business is taken care of. 

How can you afford to live in Hawaii? By drastically changing our lifestyle, downsizing, learning to DIY, and accruing no debts. 

What's your favorite garden tool? I have several. A hand sickle. A lightweight maddock/pick combo. A lightweight tiller/cultivator. But I use lots of other types of small tools. 

Which is your favorite seed company? I can't name just one. Johnny's. Native Seed Search. Baker Creek. Wood Prairie. Purcell Mountain. Nichols. Rancho Gordo. And I regularly order from many, many more. 

What's the best livestock for your farm? It's not just one.....rabbits, chickens, pigs, sheep & donkey. All work very well for my situation. 

What's the name of your farm? I haven't really got one, other than the business name for my taxes. I'm open to suggestions. 

Do you give farm tours? No. 

Do your make a living from your farm? No, not yet. It supplies most of our food, firewood, and plenty of other resources. But it hasn't made a livable income yet. This year I will be working on that. 

Are you an ______ farm? fill in the blank: permaculture, Korean natural farming, biodynamic, bio intensive, better than organic? No. But I use many of the ideas from many types of farming methods. I use what works. Plus I believe in being a good land steward. 

Why doesn't your blog have ads? Because I don't believe in it. The blog is to tell my story and answer questions. It's not for income. 

Do you have farm employees? Do you use wwoofers? No and no. I'm a one man show. Perhaps some day I'll offer a long term wwoofer style position, but not yet. 

Do you have milking animals? No. I'm not interested in being tied to milkers, so I trade for fresh milk. 

Do you use swales? No. My land is not conducive to swales. 

Do you use hugelkultur? Yes, but as hugel pits, not mounds. 

Does your farm have hydroponics and aquaponics? Sort of. I grow lettuce in hydroponic non-circulating containers. I have ponds in place for using with aquaponics but the system isn't built yet. 

Do you use a LGD? (Livestock guardian dog) No. While I have several dogs, none us a LGD. But I do have a donkey that does a pretty good job at killing dogs that get into the sheep pasture. 

What brand of rototiller do you use? Right now I have a Mantis cultivator, a mid sized Troybilt, and a small Honda.

Is your house wired for AC or DC? AC. We use an AC to DC inverter to run the Sundanzer frig and the Steca freezer. 

Do you make your own soap? No. I support the local soap makers in my area and buy from them. I sometimes trade food for soap. 

Do you make any of your own clothes? Not yet. Thrift store/rummage sale clothes are so cheap here that it doesn't make sense to make my own. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

Spring Has Sprung

People in general don't think of Hawaii having seasons. I made that exact same mistake when I moved here. Plus I tend to perpetuate the myth among my NJ friends by saying that living in my location is like living in the last half of May all year around. Well, that's really not true. The plants know the difference. They recognize and respond to the seasons. 

Any one paying attention to their plants has seen spring arrive here. Pumpkins that just sat there all winter are pushing new lateral vines. 

My roses are budding out all over. 

The caladiums popped up and the impatiens covered themselves in fresh flowers. (That's new bean plants coming up in the foreground.)

 The ohia trees are blooming, as is my allspice tree, seen below. All the branches are covered on fluffy white. 

Even the chickens have noticed and are taking turns at being broody. 

Just like most places, spring signals the plants to grow and push blooms. It's a wonderful time of the year. We don't experience the "smell of spring" here in Hawaii, but if I pay attention, I'll see things happening that only occur with spring. I love it! 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Using Coffee Grounds

I'm surely not the person who thought up using coffee grounds in the garden. As a young child I watched my grandmother dig all her kitchen waste, including coffee grounds, into the garden soil. So to me, this was a normal thing to do. I've been using them for years on the homestead, but it's only been lately that I am noticing the differences that coffee grounds make to soil and plants. 

Every week I get about a five gallon bucket full of spent coffee grounds from various friends and neighbors. That may sound like a lot, but when it's spread across 21 1/2 acres, it's not all that much. But I'm glad to get those grounds and I'm not complaining. 

Initially I added the grounds to the compost bins. And truthfully, I feel that is excellent way to use them. But I've also done a bit of experimenting just to see what would happen.....
1) Sprinkle grounds over the soil prior to tilling as one part of the numerous soil amendments to be tilled in between crops. I can't say that this makes the plants grow better or worse, because any difference is too small to notice. But I've noticed one huge difference. The tilth of the repeated coffee grounds treated garden beds is far better than the beds that haven't gotten the multiple applications of coffee grounds. The coffee ground treated soil is more crumblier (is that a word?), has a nicer feel to it. The change didn't happen quickly, but rather, over the years. But it's a noticeable change. 
2) Till in a one inch thick layer of coffee grounds. This was an experiment just to see if coffee grounds made any change in the crop. I think that the bean plants were a tad less productive, but it could have been due to some other factors. Since I wasn't sure, I opted for the next experiment. 
3) Till in a 3 inch thick layer of coffee grounds. They were tilled in for around 6"-8" deep. Now this time the difference in the plants was noticeable. The bean plants were smaller, had less leaves, looked to be a bit nitrogen deficient, and produced a smaller crop. Well, that was no big surprise. The grounds were fresh, not composted. Therefore as they decomposed in the soil, they robbed nitrogen in the process. That resulted in less nitrogen available for the bean plants. So I made note of the results but wasn't astonished. But one other side note -- since then, that garden bed soil has had significantly improved tilth. 
(Above- the standard amount I spread over a garden bed prior to planting.)

Here are my observations and conclusions.....which very well might be off base since I'm no ag research biologist. Using coffee grounds via the compost piles works just fine. They don't seem detrimental to the crops and are another source of organic material for decomposing into plant nutrients. Tilling a light layer into the soil between crops seems to work fine too. But tilling in thick layers of non-composted coffee grounds results in nitrogen binding, just what would happen if I tilled in a lot of sawdust, dry grass clippings, tree leaves. So I conclude it's best to use non-composted grounds sparingly or compost them before using. One observation that took me by surprise was the effect on soil tilth. The grounds definitely improved my soil, making it feel lighter in my hands and more crumbly to the touch.  I actually liked the effect, and therefore will continue to add coffee grounds for now on. 
(Above- that some bed right after I used the hand pick to roughly mix in the grounds. I next added some coral sand and rabbit manure, chopped it in lightly, then seeded beans.) 

Just a few more words for other gardeners who might start using coffee grounds. 
1- I see that dried grounds tend to shed water. So I don't allow the grounds to stay on the soil surface where they would dry out, becoming hydrophobic. After a light rain they form a surface crust, shedding water even more so. 
2- I take care not to over do the amount of grounds added to the soil at any one time. 1/2" seems fine from what I've observed. Adding a bit of some other nitrogen source along with the grounds may be a good idea. I routinely add a bit of rabbit or composted chicken manure to most of my garden beds between crops anyway as part of my bed preparation routine. 
3- The coffee grounds I'm using are slightly acidic, but not overly so. Not a problem for me. When I use them in the compost piles, they do not change the pH of the finished compost. But then again, the grounds make up less than 10% of my compost mix. Plus I don't see them making a significant effect on the soil pH in the garden beds. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

Rats & Chickens

Rats! Rats and chickens, not my favorite duo. First of all, Hawaii has two species of rats, so I've been told by Vector Control. The roof rat and the Norway rat. The one that frequently visits my homestead is the roof rat. I've been asked a number of questions about my encounters with these rats, so I'll answer as best I can.

(Above image from

Do chickens attract rats? Not really, as I've been told at the ag classes that I've taken. The rats were already there before the chickens arrived. But being opportunists, the rats see a good thing and hang around more often than not. Chickens equal free food, fresh water, warm housing. They are definitely attracted by the feed. Most feeders are open buffets for rats. They will enter the coop at night, helping themselves to a free meal with no competition from the chickens. Roosters may sometimes complain about the rats, but most birds don't say a word. 

Unsecured feed bins are also a rat smorgasbord. They get into feedbags, corn cribs, wooden feed bins, and even gnaw holes in plastic trashcans. They will also check out the trash bags, wild bird feeders, and compost piles. A solid metal trashcan will thwart rats. 

Will a rat kill a chicken? From my own experience and what I've been told, rats didn't normally attack a full grown chicken, but occasionally they may bite them, drawing blood. The danger here is that the bird now has an open wound, which gets the attention of the other chickens who promptly peck at it. This sort of pecking can lead to cannibilism. Most chicken owners have come out in the morning and found a partially consumed bird in the pen. Not uncommon chicken behavior at all. Chickens are like having little dinosaurs, little meat eating raptors. 

Rats have been known to kill and consume chicks and young birds. If the feed runs out in the feeders at night, then partially eaten young chickens might be found in the coop in the morning. A sign of rats. 

Besides the problem of killing chicks and eating your expensive feed, rats can be a real problem. They will hang around and explore the area, including my barn, tool sheds, car engine, house. They can nibble wiring, foul the area with feces and urine (thus potentially spread parasites and diseases, including leptospirosis), and set up housekeeping in the walls and ceiling of the home. They contaminate stored food and water. All in all, not a suitable house guest. Some unpleasant personal experiences we've had with rats ....
.... Rat condo in our livingroom ceiling. Egads. They got into the fiberglass insulation, peeing and pooping all over it, stinking up the house We ended up having to remove the ceiling, trash all the insulation, treat the rafters, and redesign the ceiling. Expensive. Messy. Stinky. Yuk. 
.... Rat vacation home inside the car engine compartment. Hubby noticed an odd rattle in the engine so took it to the repair shop. Mechanic found scores of macnuts plus loads of rat droppings under the manifold cover. An amusing story, but an expensive lesson to learn.
.... Our invisible fence system stopped working. On investigation we discovered that a rat had gnawed through the wire at the base of the control unit. It had to be replaced. 
.... Rats on our roof, finding tiny niches to get into the house. No fun sitting in the livingroom one evening reading our books only to look up and see a rat walking across the ceiling beam. Yikes! Another time we woke up in the middle of the night to mad scrambling out in the hallway. One of the cats had trapped a rat but didn't know how to kill it. Our house dog was standing behind the cat, barking encouragement. Get 'em! Get 'em! The rat meantime was screaming bloody murder. Hubby felt sorry for the rat, caught it, and set it loose down in the front pasture. He said the poor thing deserved to recover from that ordeal. I wonder if it ever returned? Anyway, because of our 365 day a year rat issues (we live next door to a nut orchard), we have to be diligent in keeping the chlorine level adjusted in our water catchment tank. We collect that rainwater off the roof, which happens to be a favored venue for the rats. 

What else goes wrong when rats and chickens mix? Egg theft. I don't think that I've experienced this problem, but then, the rats that visit my farm are rather small in size. I don't think they could carry off an egg if they were lucky enough to find one. I make a point of removing all eggs just before dark when the girls are already on their roosts for the night. But other people have proof that rats are stealing eggs because they've caught them doing it with their security cameras. Gotcha! They have seen rats stealing eggs right from under a brooding hen. Pretty bold, and pretty slick for a rat. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Mistakes With New Chicks

Spring is chick time. So many people's thoughts move towards getting some baby chicks, with visions of future eggs and meat. As a result, I've been getting emails both asking for advice and relating various chick stories. Most of the stories are delightful, but a few talk of problems and tragedies. Out of these sad tales, I've grouped together some of the problems people have had and will relate how I've dealt with the very same issues. Most of the folks I've met have run up against similar situations. 

1) Buying from unknown sources.  Decades ago I lucked out buying my first batches of chicks from a reputable hatchery. I had great success. But after that local hatchery shutdown, I bought chicks from a variety of sources : local flea market, notice on a feed store bulletin board, ad in the newspaper. Problem after problem. Questionable breeds. Sick chicks. Nothing but roosters. I eventually wised up and started ordering from a reputable mail order hatchery. Success returned. 

2) Buying the wrong breed. My first purchase was all rooster day-old chicks. Why? They were cheap. Only 10 cents each. Since I was intending to raise them for meat, I didn't see the sense of paying the high price for straight run or females. Where I went wrong is that I purchased all leghorns with a few other breeds mixed in that I didn't know, nor cared, what. What I didn't know, because I didn't do my homework, was that those chicks weren't meat chicks. It made a big, big difference. I ended up with skinny fryers instead of the plump roasters I envisioned. I invested the same amount of labor, equipment, and feed for skinny little fryers instead of plumper birds.
     Decades later, I hadn't wised up much. Again, I failed doing my homework. I bought 200 straight run (mixed sexes just as they come right out of the incubators) chicks, intending on having egg layers. I figured I'd eat the roosters and sell the extras, so I purchased duel purpose breeds. I learned the hard way that duel purpose breeds don't excell in either, meat nor eggs. They're adequate, but don't give me the best bang for the buck. I would have been happier then if I had bought better egg laying breeds for the hens and better meat breeds for eating....not duel purpose types. Oh, duel purpose breeds have their place, but it depends just how much one has their heart set on meat or egg production. What is it you want in the end? I've had various duel purpose breeds, and actually still have some, so I'm not saying that they should be avoided. No. It's just that I need to consider my goals. Sometimes a high powered egg producer is the best answer. Sometimes it's that fast growing meaty breed. And of course, other situations do indeed call for a particular duel purpose breed....or even a less specialized heritage breed. 

3) Ignoring the gender. I didn't make this mistake, but I've watch others do it. One neighbor brought home 6 straight run chicks, expecting to get 3 hens and 3 roosters. Mother Nature doesn't always adhere to the statistics with small numbers, thus my neighbor was upset when he ended up with 5 roosters and 1 hen. Yes, it happens. That 50-50 ratio is an average with a large number in the pool. All bets are off when the numbers are small. So if I were only going to buy a small number, and it wanted eggs, I'd buy just female chicks. 
     One other thing, my neighbor couldn't bring himself to kill those roosters. It's something to think about if only straight run chicks are ordered.....what to do with those roosters. 

4) Not having having the chick pen set up before the chicks arrive. Big mistake. It could be a mad scramble to cobble together a pen. I person I know did actually get some chicks without a thing set up in advance. He ended up using boxes, towels, hot water bottles...and lost many of the chicks. 

5) Not having educated oneself before the chicks arrive. Oh, this happens too often nowadays. Information is so readily available...."google it". Judging from the emails I get, people don't take the time to research and learn about chicks. They wait until they've failed. One of my rare times I'll give advice: learn about one's projects in advance. I learned the hard way that it's best to read, observe, learn before diving in. Not that I need to know everything before I start, but I try to be somewhat educated when I take my first steps.....especially when livestock is involved. No big deal if I kill a bunch of plants, but animals are a different story. 

6) Making the brooder too small or too large. My first brooder pen was way too large. Chicks got lost, stuck in corners, got chilled. I thought I was thinking ahead by making the pen large enough to house all the chicks when they had grown to 8 weeks of age. But those little day old chicks couldn't handle it. The first day I was too dumb to see that. The second day I blocked off most of the pen, making it smaller. 
     Making the brooder too small can be just as bad. I've seen situations where the chicks had no space to get away from the heat. They ended up piling atop one another in the corners, suffocating the poor ones in the bottom of the pile. 

7) Using a waterer that allows chicks to get wet. A serious problem. I brought a commercial waterer and didn't realize at first that there could be a problem. But after finding a few wet, chilled chicks huddled under the lamp plus two dead ones in the water trough, I saw the major error in the design. Day old chicks will jump right into the water if at all possible. So if I can't find a waterer that restricts the baby chick's access to the water, I make my own mesh guards to slide over the water trough. 

8) Using poorly designed feeders. Feeders need to make feed access easy for the chicks but at the same time protect the feed so that the chicks don't foul it. If at all possible, chicks will poop all over their food. Once there's a layer of poop, they no longer can find their food underneath. Besides wasting feed, this results in starved chicks that can easily die because their bodies run out of "fuel". 
     Along this same line, having not enough feeder space for all the chicks can result in some chicks not getting enough food. The weaker ones fade away and die simply because they don't have room to get to the feed often enough. 
      One more comment......running out of feed. Chicks are constant eating machines. I never let them run out. Whenever I've not topped off the feeders in the evening (assuring plenty of feed for an early breakfast) I've often seen problems with an unthrifty chick or two. Any marginal chicks can't seem to deal well with a delayed breakfast. So I'm careful to make sure feeders stay full when the chicks are under 4 weeks of age. 

9) Wrong type of feed. In nature, chicks go after tiny sized food particles. Therefore I start chicks off with ground feed, be it commercial crumbles or homemade ground foods. I've been successful using crumbles in the commercial feeders then supplementing that with dishes of cooked brown rice with finely chopped assorted foods mixed in. Since I plan to feed them "mom's famous slop & glop" when they are adults, I train them to eat it as they grow up. 
     What sort of wrong feed have I seen being used? Whole grains. Bird seed. Dogfood. Coarse kitchen scraps. New chicks will eat this stuff, or try to, but they may not do well on it. Without well developed gizzards and grit, they will have difficulty digesting them. Other foods I've seen being offered are simply lacking in good nutrition -- white rice, bread, stale cake, table leftovers. These are fine additions but not meant for the basic feed. If the babies were out with their mothers in the wild, they'd be eating all sorts of high nutrition food bits -- bugs, worms, seeds, the tender tips of plants, plus soil and small stones. 

10) Inappropriate bedding. When I used a brooder set up, I used clean sand as the bedding. Because my heat source was from below, the sand stayed dry. The chicks will consume the bedding, so sand was fine. But I've heard of cases where people used kitty litter, shredded paper, or sawdust and had chicks dying. I wonder if the bedding was part of the problem. Straw, hay, dry grass clippings all make acceptable bedding. 

11) Failing to teach chicks to drink and eat. Yes, chicks can be that stupid! But just give it some thought.....chicks learn to eat and drink by being taught by their mothers. If you've ever watched a hen with chicks, she will make a special sound to call her chicks for food and drink. She will then demonstrate what is the food or water, then step back to allow them to give it a go. She will frequently step forward, peck some food or take a drink herself, then step back again. She is teaching them. 
     Newly arrived day old chicks need a little instruction. The first thing I do is take each chick one at a time and dip their beaks in the water (I add sugar to the water for the first day). I repeat until the chick gets it, drinking on their own. To encourage the slow learners, I will sprinkle a little sand in the water trough, just enough to make some specks that they will peck at. It helps. Once every chick has learned about the water, I then introduce them to the crumbles. I will use my finger or a chopstick/twig to peck at the feed. This causes some of the chicks to follow my lead. Once a few chicks are pecking, the rest will learn from them. I once had a batch of chicks that seemed incredibly stupid. I ended up using newspaper for the flooring and scattering crumbles around it. As the chicks pecked at the printed lettering, they eventually got the crumbles and learned to eat. 
     I always teach the chicks to drink water first. I do this as soon as they arrive and I get them home. The first day I use sugar water, but am careful to keep them out of the troughs. Otherwise they get real sticky and covered in the bedding. I once had "breaded chick nuggets" when they walked through their sugar water then kicked around in the crumbles. Obviously I had the wrong kind of waterers and feeders. It took me hours to hand wash and re-fluff those chicks! Lesson learned the hard way. 
      One thing I learned from observation....don't start the chicks out with cold water. Every time I used cold water, that batch of chicks had problems with pasty butt. Since pasty butt is associated with the chicks becoming chilled, I suppose their tanking up on cold water was enough to chill them. When I switched to using warmed water for their introduction to drinking, the chicks did better. Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but I wasn't willing to risk the health and survival of my chicks by conducting controlled experiments using cold vs warm/air temperature drinking water. 

12) Failing to predator proof the pen. I've been surprised and dismayed to see how clever predators are when it comes to getting to the chicks. I've had rats gnaw right through that lightweight, cheap chicken wire. I've had a mongoose reach through the wire and grab chicks going to the feeders. I've had dogs unhook latches and open doors. And finally, I've had little kids open any door without a lock on it. If a predator can at all get in, they will.  

13) I shall end this on lucky 13.... Failing to train children (and adults) around chicks. I've heard of plenty of stories where a chick died while being held. People will tell me that it died of fright. "Really?", I reply. I'm totally skeptical and don't believe it for one second. I've handled tens of thousands of chicks and none have ever died in my hand. I've discussed this with folks who ran hatcheries and they say the same thing. Chicks don't die of fright because they are being held. They die from being held too tightly, from being squeezed, from being dropped. But they don't die of fright. Now I'll agree that a parakeet might die because a stranger grabs and holds it, but not a chick. Nope. Children.....and adults.....need to be instructed how to hold a chick gently and not impair it's breathing. If they can't be taught, then they shouldn't be handed a chick. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Mildew on the Beans

Just recently I'm seeing the first serious mildew problem of the year. Surprisingly, it isn't on the crops I'd expect it. My most susceptible crops, pumpkins & gourds, are clear of mildew. But some of the green beans are being clobbered. 

One bean variety only has small whitish spots on its leaves. But other varieties are faring far worse. 

A few varieties have the most mildew on the oldest leaves and blotches showing up on their younger leaves. 

And one particular variety is totally called Tobacco Patch.....seen above. 

These bean plants are among my seed production garden beds. I wasn't paying much attention to these plants, waiting for them to produce mature seed. While checking for maturing pods, I discovered the mildew problem. 

This problem is actually a big benefit. Really. I am learning which varieties are susceptible to mildew, thus not welcome on my homestead. I am attempting to choose varieties that thrive in my particular location. Therefore I am ruthlessly pulling out all plants that show mildew problems. No sense of saving seed from a plant that is susceptible to a local disease, especially one as common as mildew. By saving seed from the healthier plants, I'm hoping to incorporate some degree of mildew resistance in my strain. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

Walk-in Closet - Last Update

The closet is one of my sloooooow projects. It's getting done one small step at a time. So as of today, the clothes rail is finally in place. 

It didn't take me 10 minutes before I had it full! It's so nice to have my clothes hanging up again.

Hubby got the wiring and switches done today for the ceiling lights. Ah, another step closer to finishing this project. I just need to go out and purchase two ceiling lights and install them. 

After that, the only thing else I have planned is a few storage shelves and hooks for hanging stuff. 

I had previously declared thus project finished, but of course, I obviously jumped the gun. But outside of a small shelf here or there and a few hooks, it really is done now.......oh yeah, I already forgot about installing those ceiling lights. Ok, it's almost done. But for the second time, I'm declaring it pau (finished). 

The next project? ......... Only one room left to do : the bathroom. 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Producing Baby Coffee Trees

3 months ago I planted dozens of freshly harvested coffee beans with the hopes that they would germinate. Success! They are starting to sprout. At the time I didn't have any flats/containers to plant the beans into, so I simply poked them in among the green bean seed that I planted for seed saving purposes. I figured that those green beans would be harvested just around 90 days, so the timing turned out to be perfect. When I removing the old green beans, I saw that coffee was beginning to show itself. 

This is the first time I've tried intentionally to grow coffee, so it's time to experiment a little. I know that coffee seedlings transplant really easily, but at what stage in their development? So I'm pulling some just as they sprout while others I'm waiting until the colyledons erupt from the seed case and flair open. I'm transplanting them into containers where they can grow until they start producing leaves. Why? Because I don't have spots quite ready for them yet. 
(Above the little seedlings I've gently dug up. Now they'll be just as gently replanted.) 

So what have I discovered so far? It seems to be best to wait until the colyledons open before transplanting them. Those that were still confined in the seed hull were slow to unfurl, and some never did unfurl. 
(Above, the cotyledons haven't erupted yet. You can still see the bean hull.)

All seedlings with the already opened codyledons transplanted ok and are doing just fine. Now, this is just opposite to what I've read on the Internet. Ag sites recommend transplanting the seedlings before the codyledons emerge. But this is the fun of experimenting. I find out what works for me, my technique, my location. But of course I have to keep in mind that my method might result in other negatives. Perhaps the seedlings won't thrive. Perhaps won't develop strong roots. Only time will tell. 

I plan to plant about 100 more trees onto the farm. They are a crop that I use for the shade areas, since I get few crops from the shade areas. The extra seedlings will be planted into pots and offered for sale as part of my farm income project. 

I want to show you what I found with some of the little seedlings which prompted me to discard them.......
They had bent primary roots. Coffee growers call these "J roots". I have read and been told that these seedlings do not produce strong, thriving mature trees. So I didn't bother transplanting these seedlings. They were just chucked aside to become part of the mulch.