Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Fighting the Good Fight

In my efforts to adopt permaculture principles comes the knowledge that things must be done a certain way. For example, I can't use chemicals to boost production. I must use "organic" methods to strengthen and fertilize my plants and soils. This approach is more holistic, meaning it considers more than just the crop yield or end product. The soil quality, plant health, environment, as well as produce, are considered as a system. This is what sustainable gardening is all about.

This also means that I can't use chemicals as insecticides or herbicides. It would be very easy to spray noxious chemicals to rid our outdoor haven of all that annoy us. The bugs wouldn't bug so much, nor would the weeds. These chemicals are very effective in killing all things, the "bad" along with the "good." However, it just so happens that plants and insects evolved together (go figure). A believe it or not, a common plant defense against "bad" bugs is "good" bugs. There are a whole bunch of different kinds of beneficial bugs out there. I don't have the breadth of knowledge nor the desire to cover it all, but this will allow me to talk about one of my favorites: the praying mantis.

The praying mantis, also called mantids, are very cool looking insects. They get their common name from the way they appear to be praying while still and just before striking. Their alien-esque appearance is only matched by its otherworldly appetite for bugs. If you have ever seen one in action, you know what I'm talking about. They come in a wide range of colors, and sizes, some adorned with army-like camoflauge. They are stalkers, meaning that they will sit and wait til an unknowing bug crosses it.

While living in Taiwan, I had the opportunity to experience raising a mantis. You may not know this but mantises are related to the cockroach. They developed long, powerful forelegs, built to snatch its prey with lightning quickness and agility. I gained such pleasure watching them take out unsuspecting crickets, devouring them tail-first, eating up every last moisty gut. Mantids usually live for about3-4 months, and the ones I had were already 3 months old when I got them. Although they weren't with me long, I had the full experience of seeing how they live and interact (in a controlled terrarium).

Mantids start very small and eat aphids and such in their young days. This is why they are called upon as pest control. As they grow, they continually eat larger and larger things. Some have even been known to eat small snakes, mice and hummingbirds. One caution is that they aren't picky about what they eat. They can and will eat "good" bugs, even cannabalizing other mantises. This is why you shouldn't keep two mantises in the same container (unless of course, you want to see them battle to the death).

Mantises are good pets as they are quite interesting to watch stalk and consume prey. Most of the time, however, they spend their time moving not at all. They often just hang about, waiting for an idiot bug to get close. Much like myself. You can have them walk around on you, but they can fly.

As mentioned before, they can be part of your toolkit in battling the seemingly endless hoards of insects out to do you and your plants harm. They are welcome in my yard and I am always delighted to come across one, if I ever see them. They are ninja of the garden, sometimes hiding right in front of you. Do you and your garden's health a favor and consider matises and the host of other good fighters when dealing with little pests in your attempt to tame the wild outdoors.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Back to Maui

A view of the water not far out of Hilo.

I am back after spending a nice week with family in Hilo. It is always refreshing to spend some time in Hilo. I had much time to think, and used the time to read up on permaculture. I read a transcript of "A Permaculture's Design Manual," by Bill Mollison, the creator of the term "permaculture." Very interesting stuff if you ask me. There is a section in the "High Islands" chapter about how ancient Hawaiians were very intelligent land managers. This is invaluable information for those interesting in gardening. The ideas are much more than just growing veggies, and great for pondering broader scale resource development/management.

Not a food forest, but a beautiful forest, nonetheless. A fallen log consumed by other life.

I spent time creating a plant list, full of fruits, perennials, bushes, trees, etc. that could provide a variety and abundance in a small scale backyard garden. Finding all the pieces and then putting it together makes for quite a complex puzzule to be assembled. In doing research, you find may find even more useful plants that you never heard about. Some are not typical in your region, or not commonly used as foods. Others, you can't use, due to climate or legal restrictions. Others, for practicality sake, are simply not feasable (too big, yield not worth effort, no market, etc.), but all are worth considering.

A view of Hilo bay on a typical rainy day. A baby pineapple in my uncle's yard.

I also spent time to make a resource list of further readings. As I read, I learn that there is much more to read, and it becomes endless. You could spend all your time reading about a subject that should be hands on. Reading, however valuable and necessary, won't put food on the table.

That said, I was ready to come back and start working in the yard. I went to Kula Hardware to look around at what they had in stock. I was surprised to see all kinds of fruit trees there. Here's a incomprehensive list (to be sure, as I am interested in the food production, I only noticed those types of plants): apricots, mangoes, lemons, limes, tangerines, oranges, pears (4 cultivars on one plant), about 5 diffeent avocados, walnuts, soursops, starfruit, jaboticaba, abiu, and others. I had never even heard of some of them.

This nursery has been my best source for all kinds of stuff. I suggest that if you live on Maui, you check them out. They have a good variety of native and exotic plants, organic supplies, seeds, etc. You will be surprised everytime you go there. They're really knowledgeable too.


We'll start with the bad news. The tomatoes that I had initially planted about a month ago have perished. The seedlings were attacked by some bug in the night. Some onion and shallot seedlings have also gone to dust. Bell peppers never got above ground, same with chamomile. But now I know not to start seeds directly in the ground. I will have a staging period in small pots or on a table-like seeding bed, then transplant when healthy and vigorous enough to fend for itself. Ugh, that was painful. Okay, that's over. Now for the good news.

Top left to rt: just purchased blueberry bush (about a month ago); blue berry bush today; peas w/ stick trellis;
Bottom left to rt: revived kalo; compost pile;

All other things are doing well. The peas are nice and healthy, although slightly bullet riddled. The taro, which seemed to have a bleak outlook, is now doing well. It is vibrant green, with many small keiki (small offshoots). I think adding mulch, nitrogen, and more water, helped that baby along. The blueberry bush is bangin'. Lots of new growth, fresh and full of color. Same with the lime tree. Until a while ago, it seemed to be stagnant. But with pruning and extra water, it now has aromatic new leaves. And hopefully fruit soon. Got a compost pile goin, sheet mulch is still goin well. And I am excited to announce a new addition today... I now have worms. This is another weapon in my arsenal against pest and disease. Not to mention the decrease in waste that must leave our house. Paper and food scraps no longer go to the landfill, they can stay with us.

Lastly, after a rigorous application and interview process, I was deemed worthy to take part in the CTAHR Master Gardener program here on Maui. I am ecstatic and associate self-worth to being accepted. We will learn a variety of subjects related to gardening, and after "graduation" from the 13-week course, will be a master gardener. You, too, may become a master gardener, but only if you're cool
A site that I find very useful for my particular location is the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) of the Univ. of Hawaii. They have useful information for Hawaii related plants, climates, research, questions, and problems.

Pictures to come soon.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Water: The Fabric of Our Lives

Well I guess it's not technically a fabric, but water is essential to our existence on this (or any other) planet. We often forget how important clean water actually is. Second only to air, water is the most critical element to our lives. Our very fabric is sewn with threads of water.
In western societies, and more increasingly around the world, water is made to seem so common and abundant that no thought is put into conservation. It's like saving air -- why would you? Most people don't know that the amount of potable water on Earth is a mere 1%. Of all the millions and billions of gallons of water moving, floating, falling, rushing, flowing and freezing, only %1 is usable by people. In almost any action related to our body, water is consumed. Taking a shower, drinking, eating, brushing your teeth, washing your hands, peeing, sleeping...

Water is made to seem so abundant, that we piss and crap in drinking water. Imagine that! Are we that arrogant? "I'm so rich, I'm gonna take a shit here in this bowl of water." I don't know where this idea came from , but it seems very backward to me. Yet it is so ingrained into our culture (myself included), that I feel awkward mentioning this fact to others. They may think I'm strange for entertaining such an outlandish concept.

With the green movement however, along with the all too common quotes and trivia spouted about CO2, comes an awareness of our other environmental mistreatments, water being one of them. Integrated designs for reusing or reclaiming used water (greywater or blackwater) for other uses. Living machines are alternatives to typical sewage treatment systems. This is a biological method of cleansing water. Instead of using chemicals and inorganic methods to clean water, you use living organisms such as bacteria, plants, and fish, to filter water to varying quality levels. This in turn, allows us to use the water again, giving us a 100% increase in our resource use. We can water the lawn, feed our plants, or redirect the water to be used in toilets, or depending on quality, drink, cook or shower with. This is called closing the resource loop, a fundamental concept of permaculture.

Water is so important, but we treat it like shit.

We should think of water more as a life-sustaining element, rather than a means of transporting our turds. Let us use less water or reuse the water we consume. A perfect opportunity for another challenge.

Challenge #2: Measure your shower. Then shorten it.

1. Measure your flow rate. Get a bucket, preferably with volume lines, and a watch. Turn on your water to the flow you usually use, simultaneously starting your watch. Time for 1 minute. Measure how much water is in your bucket. This will give you your gallons (liters)/minute. Let's say you measure a rate of 4gallons/min.

2. Time the duration of shower. Then multiply your shower (in minutes) by the gallons. This will give you your total water usage and duration of your shower. In our example, your shower ends up being 10 minutes.

Your total water usage will be (4gal x 10min) 40gal. for a 10min. shower.

3. See if you can reduce your water usage by 25% or more. That would turn the above 10min shower into a 7min 30sec. shower.

You would save 10gal. of water. A drop in the bucket you might say. But if everyone does a little, together we can do a lot.

Rain, Rain Come to Stay

This weekend we received a downpour of rain and gusty winds. A windfall for all farmers and a chance to relieve us of the drought that we've been in. I've been busy indoors germinating seeds for tomatoes, lettuces, sunflowers, and other various plants. As I type, we are getting a break in the atypical weather, the sun shines, but the wind still blusters along.

I went to the Maui Farmer's Bureau Agriculture Festival yesterday at the Maui Tropical Plantation. It was a crowded event, despite the torrential rains. I arrived shortly after 9AM, hoping to gain insight to the ag community on Maui. Happily, it is vibrant, with a wide range of people doing various things on the island. I spoke with a lady that owns a bamboo forest out in Kipahulu, towards Hana. They supplied the bamboo timber that was used in a school building out in Hana that was the subject of a Discovery channel show. They specialize in growing "clumping" bamboo. As noted in the name, these varieties grow in clumps, as opposed to bamboo that sends out runners, which can quickly turn a peaceful bamboo plant into an aggressive nuisance. Clumpers are easier to control, and therefore no longer presents the problem of bamboo taking over the yard.
The Univ. of Hawaii CTAHR was present, with education in plant care, pest management, and gardening tips and techniques. They helped me identify some trees that are growing in my parents' back yard and also questions I had as to why my taro plant was not doing so well.

I had been searching for a nursery that stocked natives for a while. Fortunately Ho'olawa Farms was on hand. I bought some native plants that should do well in our conditions. I was looking for some ground cover plants to prevent erosion and that didn't need too much water or sun.

There was a host of locally made products from jellies to coffee, and flower arrangements to t-shirts. Even with the downturn in the economy, it is good to see such great support of local businesses.

On another note, I have an interview on Thursday for the Master Gardener course being put on by the UH CTAHR Maui division. I mentioned this in a previous post.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Picture Posting

Lately I've been having trouble uploading pictures here. I don't know what the reason is. That is why the more recent posts have no visuals. I will fix this and repost some pics.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

It Came From the Swamp

I've been doing a lot of work in the backyard, disturbing areas that haven't been touched for years. Maybe it's no coincidence that some strange creatures are popping up all of a sudden. The other night, as I was preparing to brush my teeth. I look down and what do I see? A 3 inch scorpion! I've never seen a live one on Maui before, but crawling in the sink is a scorpion. It eventually crawled down the drain and that was the end of it

A the next day, I'm walking in the yard and happen to see a jackson chameleon strolling across the lawn. The last time I saw one, it was crossing a street, so I stopped to pick it up. I've never come across one in the backyard.

Yesterday, as I was brushing my teeth and the scorpion crawls back out of the drain for pt. II. I put it in a cup to take it outside. I try to feed it but it seems more intent on trying to escape. I left it on our picnic table and went about working. I forgot about it. It must have escaped. Who knows where it will show up next.

I don't know if there is any coincidence, but it is interesting to see the wildlife here.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Making a Clean Getaway

Perusing the most recent copy of The Economist, I read several articles about technologies that could make transportation cleaner. Like the global recession we are in right now, we are all aware of global warming. With much emphasis on cleaning up our act and reducing carbon emissions, companies are revamping existing models to make them "green" worthy.

In Shifting gears, it speaks of making airplane engines more efficient. To reach the goal of 50% less emissions by 2020, manufacturers are developing new ways of energy transference that may improve efficiency by that landmark, or greater.

Recharged is an article about using older lead-acid batteries with a modern infusion of technology to again make them viable in the energy storage market. They must compete with newer, lighter, and more resilient nickel-metal hydride and lithium-ion batteries that pack a longer punch.

The last is a story of how used coffee grounds are being used to create bio-diesel. The article states that coffee grounds may be better than some existing sources of bio-diesel for several reasons, one being that the source wouldn't have to be grown explicitly for energy creation. Sounds like my cup of c.

One more thing, can anyone tell me what twitter is about? Is this just another form of information overload?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Make-Up Day

Haven't posted in a while so I have a bunch of things to talk about.

First, I was concerned that the peas that I planted weren't gonna come up. It had been about 5 days and no signs of life. That was 4 days ago. Since then, they have poked their green heads above ground and spread their leaves for the sun. I am happy to see them make it out alive. Germinated 10 seeds, planted 10, and 9 came up. 90%

The tomatoes have sprouted also. Those were sewn a bit shallower so came up faster. I germinated 10 seeds. Of those 10, 6 shot out roots. Of those, 5 came up, 50%. Feeling good about the prospects of the garden.

This past weekend, we had heavy rains. I don't know exactly how much but it pretty much rained for three days. Those who come to Maui probably pray for sun and clear skies. I'm like a salmon swimming upstream against the current. I like grey skies and rainy days. Where I live is infamous for hot and dry springs and summers, so I want my plants to get as much a head start as possible.

The taro plant I put in the ground about a week ago isn't doing so hot. The leaves have turned yellowish on the edge and are starting to droop. I don't know if its a water problem. I think it will go the way of the flesh soon. It's sad; the first casualty of my garden, and hopefully the first of few. But there will probably be many that follow.

Now a linkfest:

-For a Maui based publication of local events relating to environment, check out the Haleakala Times.
-An interesting book about human waste and what can be done with it. Read Humanure. It may change the way you think about turds.
-Lately I've been addicted to Facebook. To keep me distracted, I've been studying photography at DigitalPhotographySchool.com. What I like about their site is that they give you assignments to allow you to practice your art. Nice shot.

Inspired by the photgraphy website to give their followers assignments, I will offer a challenge to you. I will occasionally post these "challenges" here. They may cover a range of topics and
difficulties. Obviously I will also participate. Please post your results. Let's get started.

Challenge #1: Grow something.

Easy enough, you say. I already have a potted plant.
If you already have plants, grow one that you can eat.
If you already grow something you can eat, grow something and share it with someone else.

This challenge can be undertaken almost anywhere. You can plant something from an apt window sill in Minsk, a house-boat in Seattle, or a garden in Juarez. As long as you have access to sun, soil and water, you can do this. Mainly, have fun. If this is something new to you (or even if it isn't), post your thoughts.
The point of this challenge is to get you in touch with life. Oftentimes our houses or apartments are full of stuff. Less often is this stuff alive. Having other life forms around you connects you to them, and to nature.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Hump Day

Yesterday was a busy one. I woke at the crack of 9AM to get some tomato and onion seeds that had their little umbilical cords sticking out of their body, into the ground. By this I mean I had germinated these seeds in water and their roots had breached the shell. The previous night, I had been deliberating to myself, about the location of where best to place these seeds. I realize that planning a garden is harder than it seems. There are many considerations such as: sun/light/water needs, companion plants, crop rotation, plant height, time to maturity, insects, diseases, etc. All these things must be factored into the placement of the plant, in relation to the others. Fortunately, I live in Hawaii, where the temperature issue is almost non-existent.

I also realized how much faith you must have to start a garden. I have been waiting for the peas to pop out of the ground for the past couple of days. I put them in on Feb. 28, 5 days ago, and still no signs of them. We do the best we can to provide for the needs of plants, but much of the process is really up to nature. I just hope they are shy.

I used the cool afternoon to do some harder work in the back. I haven't found a good spot for the blueberry plant yet. I had dug a small hole on the west edge of the yard, thinking that this would be a good place. I then proceeded to heavily prune the tree branches that cast a large shadow in that spot.

Later, I thought to myself that this was an okay place, but I felt that it should go elsewhere. In Gaia's Garden, Toby says this stage in the development of your "food forest" is critical. Just as before you build a building, you have the blueprint, so should you have a map of what goes where, and a reason why. I have forgone this step, because I don't fully know all the plants that will eventually be in the yard. Instead, we are doing this piecemeal style. I'm taking it slow so as ideas develop, they can be worked into the ongoing process.

Today, I went on a short hike in the gulch behind and below my house. It was a nice stroll through somewhat overgrown milkweed and grasslike plants. I walked on hoof-trodden paths, avoiding the occasional cowpie and goat pellet turds. The weather was perfect for such an activity: sunny, but not hot, and a light breeze.

Monday, March 2, 2009

System Overload

Today I ventured up to Kula Hardware and added to the aresenal of plants. I bought 9 more packs of seeds, a blueberry plant and a dryland taro plant.

I'm very excited about the blueberry plant. It was a plant I thought I would have trouble finding, but to my surprise, it was very easy to find. I purchased a Southern highbush variety called "Sharpblue." According to many references, this variety has less chill hours, which is ideal for the climate I live in. I can't wait to have my own blueberries. Just hope I can keep them freeloading birds off my stash.

I am also happy to get the taro plant. I always wanted to make my own poi and now I have the opportunity. I have a dryland type so I don't need to keep it in a lo'i (like a rice paddy, but for taro). This is another plant I can't wait til maturity so I can try it.

Yesterday, I finished the sheet mulch square in the backyard. Added chicken manure and lots of water, then covered it with a tarp so the county water doesn't just evaporate.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Master Gardener

Has a nice ring to it don't it? I can imagine meeting someone new:

Random person: "Hi, I'm __________. Nice to meet you."
Me: "I'm a Master Gardener. What was your name again?"


Friend: "Randall, I'd like you to meet Michelle."
Me (to friend): "Is she a Master Gardener?"
Friend: "Mmm, I don't think so."
Me: "Let's go."

Fun and games aside, I signed up for a Master Gardener course to be given at MCC. If accepted, I will don a badge: "Master Gardener. Plant Pimp."

This would be a great opportunity for me to learn about gardening and meet other like-minded people in my community. The 13 week course includes topics like organics, native plants, vegetables, pruning, etc. Hope I get in.