Saturday, November 24, 2007

Planting Natives at Kahuku Ranch

This is my favorite kind of gardening. No weeding, no fertilizing, one-time planting and watering, then pau. Mother Nature takes over, and someday, we hope, maybe in 20 years if we’re lucky, we get to see a lush native forest where there was once only pasture.

The Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park Service recruited volunteers from the community to plant 400 native Hawaiian seedlings up at the 4,200-foot level in Ka’u on the Big Island, just a tiny part of the recently acquired Kahuku Ranch. NPS is doing research to find the best techniques for reforestation of pasturelands here. The area is usually closed to the public, and I was fortunate to be a part of a 15-member volunteer crew that was treated to some fantastic scenery for its efforts.

Some koa and ‘ohia are already established, but cattle grazing and mouflon sheep had wiped out the understory of the native forest in this area for many years; only grass covers the ground. Our job was to plant within fenced-in areas that excluded cattle and sheep so that plants had a chance to grow and data could be collected.

Using long-handled dibbles we poked holes in the 'aina and planted keiki of pilo, olapa, ‘akala, and kolea. Some of us had the task of being clouds: I was one who donned one of the watering backpacks to provide a good soak of precious water to each seedling that would thereafter have to depend on the whims of our changing climate. These are actually firefighting backpacks that weigh 45 pounds when full – indeed I made sure to walk extra carefully over the grass-covered 'a'a and hidden lava tubes.

Hunters, ranchers, gatherers, agriculturalists, gardeners, foresters. The history of humans and our connections to the land provides much food for thought at Kahuku Ranch, which is now at the edge of a transformation. The NPS will be holding scoping meetings in the future to get feedback from the community about what the people want to do with these public lands. As for me, after what I experienced today, I’ll be looking forward to the opportunity to express my love of what is truly the natural beauty of Hawai'i.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Growing Local at Hamakua Springs

I joined the Hawaii Island Master Gardeners recently for a tour of Hamakua Springs farms with our gracious and dynamic host, owner Richard Ha. Richard shared his vision of the future of sustainable farming in Hawaii while we were guided through a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at one of the biggest operations of locally grown produce here in the islands.

Interesting facts about Hamakua Springs:
  • Tomatoes are grown hydroponically, with roots growing in coconut coir.
  • Fruit fly trapping is utilized to reduce the need for spraying tomatoes.
  • Bananas are the mainstay of the farm, mostly Williams bananas which must be gassed to ripen.
  • Other hydroponic crops include green onions and watercress.
Richard talked about the reality of peak oil and moving away from petroleum-based agriculture. To that end, he believes that hydro-electricity is one possible way to power his farm in the coming decades.

To support sustainability and to meet the demands of discerning foodies, he is also growing heirloom varieties of tomatoes. Bursting with flavor and delightful to the eye, heirloom varieties are gaining greater popularity with consumers as well as gardeners who prize taste above keepability. Traditionally, heirloom seeds are ones that gardeners save from a good crop to grow the next. Over generations, these plants can become adapted to the conditions where they are grown. Whether Hamakua Springs is seed saving or buying heirlooms, I’m not certain. I personally enjoy saving seeds now and then and sharing them. Learn how to save your own tomato seeds here.

At Hamakua Springs, much of the produce other than bananas is packaged in clear plastic “clamshells." While these are recyclable, their use seems to be counter to reducing dependence on petroleum-based packaging, as one master gardener pointed out. Richard says the demand for this type of packaging comes from the retailers who want longer shelf life.

So, now that you are bringing your own reusable bags to the market – you are, right? – maybe it’s time to take on the next challenge. Shouldn't we be asking retailers to stock produce that uses less packaging? What do you think?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Companion Planting for 'Ono Edibles

Many gardeners believe that certain plants seem to do better if planted with ones that are compatible. We know that the roots of some plants are allellopathic and can release substances that can inhibit the growth of surrounding plants, and in other cases plants might be affected positively instead. It makes sense to take advantage of these natural attributes and use diverse planting schemes instead of monocrops that are more susceptible to being wiped out by a single organism.

I've had great results with companion planting this fall, as you can see in this photo taken in my backyard this week. The middle barrel in the foreground is planted with Roma tomato and Manoa lettuce; the one on the left holds Sweet 100 cherry tomato and Hawaiian chili pepper; the one on the right has a sweet bell pepper and Chinese chives. I also tucked in some marigolds into each barrel, and perhaps that is what is helping to keep the aphids and leaf miners away.

I started these barrels about a year ago with organic potting mix. This is the second crop I'm growing organically in these barrels. Before planting again this time, I used a granular organic fertilizer, mixing it in before planting. I add fish emulsion/kelp extract every couple of weeks to keep it flourishing.

Under the pepper plants I placed a mulch of heavy-duty aluminum foil (see earlier post) which seems to have helped their growth and repel aphids with the reflected light and heat.

I've never seen these plantings look so healthy! Planted in the ground around the barrels are native hibiscus: the white flowered, softly scented kokio ke'o ke'o and pink blossomed akiohala. Native kupukupu fern is also starting to sprout around the base of the barrels.

I'm looking forward to some tasty homegrown salad in the upcoming holiday season, I think. Time to start planning....

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Outta My Gourd for Ipu

As anybody who has tried to grow an ipu knows, it can be a frustrating experience. Ipu is a gourd, the fruit of the pohue vine (Lagenaria siceraria). Fruit flies love to deposit their eggs in ipu, and when the eggs hatch the maggots feed on the fruit. And the adults are merciless – they sting the ipu when the gourd is tiny and still developing from a flower. In addition, the soft, green, slightly hairy skin is easily damaged if the fruit is left to grow on the ground. Shee, no mo chance, eh?

Consequently, many halau gave up trying to grow their own Hawaiian ipu, and in the 20th century it became a common practice to use imported dried ones from California. These days, however, there is increasing interest in growing ipu locally. The newly formed Hawai'i Gourd Society is hoping to encourage more people to grow their own ipu as well as learn the art of Hawaiian ipu decoration.

At the Hawai'i Healing Garden Festival, held on Nov. 3 at Amy Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden in Captain Cook, HGS vice president Evie Morby shared her mana’o with me. While skillfully carving a smooth, plump gourd she grew herself, she told me that correctly using fruit fly traps that attract the male fruit flies has been extremely successful in her garden, practically eliminating the need for spraying pesticides.

When Morby first began using the traps, they were full of fruit flies, but over time their numbers diminished significantly. Even her next-door neighbor reported that he was able to harvest tomatoes and cucumbers due to her effective use of fruit fly traps. Morby suggests calling the Hawai'i Department of Agriculture for specific information on which fruit fly traps to use for ipu gourd vines and how to use them. Information is also available online from UH Manoa extension service "Uni-Fly-Versity". Most likely melon fly is the insect attracted to your ipu gourds.

To allow the fruit to hang freely so it develops a desirable shape and escapes damage, Morby uses an arbor-like system using pig iron fencing held up with metal pipe frames typically used for gray tarp canopies. The vines grow along this simple grid structure, forming a leafy green "roof."

Morby explained that it was long thought the ancient Hawaiian method of ipu decoration was all but a lost art, known only on Ni'ihau. However, about 15 years ago Dr. Bruce Ka’imiloa Chrisman rediscovered the technique. Through experimentation he found that instead of using a dried gourd and embellishing it on the outside, the ancient Hawaiians used the fresh gourd and dyed it from the inside. That is, the artist first creates the design by removing the skin with a sharp knife, then cleans out the gourd and pours a plant-based dye into it. The dye seeps through the gourd and colors the outside, but doesn’t penetrate wherever the artist has scratched off the skin. So akamai, yeah?

The Hawaii Gourd Society will be hosting a workshop on Sunday, November 18, at the Honaunau Ipu Farm. The workshop is made possible by the Council of Native Hawaiian Advancement’s Huaka'i program. Read about it here.

Read more about ipu online:

Ipu in Hawaii’s History
How to Grow a Calabash