Sunday, October 28, 2007

Hit Me with Some Psyllid-Free Brix

Cooler weather means those oranges on your tree are building up Brix.

"What, da kine Legos?" you ask.

Actually, it's a fancy term for the measurement of sugar content in fruit. The higher the Brix, the sweeter the fruit. Brix is a big deal for orange juice farmers, who have to grade their products using Brix measurements. Got juice? If you're lucky enough to have an orange tree in your backyard, right about now you're probably getting some pretty good Brix thrown at your tastebuds.

However, there is something new to Hawai'i that could possibly affect our sweet local oranges. Last year the Hawai'i Department of Agriculture found a new alien insect, the Asian Citrus Psyllid, Diaphornia citri Kuwayama. The insect feeds on the young leaves and stems of citrus, resulting stunting and twisting of the shoots and severe curling of the leaves.

In addition, the Asian Citrus Psyllid has been known to infect citrus with something nasty called citrus greening disease, CGD. Citrus greening disease has wiped out citrus groves in Asia, Africa and Brazil. Citrus with CGD develops mottling and yellowing of leaves and deformed, green, bitter-tasting fruit. Goodbye to Brix, and worse, there is no known cure for this disease -- infected trees have to be destroyed. Uck. The good news is that citrus greening disease hasn't been found in Hawaii yet.

And so far, the Asian Citrus Psyllid has been discovered only in East Hawaii Island and Maui. They're small brown insects that tend to like mock orange but go for other citrus too.

Read more about the Asian Citrus Psyllid here.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Chillin’ Out and Learning with Plants

The changing of the seasons is subtle in Hawai’i, but the cooler days are here. The nip in the morning air reminds me of when I worked as a garden teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. That was when I first had the good fortune to experience the power of plants to bring joy and discovery into challenging educational environments. It’s a time I’ll never forget.

The school I worked at was next to a city housing project. Most of the students lived in high poverty households. There were African American families, recent immigrants from from Spanish-speaking countries, and refugees from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Southeast Asia. The school comprised many religions; students and teachers made up a diverse community of Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, Jewish and various Christian faiths. Out of respect for all traditions, we did not have any activities related to any religious holidays. There were no Christmas cookies, no Easter or Halloween candies, no making of God’s Eyes, mandalas or menorahs. Instead we chose to observe the passing of the seasons in the school garden.

In the fall, the school had a harvest faire. Students saved seeds from hollyhocks that grew tall as the roof and dried out over the summer. First graders designed their own seed envelopes, drawing pictures of hollyhocks on them, writing descriptions of the plant and the contents of the envelope. As they wrestled with tape and scissors to complete the project, they got to practice their fine motor skills. We made up silly songs about hollyhocks, gophers that were munching everything in sight, and what we’d plant later that year.

And the magic that happened at the beginning of the school year was something I saw again and again throughout the year, and in every school garden I’ve been lucky enough to be in since, in the mainland and back home in Hawai’i. The magic is this: Students who can barely focus in a classroom can be fully engaged in learning, on task, optimistic and happy to be at school when they’re working in a garden.

It happens outdoors while digging up onions and earthworms, or when planting huli while ankle-deep in the mud of a lo’i. Young or old, the connection we have with plants restores our very core. Children have the advantage of being closer to the source. I hope you get a chance to chill out in a garden sometime soon.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Cool! Let's Plant Bell Peppers

If you live makai and you already started your bell peppers, you can look forward to harvesting in winter and early spring. There’s still time to take advantage of the cooler weather that promotes better fruiting. Bell peppers don’t always set fruit when temps rise above 90˚ F. If you live up mauka, however, you might need to wait until spring/early summer for ideal growing conditions in your area.

Buy transplants from a nursery, or start bells from seed and transplant them into well-draining, fertile planting media at about 6-8 weeks old. Water daily. Wait about a week after transplanting and then apply weekly a liquid fertilizer—I like fish emulsion/kelp extract. Keep the planting area free from weeds because they tend to attract insects that pass on mosaic disease to peppers. Be on the lookout for aphids, white flies, mites, thrips, leaf miners and pepper weevils.

Insecticidal soap, homemade or store-bought, is effective on soft-bodied insects. Also, try aluminum foil mulch to suppress weeds and repel aphids. The foil reflects light up onto the underside of leaves where aphids like to hang out, and that bums them out. If you have only a few plants you can use heavy duty aluminum foil to cover area around the base of plants, but if you can find it aluminum foil coated paper is usually less expensive if you need a lot. See an example here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Little Fire Ant NIMBY

So, suddenly I had a burst of inspiration to repot all the plants that have been begging for attention for months. It felt good to bust out those cramped roots from their too-tiny shoes. I was building some momentum, as a matter of fact, until I got to a variegated peperomia in a 6-inch plastic pot-- when I pulled it out, inside the pot was a small nest of tiny, slow-moving ants. I carefully placed the plant back into the pot. Glumly I resigned myself to the idea of having to take up some anti-ant artillery. I was sure they were little fire ants.

I sealed the potted plant in a plastic bag and took it to the Hawaii State Department of Agriculture on Lanikaula Street in Hilo. Patrick Conant, biocontrol entomologist, stepped outside with me to open the bag so as not to spread the ants inside the facility, and he brought out his official vial of alcohol and paintbrush to have an official look-see. Fortunately, when the plant was pulled out of the pot this time the ants were running around like ten thousand maniacs -- unlike little fire ants. They were too fast, too little, too yellow, too different, Pat said. Whew. They were tiny yellow house ants, Tapinoma melanocephalum, the smallest ants we have in Hawaii. Pretty common, nothing to get too excited about.

Pat shared some of his mana'o about the little fire ant. They're spreading fast on the Big Island. If you get them, treat the area right away and stay on top of it (ooo! figuratively!) or your neighbors will get them too. (IMPORTANT: DON'T spray or apply anything because then they'll scatter. Call the Dept. of Ag. asap.) The ants don't live only on the ground -- they can go up into trees too, and once they do that they won't come down to eat the bait you put down on the ground. Bad news for pets and birds: little fire ants will attack them and make them go blind and eventually kill them. The coqui problem by comparison seems a mere trifle, solvable by getting accustomed to the noise or using earplugs. However, the little fire ant situation is going to be no picnic for us if it continues to grow, to say the least.

Where can you get info on ID and what is being done to control the little fire ant and other plant pests in Hawaii? The state Department of Agriculture has a Plant Pest Control web page with Pest Advisories/Reports you can download here.

Wake up, my little compost pile

The rain and warmth has brought me a bumper crop of weeds, which I've been harvesting to add to both of my sleeping, cold compost piles. It's time for me to wake them up with a good tossing and turning, I think, because they're starting to grow papayas, 'uala (sweet potatoes), Malabar spinach and tomatoes. I think it's crazy that I actually need to tear all of these out to restart the pile -- there's no extra room for everything in this corner, and yet they're doing so great, naturally. Also, this is the corner of my yard that adjoins my neighbor's coqui condo aka banana patch as ground cover, so I need to cook down these piles before they become a refuge for froggies. Later I'll use the composted material to start a raised bed for more veggies. I'm feeling ambitious today.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Flowering Ti Plant

Isn’t this a pretty ti plant? This one is called ‘Kauai Rose.’ I think I bought it last year from forestry students at a Forest Team fundraiser at Hawaii Community College. People usually treasure ti plants, Cordyline fruticosa, for their colorful and varied foliage, but I love seeing them in bloom. Usually ti plants flower in the spring. However, this one in a terracotta pot on my lanai is blossoming right now in October. The flowers bloom along a branching stem (called a panicle) about a foot long. This variety has delicate pink flowers, but others can have white, lavender or yellow ones.

Ti plants need good drainage and do better with ample water. A balanced fertilizer (1:1:1 ratio) is better for plants in the ground. If you plant it in a container, a slow-release fertilizer higher in nitrogen is best (that’s the first number in the guaranteed analysis on the packaging.)

In container plantings, ti plants work well as the tallest elements in an arrangement. It looks great with a companion of creeping ground cover that will spill over the sides, such as a’e a’e. Or simply cover the potting mix with with a layer of red or black cinder, or smooth, flat river pohaku (stones) -- it not only looks lovely but it helps hold in moisture, too.

UH CTAHR has two excellent free publications, Hawaiian Ti and Ti Plants for Hawaii Landscapes, that you can download here.

Last book signing, Borders Kona, Oct. 7

This is the last book signing for a while. Some people I've met along the route have asked for a talk and/or demo, and if there is enough interest, I'll arrange for one probably at a garden shop or nursery -- bookstores don't really like potting mix and cinder tossed around in their shelves. Leave me a comment if you're interested.

In the meantime, be sure to visit the new Kino'ole Street farmers market on Saturday mornings. The Hawai'i Island Master Gardeners are there to provide info and help you find the answers to your questions. Also, remember that you can call the master gardener volunteers at the Kona Outdoor Circle, on Mondays, 3:30-6:30 pm, 329-7286; in the Hilo Extension office on Tuesdays and Fridays from 9 am to noon, 981-5199; or in the Kona Extension office at on Thursdays from 9 am to noon, 322-4892. I'll list phone numbers for extension offices on the other islands later on my blog; they're also in the resource section at the back of my book.

Saturday, October 6, 2007


Here on the east side of the Big Island, ferns grow in abundance. Some are native, some not.

An indigenous fern that is easy to grow is kupukupu, sword fern, Nephrolepis cordifolia. Kupukupu fronds are more uniform and don't taper as much as non-native species. In our rainy, humid weather they make an excellent ground cover around native hibiscus plantings and hapu'u. They're easy to pull up and transfer to other areas of your yard.

One way to identify it is to see whether the roots have small tubers present. If you have a patch of what might be kupukupu you can pull up a few plants to see if any have tubers on them. You can replant the tubers to make more plants.

I don't spray my yard with herbicides. Everything not welcome to stay gets pulled out by hand or in some cases burned with a propane flamer. So pretty much any plant is welcome to visit and put down roots. But I decide when it's time for them to leave.

This has allowed kupukupu to appear in my yard where it wasn't for a year and a half on the entire property. The previous owner kept this area filled in with blue rock and regularly sprayed it, he being of the neatnik persuasion. Since this area of my yard seems to foster the kupukupu, I use it as a kupukupu nursery. Little by little I'll take plants from here to fill in bare areas in the back of my house, using cinder as a cover to supress weeds until the ferns grow and fill in all of the areas.

Kupukupu is tough, and drought tolerant, so it's a good filler in container plantings, too.

Friday, October 5, 2007

'Uki 'uki

My garden was previously landscaped in a typical Hilo Japanese style, but slowly I've been substituting native plants for the usual exotics. Though I like walking iris, I wanted to transition to something native and replaced it with native 'uki'uki, and it is doing extremely well. This planting is only 3 years old and doing extremely well in a partially shaded location next to a rock wall. It produces copious berries which I've shared with a student learning to make kapa -- 'uki'uki berries produce a blue dye which has been used traditionally. I've seen a beautiful piece of mamaki kapa with patterns in grey-blue 'uki'uki dye at the Honolulu Academy of Arts.

'Uki'uki, Dianella sandwicensis, is in the Lily family. It's easy to grow and virtually pest free as a grouping under trees. It also makes a great container plant. Try it in a hypertufa one you make yourself.