Wednesday, October 27, 2010

At Your Convenience

Right outside my kitchen I keep herbs and greens handy. I have mizuna, bok choy and tatsoi in window boxes so I can drop them into hot ramen or add last to stir fries. There's container celery to flavor soups and salads, "Red Sails" lettuce for sandwiches and salads. Two kinds of mint: spearmint for mojitos and peppermint for, well, whatever. Of course, there's the ever-perservering aloe plant, loyally braving the Volcano cold so that I'll have it ready for those occasional burns when I'm a klutz around the Wedgewood stove, and for sunburn when the beach fries my brain and I bask too long in the sun. Sweet allysum and petunia are there on the deck...just because. Oregano -- Greek and stick -- rosemary, and Thai basil are also among my grab-and-go potted favorites.

Thursday, September 30, 2010


We've been having a terrible drought here. But tonight just before sunset we got a shower! My thirsty plants on the lanai, in the garden and the rainforest are so grateful. Ahhhh....

Friday, September 24, 2010

Forks for Felines

I admit I love critters of all sorts. Until they start biting me or messing up my food. And I have always adored the animals in my care, which happen to be kitties at the moment. However, my two cats, Kiko and Cosby, seemed to be overjoyed at the expanded garden. They concluded that it is actually a kitty outhouse, though I adamantly beg to differ. Hence the fork in the road. Or, I should say, in the garden.

I had some plastic forks to reuse, and it looks like they will make my point that my garden is not to be used as a litter box. I don't know if this is 100 percent effective yet. I don't think the kalij pheasants will mind them at all, unfortunately, but who knows, maybe they'll find the forks a bother and go into the neighbor's yard where it's easier to dine without them. I presume no one will interpret my crop of forks as an invitation to snack on my veggies, which are starting to look quite healthy and on their way to harvest. (By the way, that is lemon balm in the photo, not catnip. I'm not that mean. Usually.)

So, here's a Rethink and Reuse Tip: Instead of using throwaway plastic utensils, try carrying your own with you for when you dine out. Using your own special eating utensils can actually enhance your dining pleasure. Seriously. People will also either think you're a looney or will be envious. Or want to show off their own set. I have a wooden spoon and some chopsticks in a handy little case I keep in my purse or backpack. My coworker has a handsomely carved wooden spoon with a beaded handle from Africa that she's carried for 20 years. But on the odd occasion when I end up with a plastic fork in my possession, I'm saving it for the garden. No butts about it. So far.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Seedling Fairy Strikes Again

Yay! The seedling fairy left me some presents on the stairs! Poof! Like magic, I'm reappearing in my garden again.

My horticulturalist/educator friend loves to propagate, and I am the lucky recipient of her joy. This time it's nutrient-rich greens: mizuna, Swiss Chard, tatsoi, bok choy. Some for the garden, some for containers.

Seedlings make such simple, thoughtful gifts. My fairy seedmother is on a mission to make sure people in her community have plants that are acclimated to our growing area and free of the pests that could be introduced from buying plants areas outside of Volcano.

Back in the sixties, my Hawaiian seedling fairy was a homesteader in a remote area of Canada. There she grew food to feed a community of Vietnam war conscientious objectors. What she couldn't grow, she bought in town with what little money they all pooled together. Armed with an impressive Chinese cleaver and the resolve to stretch ingredients to fill everyone up, she whipped up comforting meals which no doubt would have made her hanai Chinese mom proud. It was a hard life, she remembers, but the memories are priceless.

Today I tracked down the seedling fairy at the farmers market and gave her some Seminole pumpkin seeds, which do better in a warmer, lower elevation. She has a garden at an elementary school down in Hilo where she teaches. Hopefully I'll get to visit it sometime around Halloween and see some more magic, maybe even see the Great Seminole Pumpkin arise this year.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Pele's Grounds

The thatch was thick and tough to spade. The black, sticky stuff beneath it was even harder to break up. Since it clung to the blade of the hoe, even the cultivator, in big heavy chunks, I figured it might be clay. So I headed down to my favorite garden supplier, who suggested amending with gypsum, which helps loosen clay soils, and mixing in a little black volcanic cinder for better drainage.

But I had a hunch that something else was also going on, so I rang up my favorite UH extension agent, whose family has farmed the Volcano area for generations.

Was that mud really clay? I asked.

"Organic matter," he replied. "You probably have about 6 inches of it."

Apparently, in the Volcano Village area, soil that hasn't been worked in while such as where I live has an impressive layer of organic matter built up over years, composed of composted rainforest leaf litter, ferns and other vegetation. This layer is usually rich in nutrients -- I was thrilled to see so many earthworms feasting on this rainforest "fudge." Farms in the area no longer have this layer; it has long since been broken down and used up through many planting seasons.

Under the organic layer typically is a lighter sandy and/or cindery layer, evidence of the previous volcanic activity from Kilauea volcano. The uncultivated areas of Volcano still have layers upon layers of cinder and ash intact, revealing each period of the thousands of years of volcanic activity in the area. In the Niaulani forest behind the Volcano Art Center, layers have been dated between 1400 to 1650. The undisturbed top layer of the Niaulani old-growth forest, which you walk through while on a very pleasant 1/2 mile trail, has been carbon dated to 200 to 300 years ago.

So. In my backyard I wasn't really dealing with clay per se, but primarily something akin to muck. How was I to break up that stubborn, moist sod? Would gypsum -- which I had already purchased -- help do the trick?

Well, it couldn't hurt, said the extension agent, adding that I should also throw some lime into the mix, since the layer of organic matter usually has a pH of 4 or 5. Acid rain and vog also makes growing conditions highly acidic, so liming the soil with dolomite would also help make the garden more alkaline and better for growing vegetables.

The gypsum wasn't that cheap -- $7 for 5 lbs -- and I had already purchased it, after traveling 30 miles into town to get it. But fortunately I was turning a small area, only 5 feet by 10 feet, and needed only 10 lbs (20-40 lbs per 100 square feet was the recommended application.) I sprinkled it on, came back a few hours later and voila, it did get a little easier to break up the clods. Not by much, but at least I was encouraged to continue the project.

Besides, it was a glorious, sunshiny day in Volcano -- an opportunity too rare to stay inside. While digging up the sweet 'aina I was basking in the splendor of native beauty: Listening to the gravelly call of the 'oma'o. Watching flashes of crimson as the 'apapane flitted through 'ohi'a. Sampling 'ohelo berries, and admiring the delicate half-blossoms of the naupaka kuahiwi.

At some point, work in a garden no longer seems like work, and by the end of the day there's a transformation, even in your own shadow.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Native Birds, Up Close and Personal

My kitchen window overlooks a deck, and right next to it I have an avocado tree that never bears fruit but sets flowers. This morning I happened to be out there on the deck, coming back to the house while holding the aerial roots of an 'ohi'a tree, something I collected to show a class.

Suddenly, three 'apapane swooped down and alighted upon the avocado tree. They were singing excitedly as they started thrusting their sharp ebony beaks into the avocado blossoms, sipping up sweet nectar. They were only 10 feet away from me! I stood very still and held 'ohi'a roots in front of my torso, thinking that maybe they'd consider me something forest-like and benign, that I was some sort of mutant 'ohi'a tree.

So I thought I'd experiment. I whistled back them, trying to imitate their song. And, oddly enough, they seemed to answer. They couldn't possibly be regarding me as friendly, I thought. Usually these birds are shy and keep their distance from humans, preferring the upper canopy of the forest. I decided to dismiss that romantic idea for the moment.

But then, just for kicks, later in the day, I thought I'd try to call them back. So I went outside with a long lens, picked up the 'ohi'a roots, and whistled the same call I'd heard earlier in the day. To my amazement, two 'apapane quickly reappeared and flew into the avocado tree, drawing near as though I had announced lunchtime! Then those two flew away, and to my astonishment three more immediately took their place.

Whether my clumsy bird imitations did the trick or no, for a few magical minutes I was treated to a rare close-up glimpse of how these brilliant crimson creatures move about and interact. Simply enchanting!

Yes, 'apapane feed on native and nonnative plants, but you don't see these birds at lower elevations due to several factors, including avian malaria. (Mosquitoes are rare at 3,500 feet elevation -- it's too cold.) I have to admit, though, that although these native birds will feed happily from many kinds of plants, more often than not they prefer to take up residence in native Hawaiian trees.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Native Birds in Your Backyard

Native Hawaiian Rainforest Birds in Backyard, Volcano, HI
'Apapane, 'Amakihi, 'Oma'o

How many native Hawaiian birds are in your backyard? If you live in a coastal area and have a big, grassy lawn, you might get an occasional visit from kolea, or golden plover. Kolea winter in Hawaii August through April, so now they are earnestly raiding urban lawns - don't worry, they aren't doing any damage, just fattening up on insects, getting reading for their return migration to Alaska. Kolea are highly territorial and usually return each year to the same place, so if you have one in your yard chances are you'll see it again next year. If you don't have a dog or cat, that is.

If you like to put out fancy bird feeders and fill them with commercial seed imported from North America, of course you will attract North American birds, plus other former pets/escapees that have done very well in Hawaii's balmy climate. In the most densely populated areas of Hawaii, it's now rare to get a glimpse of native birds in your backyard. Natural habitats have been so altered by humans that native Hawaiian birds, which are often highly specialized, can't survive.

But if you are lucky enough to live in an area where there are native birds, instead of putting out a bird feeder consider planting native bird food plants. 'Amakihi, for example, are generalists that feed on a variety of native plants, and there have been reports of 'amakihi populations reestablishing in the lower elevations of the Puna district on the Big Island. Many native birds like sipping from 'ohi'a lehua blossoms, and 'ohi'a is easy to grow in wet, humid locations.

Since I live in a rainforest, I rarely see marine birds in my area, though this past year I think I heard a shearwater's odd groaning call above my house. That bird uses moonlight to navigate at night and, sadly, most likely was it disoriented by the bright lights in the upland areas now inhabited by humans.

How many bird songs can you identify in your backyard? And how many are native?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Hawaii Backyard Conservation Booklet

An excellent reference for every homeowner, Hawaii Backyard Conservation is FREE and available for download here. It's chockful of fabulous ideas and suggestions for low impact, environmentally conscious, sustainable gardening.

Sponsored by City and County of Honolulu
Department of Environmental Services Storm Water Quality Branch, Hawaii State Department of Transportation Highways Division, Hawaii State Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Honolulu Board of Water Supply, and the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture & Human Resources
Dept. of Natural Resources and Environmental Management.

Read it and be inspired!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Flowering Cherry, Cool n' Mauka

Cherry blossoms fall,
Hulihuli smokes our hair,
Bees ignore our lunch.

How can you tell when spring is arriving in Hawai'i? If you're upcountry in Waimea where the temps are cooler than in most places around the state, you'll get a clue from the bare cherry trees that begin bursting into pink blossoms, contrasting with the bright green lawn in the center of the town's church row. This past weekend, Waimea staged its 16th annual Cherry Blossom Festival, celebrating the cultural heritage and contributions of its long-established Japanese community.

There were historical displays...

...which also included propagation advice from the old-timers...

... and bonsai - sugoi! I think this bougainvillea, trained by one of the skillful members of the Waimea Bonsai Club, aptly resembles a miniature flowering cherry. Stunning!

Of course, as is often the case with cultural events in Hawai'i, there were multicultural comestibles galore. From the Filipino roadside stand my 'ohana took away some generous plates of broke da mout' hulihuli chicken, which we munched on while sitting under the trees to do the obligatory cherry blossom viewing -- hanami, Hawaii-style. At one of the booths I was lucky enough to purchase a couple of gorgeous tea cups from Waimea's extraordinary potter, Fumi Bonk. One cup was fired with kiawe wood and ash, the other with 'ohi'a wood and ash -- a lovely celadon, wabi-sabi style, locally made from Hawaii's botanical heritage.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Wondrous Wing Beans

Last fall I received some wing beans (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus), and I became an instant convert. If they’re available, I’ll take wing beans any day over plain old green beans. These were from a bumper crop in the Hawai'i Island Master Gardener demonstration garden at the UH CTAHR Hilo extension service.

Slice up the pods French style, lengthwise, and stirfry lightly with garlic, soy sauce, chicken, shrimp, tofu, or whatever protein you like. Fry only until pods are still bright green and firm – don’t overcook. The result is light, crunchy, slightly sweet and very tasty. Wing beans are popular in Thai and Filipino dishes, and they’re highly nutritious, too. The roots, leaves and flowers are also edible, but I have to admit I like the beans best. I don't eat the other parts anyway because if I do, that reduces the bean harvest.

Be it resolved that this year I will grow even more of my food. I'll plant wing beans, since they're incredibly easy to grow – they’re perfect starter plants for beginner gardeners and children who need almost guaranteed success to stay motivated. The plants are vigorous growers and extremely prolific here in East Hawai'i, which is not surprising since the plant does best in warm, humid areas with high rainfall – it's native to Papua New Guinea.

The roots fix nitrogen, and the plant needs very little fertilizer to flourish. I’ve had very few problems with insects and diseases
. Soak seeds 24 hours before planting to soften the hard coat and hasten germination. Grow them in 3-4” pots to transplant when the second set of leaves appear, or directly seed into the ground. Wing beans need at least 12-hour days and seem to produce better in late summer and fall. Plant them in full sun in well-draining soil and provide something tall for vines to climb; wing beans will easily take over a fence or trellis.