Sunday, January 27, 2008

Lawns Are a Pain in the Grass

Confession: I hate having a lawn. I hate mowing. It’s an activity that adds a lot to a carbon footprint. But where I live in rainy Hilo it’s easier and possibly greener to have a lawn than fight one. There are probably a dozen different types of grass around my place, including Kikuyu, Hilograss, Bermuda, and the rest of the usual stoloniferous species that always seem to creep up to the house, climb into shrubs and pop up in flowerbeds faster than mold on bread.

I’m not obssessed with my lawn. The previous owner of my house was definitely into American Green, however. The lawn was perfect when we moved in. Not a single weed in sight, it was an emerald carpet that could make a Mauna Kea Beach resort greenskeeper weep over its lush poetry. “Behold,” I announced to my family when we moved in, “you will never see this lawn look this way again.” When it comes to lawns, I keep my promises. I don’t water, use fertilizers or weed-and-feed, or anything like that. I just mow and whack. Sometimes the rain prevents that for a few weeks, too.

spp. is a nitrogen-fixer that can enrich poor soils. Depending on whom you talk to, it is loved or hated in the grassy landscape. My friend Debbie Ward in Kurtistown has an organic fruit orchard and she’s happy when she sees desmodium growing on her farm. However, the Swifts of Mother Goose Farms in Kona found desmodium to be a persistent weedy pest while they were starting to grow certified organic coffee. Luckily, they discovered geese love desmodium, and – bonus! — geese droppings make great fertilizer. The farm saves money on pesticides and fertilizers, plus grows sustainably.

However, my pal who lives in residential Hilo is old school. He won’t put up with desmodium and admits to bringing out his cache of chemicals. My cavalier attitude is too much for him. He warns me: “If you don’t get rid of desmodium right away, the lawn mower picks up the seeds and spreads it around to other areas of your yard.” Do I listen? Nah. I even leave the clippings on the lawn so that I’m returning 3 percent of the nitrogen back to the soil. At least that’s what they used to tell us in turf management class.

A manual push mower is a good idea if your lawn isn’t too big or sloping. An electric mower has fewer emissions, but ultimately it depends on petroleum power. And here on the Big Island, our lots are, well, big. As we move toward more sustainable practices, the latest technology for the 21st century is solar powered lawn mowers and tractors. Those seem like a smart options for sunny Hawai'i, although they aren’t widely available here just yet.

My current favorite music to mow by: The entire OK Computer album by Radiohead. Pleasantly droning metal sounds to drown out another layer of droning metal sounds. Although Radiohead's "Bodysnatchers" track from In Rainbows is also pretty good, too.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Hypertufa Pot Party

Sure you can do it alone. But it’s so much easier and more fun with the gang.

No, this isn’t brain surgery. The dust masks are just a good idea to prevent irritants from peat, perlite and portland cement from entering the lungs while mixing up some hypertufa to make custom pots. The Hawai'i Island Master Gardeners are an adventuresome bunch, and on this occasion they were up for some constructive mud rasslin’. There were small pots, generous bowls, a fernleaf-imprinted birdbath, and troughs of various sizes, including one of porcine proportions. The collection of handcrafted vessels that emerged from the hypertufa workshop I supposedly led were a sight to behold.

I say supposedly because these are experienced gardeners who are used to working with their hands and getting down and dirty, so I didn’t have to tell them much. Indeed, they made quick work of sifting/unclumping the peat and combining it with the aggregates.

And when they finished making their containers, cleanup was a breeze because everyone knew how to pitch in, shoot the mess down with water, and pack up all the tools and materials lickety-split. Then everyone handily helped each other load up their creations in their vehicles to transport home for the curing process. What teamwork!

If you’ve been thinking about making hypertufa but are hestitant to get started, I highly recommend that you gather some buddies together to do it. That way you at least have some help to prep and tidy up, plus you have companions to joke around with if, heaven forbid, you’re like me and sometimes your project starts to self-destruct because your creativity has pushed the limits of the process a bit too far.

Some more tips:

  • If you’re just starting your first project, choose a mold that’s easy to work with. For example, what works well is a small, shallow bowl, about 9 inches in diameter or less and with sloping sides. Smaller shapes are more forgiving.
  • Hypertufa has a tendency to “slump,” especially if it has a little too much water. In fact, I think the hardest part is figuring out the amount of water to add. Too much, and you’ve got a mix that lets gravity take over and the sides are too thick and the top (what becomes the bottom) is too thin. Not enough water in the mix makes it crumbly. It should hold its shape, but not ooze a lot of water nor dry out too quickly.
  • Cover the mold with a plastic bag to make it easier to remove after the first cure. A mold that has a ridge or lip can make removing it difficult.

I’ll be featuring some of the master gardeners’ pieces later on when they are finished curing. I’d love to hear your stories, if you’ve done these type of projects too. Just drop me a comment.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Coastal Native Plants for Xeriscaping

There aren't many words that begin with the letter X, so here's one to put into your secret arsenal of high-scorers for your next game of Scrabble: Xeriscaping.

The term probably scores bigger points with you if you're a gardener who wants to design a landscape that uses less water. Xeriscaping often includes natives that have adapted to such conditions. If you live near the shore, the plants you choose for your garden should be tough against hot, windy, dry conditions with salt spray. Hawaii’s coastal natives are perfectly suited to sandy and rocky beach areas and thrive with little fertilizer or water once established. Many are shallow-rooted and low to the ground, making them excellent ground covers and container plants.

Take a hike and compare leeward and windward shorelines to get a feel for how you can use coastal natives in your garden. It’s a good idea to go with someone who knows native plant identification; your local chapter of the Sierra Club and other hiking clubs also welcome non-members on most of their trips. Take photos of the plants you see, and then ID them. An excellent resource to ID native plants and learn how to use them in the landscape is Heidi Bornhorst’s book, Growing Native Hawaiian Plants: A How-to Guide for the Gardener (Bess Press, 2005).

One of my new year’s resolutions for 2008 was to hike to Mahana Beach, the famous green sands beach at Ka Lae, South Point, on Hawaii Island, so I tagged along with a group from the Moku Loa chapter of the Sierra Club. Along the windy, dusty, gritty trail to the beach we saw sprawling mats of orange-petaled ‘ilima papa (Sida fillax), and pa’u o hi’iaka (Jacquemontia ovalifolia subsp. sandwicensis), a tiny blue-blossomed beach morning glory. Also in great profusion were succulents like the creeping ‘akulikuli (Sesuvium portulacastrum) which up until 2007 was used in phytoremediation in the Ala Wai canal on Oahu, and that favorite H-1 freeway landscaping shrub, naupaka kahakai (Scaevola sericea).

It was exciting plant-geek stuff to see the endangered 'ohai (Sesbania tomentosa) growing naturally in its wild arid enviroment. No wonder the one I planted in my wet, rainy Hilo garden developed powdery mildew and simply croaked! (A gardener’s act of hubris, I’m afraid.)

In stark contrast to this stunningly beautiful place, we also experienced firsthand the ugly reality of marine debris on Hawaii’s shores. Although this area was recently cleared of several tons of marine debris, more was already accumulating – a disturbing reminder of the tremendous amount of plastics that pollute the North Pacific Gyre off the Hawaiian Islands.

Toward the end of our trip we had a serendipitous encounter with an endemic Hawaiian monk seal, an endangered mammal, contentedly basking in a rocky cove. Fewer than 1,400 of these seals exist. This one appeared to be somewhat young, judging by its silvery gray fur. I think all of us felt our heartbeats slow while we watched it dozing. Occasionally it would half-open its eyes to gaze at us, perhaps to acknowledge our blatant gawking. Then it would peacefully shut its eyes again and drift off into a pinnaped dreamland that most certainly did not include us.

Overall, Mahana Beach can be considered one entire rare and endangered site. Sparkling green olivine sand, yellow iron oxide deposits, and sheer lava cliffs carved smoothly and gracefully by centuries of wind and water are so striking they remain in memory long after the visit. However, visitors to Mahana Beach need to be mindful of how important it is to preserve its unique features. Remember, no matter how tempting, take nothing home with you – except photos, and all of your trash.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Permaculture at La'akea Gardens

What is permaculture? It’s a term Bill Mollison, founder of the Permaculture Institute in Australia, coined from the words permanent agriculture. In a nutshell, it means living off the land in a way that mimics natural ecosystems. Mollison’s website provides this definition:

Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way. Without permanent agriculture there is no possibility of a stable social order.

The La'akea Community in Puna, Hawai'i, is an intentional community based upon these ideas, and more. Read about their vision here.

I recently visited La'akea Gardens as part of an educational tour with the Hawai’i Island Master Gardeners. Tracy was our enthusiastic, upbeat host for this 2 and 1/2 hour foray into life in a Hawaiian forest of native and nonnative plants and immersed in experimentation with an off-grid, sustainable tropical lifestyle.

Tracy showed us many interesting plants and guided us through the landscape, pointing out the pavilion and meadow used for events, the solar panels used for electricity and hot water, the composting toilet we could use during our visit. Or, as she cheerfully and earnestly put it, instead we could make a “donation” and pee right in the banana trees to fertilize them, which, judging by the tiny fruit, could have used the help. No one took her up on that offer on this tour, however -- either no one had enough to drink at lunch or no one was brave enough to truly answer nature's call.


An unusual bell-shapped pepper…

...the betel vine that had leaves that tasted like pepperoni when chewed. (Sunnye checked it out for herself.)

....Patchouli. Of course…

A greenhouse…

...Shin and Carol sampling some starchy bananas

...Tracy demonstrating the bright coloring of the seeds of the Lipstick Plant or Achiote. Cheaper than the MAC counter at Macy’s, more fun, and 100% naturally staining. This is used as seasoning in Mexican, Puerto Rican and Filipino cuisine, especially in rice dishes. Here's a recipe.

...Composting. Note the free-range chicken – there are about 36 Bantam/Rhode Island Red mixes. At night they are contained in a wire pen where their manure is collected and saved for fertilizer, and they are safe from predatory mongoose.

Not all workers at La'akea are vegetarian, but all are "opportunistic localists." Some of them eat eggs, the occasional rooster, and fish from the ocean. La'akea keeps sheep to keep grasses mowed in the citrus grove, and once in a while mutton is served. Even the wayward wild pig that wanders on campus to feed is fair game for the La’akea community every now and then...

...An apiary (beehive) where La'akea collects honey under a grove of peach palms, which have a tasty edible nut. When they get too tall, the workers cut them down and eat the heart. A new tree can grow from the trunk....

...At the end of our tour, some of us sampled some mulberries.

While traditionalists might find La'akea a bit far-out and puzzling, progressive types might enjoy its “beginner’s mind” approach to solving problems. In this world there are preservationists and innovators, and sometimes these viewpoints clash. At other times some remarkable outcomes result when the two meet and mingle. Meanwhile, increased human population and activity continues to have an impact globally. How will the way we live evolve in the coming decades? La’akea means “light in the mist"; that aptly sums up the hope of this intentional community in their pursuit of understanding sustainability of Hawai’i.

Low-Tech Toys from Sugar Cane Days

“Back small kid time, we never had money for toys,” said Shin Matayoshi, retired biocontrol entomologist for the Hawaii state Department of Agriculture. “On the plantation, we made our own.”

Shin picked off a crisp green leaf from the sugar cane growing at La'akea Gardens, bending it in half at the midrib and peeling off a thin section of the blade. “Can’t be a brown one. Has to be stiff enough,” Shin said.

Then he cut the midrib so it would hang freely….

And got ready to launch…

A missile! Which you can’t really see in this photo. But trust me, it did sail over the roof of La'akea’s event pavilion more than 100 feet away. Wow! Kids don't know what they're missing these days. I'm going to have to have Shin show me that again so that I can prove to kids that fun in the outdoors beats being stuck in the house hour after hour with mind-numbing video games and internet anytime.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Kinoole Farmers Market Goodies

Luana Beck and her husband Tom are helping the Farm Bureau coordinate the Kinoole Farmers Market, held every Saturday from 7 am to noon. While it is still in its infancy, the market holds much promise as the only farmers market in town that features produce and goods actually produced locally. Not many people know this, but the popular downtown Hilo Farmers Market isn’t truly representative of produce grown locally. Many vendors there are selling produce they bought from Suisan – what they sell might be from the continental US, even China.

So, if you’re interested in supporting local growers and merchants and you want a unique experience, check out the Kinoole Farmers Market, located up the street from Puainako at the old Pay and Save building, where you’ll also find local favorite hangouts Hilo Rice Noodle and the Kawate Seed Shop, Though the market is small, on any given week the selection varies and you can be sure it all has been produced on the Big Island. The atmosphere is relaxed, there usually are some interesting demonstrations related to food, farming or home gardening, and if you stick around long enough you’re bound to run into one of your friends or neighbors.

Here’s a sampling of some interesting things I found on a recent trip.

Coqui Condos. Coqui frogs check in but they don’t check out. Tom Beck fashioned these clever and decorative coqui frog traps, a prettier version of the white pvc tubing traps described here.

Desert Rose Seedlings. A local nurseryman specializing in growing desert rose (Adenium obtusum) offered them in many brilliant colors. He even had affordable seedlings, which is something you don’t see that often. While it does take a while for it to grow that characteristic lumpy trunk, desert rose makes a easy-care, less-thirsty container plant to keep on the lanai. Here in Hilo it needs to stay out of the rain, though.

Umm, Undagi. Fresh picked from the undagi tree. Seriously, Okinawan doughnuts are usually something one has to wait for each year to get at the dragon boat races. But here they are available every Saturday, in their crunchy, chewy golden splendor with just that yummy touch of grease the doctor warned you about. Grab a cup of Kona coffee, and that’s your Big Island breakfast at the Kinoole Farmer’s Market.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Origins of Hawaiian Soil

What is soil? Basically it is made up of parent material--chemicals and minerals—and includes decomposing organic material and water. It’s easy to take it for granted. Dirt is dirt, and it’s everywhere, right?

Not exactly. Recently I was reminded of this fact on a hike I took with the Moku Loa chapter of the Sierra Club on the Mauna Iki trail at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. The trail led through flows of weathered pahoehoe and shallow pockets of volcanic mud. In this older flow, there were diverse native Hawaiian plants.

On that part of the trail we saw mostly pukiawe, 'ohi'a lehua, 'ulei, ko'oko’olau, and a'ali'i. I was amazed to see how well-adapted these plants are in this usually dry, rocky, harsh environment, and how they are able to grow tenaciously in the cracks and crannies where the tiniest amount of moisture could be found. These thriving pioneers reminded me that gardeners who want to xeriscape with less-thirsty plants would do well with these natives, with perhaps the exception of the 'ohi'a lehua. Once in awhile this area, which is part of Hilina Pali to the Ka'u Desert, also gets misty, which no doubt helps the survival of the few stunted 'ohi'a trees we saw along the way.

Further along the trail we crossed soft, black sand dunes to a newer flow where we were treated to a view of two very deep, scary pit craters, and a small jagged cinder cone, also very deep. These were so vertigo-inducing that a few members of our party refused to get any closer than 30 feet from the edge! The bright colors of the rock inside the pit craters were quite stunning, like a painted desert, indicating a different composition from the surrounding black pahoehoe. At the very bottom of the pits water collects, and assorted native ferns have been able to take hold. A few pioneer 'ohi'a trees flourish at the rims.

It’s amazing to think that all Hawaiian soils started out this way. While continental crusts consist of granite, schist, and gneiss, Hawai'i rests on oceanic crust, which is almost purely basalt. Unlike continents that have uniform climates over large areas, Hawai'i has microclimates that cause lava to weather differently from location to location. Also, since the archipelago drifts along on a hot spot, there are very young soils on Hawai'i and Maui, and very weathered soils on Kaua'i and 'O'ahu. This is why gardeners and farmers throughout Hawai'i have unique challenges – many different solutions have to be found for many variables when it comes to soil analysis and plant nutrition.

It’s a good idea to have your soil analyzed to determine what you can do to improve structure and nutrients. You might find that adding organic material, liming, and/or incorporating other amendments greatly improve the health of your garden. The UH CTAHR Cooperative extension service has a lab that can do a soil analysis for a fee; call your nearest office for directions on how to collect a sample from your yard. Or you can check online for other labs on the mainland.