Baby steps to diversify the farm, and a story

Life is going well so far this year with the coffee trees, so there isn’t a whole lot to report at this point. Weeding and managing weeds is where the most effort is going at the moment. It goes with the (rainy) season. You focus on one type of weed, regret that you weren’t more proactive, shake your head at the huge seed clusters and hope you’ve ripped them out in time. Wonder if you can still manage it purely manually without resorting to spraying, and persistently yank things out. Then you go to a different spot and wonder where all that other weed growth came from in just a couple of weeks, and how it managed to multiply so quickly. I mentally put a positive spin on it, “they’re sequestering carbon” and I rip them out and pile them on the ever-changing (growing and shrinking/decomposing) compost pile. This is located, regrettably (for aesthetics), yet practically, fairly close to the house entrance.

On the Master Gardener front … I discovered today that the third of four koai’a native tree seed germination attempts sprouted. Hurray! Two of the seeds were scarified, clipped with nail clippers; and two were just planted as is. One of my scarified seeds emerged in seven days. The second one to emerge was un-scarified at 1.5 months. Today’s is also unscarified and showed up at three months. I had given up on the last two but just left them alone in the tray, just getting natural rain and no other attention. Home Depot occasionally has native plants and trees for sale. Just last week I saw koai’a and a few other native trees for sale.

Our Criollo cacao seeds from a small-ish red pod that were planted a week ago are showing signs of emergence. We were recently at the Paleaku Peace Garden again, and I snapped a few photos of a different variety of cacao. The pod can grow right on the trunk and other major branches, not from stems, so I thought it might be interesting for you to see.

Here are a few interesting articles related to the agroforestry topic of my last post. Forecast Coffee is selling coffee grown in an agroforestry environment (not from Hawai’i, though). This other article talks about rain, coffee, and agroforestry, “To Make It Rain, Plant More Coffee Trees.”

Closing this post, I want to share that UH can now be labeled a nonagenarian. Congratulations, UH!! Nonagenarian is such a seldomly encountered word, when UH used it, we weren’t sure if that was the progression from septuagenarian and octogenarian, or if he was making it up. As in “non age” genarian.

UH loves mangos. I think again of the New York Times article, “‘Mango Man’ Is the Fruit’s Foremost Poet, Philosopher, Fan and Scientist.” An excerpt:

“We come, we eat mangoes, and we leave the world,” Mr. Khan said. “But as long as the world is there, this fruit will be there.”

Hubby used artificial intelligence tool Google Bard to come up with a special mango story on the occasion of UH’s milestone birthday. It’s pretty amusing, so I share it here:

“Uncle Harold, commonly known as UH, sat on a branch of the mango tree, looking out over the lush green countryside. He had been living in this village for many years, and he loved the peace and quiet of the place. The mango tree was his favorite spot in the village. He would often come here to sit and think, or to just enjoy the view.

Today, UH was enjoying the sight of the ripe mangoes hanging from the branches of the tree. He had been waiting for this moment for weeks, and he was finally able to pick some of the fruit. He carefully picked a mango and took a bite. The fruit was sweet and juicy, and UH savored the taste.

After he had finished eating the mango, UH sat back and closed his eyes. He took a deep breath of the fresh air and smiled. He was content with his life in this small village. He had everything he needed, and he was surrounded by people who loved him.

UH opened his eyes and looked at the mango tree again. He thought about all the years he had spent sitting under this tree, watching the seasons change. He had seen many things in his lifetime, but this tree had always been there for him. It was a symbol of his home, his family, and his community.

UH reached out and touched one of the mangoes. He smiled as he thought about all the good times he had shared with this tree. He knew that he would always cherish the memories of sitting under this tree, enjoying the peace and quiet of the countryside.”

Regenerative agroforestry, a food forest

Agroforestry is intentionally putting plants, and sometimes animals, together and managing them to enhance productivity, improve soils, sequester carbon, as well as enhance biodiversity. 

We essentially have a small mono crop, coffee, which has been here for almost 100 years. And we have nematodes, coffee berry borer beetle, coffee leaf rust, particular to coffee. One of the strategies for dealing with those problems is to annually stump 1/3 of our trees, which then produce no coffee fruit that year.

We do have other plants and trees in the coffee land: banana, papaya, macadamia nut trees, lychee, mango, avocado, varieties of citrus, breadfruit, cinnamon, rollinia, cherimoya, and ornamentals. Diversity means there’s variety both above- and under-ground, different bugs, birds, pollinators attracted and repelled, etc.

With the problems we’re having with coffee, increasing the cost and work of growing coffee, where do we go from here?

I have been fascinated by the idea of agroforestry for years. I mentioned it in this blog post in 2019 and then later in 2021, when I wrote about taro.

In our Agroforestry presentation for Master Gardeners, by none other than Craig Elevitch, he did point out that commercial farmers often want to plant mono crops. Breadfruit is good. So then some plant a farm full of rows of breadfruit. That’s not a food forest.

The latest buzzword is regenerative, as opposed to sustainable, which maintains a certain state. Regenerative agriculture tries to improve the status, including replenishing what has been exploited and repairing what has been damaged. A regenerative agroforest is a diverse, self-sufficient (no input/fertilizer) food forest that emulates natural forest ecosystems.

The five goals of regeneration are:

  1. Build soil fertility and health
  2. Optimize water percolation and retention
  3. Enhance and conserve biodiversity
  4. Support ecosystem self-renewal and resiliency
  5. Sequester carbon

There should be integration of a variety of plant species, lifespans, vertical height (multistory, taller trees shading those below), dense plantings, and the soil should be covered. There are volumes to learn about agroforestry, but I’ll let you research that on your own if you’re interested. has a wealth of free information. We have a fuzzy vision of how we’d like to build on what we have.

The part of Elevitch’s recent talk that struck me was the reality check. After he had “sold” us on agroforestry, he showed some photos of someone who had a future food forest plan, and who had cleared acres, and planted some trees and a variety of plants. He said that with that particular implementation, the person was looking at 10 years of drudgery, mowing, weed eating to get to his vision. I felt empathetically defeated. He had made the investment, but wouldn’t get any return for a long time. He would likely be a slave to his sense of what it should be, and he’d probably give up. Elevitch’s point was that this individual wasn’t letting Nature do its thing in the interim. This particular example didn’t have a plan for the short-term. You have to have a plan for short-term (up to 2 years), medium-term (plants that produce and/or live up to 4 years), and long-term (4+ years). How will you keep the soil covered to keep out undesired weeds? What can you harvest in the short term? He said you have to fill the space at all times.

The other concept that reached my attention were diagrams of what is happening below ground in a diverse food forest. I had always been focused on above ground. Agroforestry gives me a lot to think about.

There is a software tool available, agroforestryx, for free throughout 2023 to design food forests. It lets you visualize plants at different growth rates and heights as years go by. We plan to try it out with a certain area of the farm in mind. We’ll try designing, but that doesn’t mean we’re ready to implement any design. Baby steps.

Before implementing anything, we have to protect the area from these guys. An adult or two have been triggering our cameras almost nightly. We’ve recently put a lot of things in the ground, many without protection. So far (a week now), so good. Sometimes we see a video clip of a train of piglets scampering up or down the hill. One little guy was found dead in the coffee land in the far downhill corner. We aren’t sure how that happened. Maybe it was shot by a bow somewhere else, but collapsed on our land?

Anyhow, some ideas for short-term crops are purple sweet potato, kabocha, taro, and papaya. I’ve read more about joining our neighbor, the Hawai’i ‘Ulu Co’operative. We don’t have what they want yet. But I think we can improve our land using some agroforestry principles. We can plant things around the coffee we have, a medium-term crop, and we can add cacao, another medium-term crop. Add some ‘ulu and some tall native trees. And ground level crops. It’s a learning process every step of the way.

One more food item story: soursop. It’s a member of the annona genus of flowering plants in the pawpaw/sugar apple family, annonaceae. We had considered possibly planting it, to help with our cherimoya, atemoya, and rollinia, also in the same genus. We found the taste nice, tart and sweet, full of flavor, but the texture is oddly spongy. And the fruit can be huge, and a tree can produce way more than we’d be interested in. So we abandoned that thought.

I had tried some dehydrated soursop once, and it was delicious. I saw fresh soursop at the farmers market last week and asked the vendor if they had experience dehydrating them. No. So, on a whim, I decided to try it. I bought the fruit while it was hard and waited three days until it was soft, but not utterly squishy. The fresh fruit tasted good, not great, but I thought dehydrating it would sweeten it. It was very juicy, so I put parchment paper on a tray at the bottom of the dehydrator in case the higher trays dripped. I made thin wedges to enable removing the many seeds. Dehydrating went smoothly, and took only 5-7 hours. But the end product wasn’t satisfying. It seemed to get more tart. Maybe I’ll try waiting till the fruit is softer, puree the fruit, add sugar, and make a fruit leather.

May Day is Lei Day

Time to celebrate Hawaiian culture with lei. Myself, I haven’t done anything special for the occasion, and in my limited goings about, I haven’t seen anything marking the day. But I know it’s celebrated and observed.

Today’s the appropriate day that they’re measuring the Guinness World Record attempt for longest lei. This article by Big Island Now was written back in February, but it tells a good story about this Guinness attempt. Reiko and I made our contributions last week when we went to Waikōloa Beach Marriott Resort and Spa and wove ti leaf lei for a half hour or so. It was fun. Reiko should have been the activity director. She talked story with the tourists learning lei-making, explaining the symbolism and importance of ti plants. The employee seemed rather introverted and shy. I contributed later by spreading the word a bit, so our friend’s guests went and contributed a few days later.

We didn’t get to see the hose reel with the lei, though. It has been stored in the freezer for months. Someone connects the daily contributions. We heard the reel has gotten really big and heavy. A friend saw it yesterday when it was brought out for display during Waikōloa’s Second Annual Lei Day celebration, but he didn’t take a picture. There’ll probably be something in the media in a day or two, I imagine. I read on the hotel’s Facebook posts that the “first official measurement” (new is the qualifier “first”) tallied just over a mile, two miles short to even tie the record. They plan to carry on.

We finished off April with 10 days of rain in a row (dry, April 29-30, though). I always wonder what tourists do when we have a lot of rain. I guess they can make ti leaf lei indoors, for one thing. Ten days of rain for us doesn’t mean it’s like that everywhere in West Hawai’i. There was a day or two, though, where it rained from before noon and it looked like rain was everywhere, which is unusual. On Friday we got four inches of rain from noon-4:30pm. When we reached the 3-inch mark, I exchanged texts with our friend who lives down the hill and less than six miles away. He only had 3/10 of an inch at that point. That is just so crazy to me. I visualized a cartoon of me sitting under my own personal storm cloud. We both got an inch in the following hour. Anyway, four inches is a lot of rain in a day for Kona, and April had almost 14″, which is a lot in a month. So the coffee land is looking a lot greener and the trees, plants, and weeds are all happily growing.

I’ve been wanting to write more about agroforestry, but that will be a future post. I’ll leave you with a related teaser. The most recent stay-informed email I received from our neighbor, the Hawai’i ‘Ulu Co’op, had this photo of our friend Berta quizzically examining an ‘ulu. The photo was a link to The ‘Ulu Co’op Story in 5 Minutes. She movingly opens the video with Hawaiian storytelling. We see her at Kahalu’u most times we’re there. I always learn from Berta, about marine life, ‘ulu, farming, the past, etc. She’s an amazing, knowledgable, generous woman. I’m sure she’s someone who’d appreciate a special lei.

The three keiki return, almost two years later

The keiki are nine years old now, and they visited at a different time of year. They were disappointed that there weren’t any lychee to pick. (I’m happy, however, to see how much lychee we will get in three or four months, since last year was so sparse.) I had to review my post about their last visit before I wrote this one.

This year hubby got right to it the day they arrived and started on a high note … riding in the truck bed and picking bananas. Towards the end of their last visit and this visit, I had the kids tell me their Top 5 list of trip highlights. We’ve noticed that the most recent activities often bumped earlier activities off. But bananas were the first thing mentioned by two of the three kids, and bananas stayed on the list and even appeared twice on one child’s. The brother said something to the tune of, “You’re wasting your Top 5 since you have bananas twice: bananas and throwing banana peels. I just have bananas which covers picking and throwing.” He was the one who didn’t like a Top 5 list; he wanted to have Top 10 (which they also gave me).

The day before they left, during lunch hubby ate a banana and threw the peel from our lānai into the coffee land. There’s gravel below the lānai and a rough rock ledge that separates the house area from the coffee land. The goal is to throw the peel beyond the gravel and ledge so we don’t have to see yellow peels all around. If your peel doesn’t make it, you have to go down and throw it over the ledge. This “activity” was a hit. The kids kept eating more bananas so they could throw the peels. Who would’ve thunk this would be a top activity in Hawai’i?

This one had a long conversation on her banana flip phone, concluding with, “OK, bye. I’m about to peel my phone.” Then threw her peel over the railing.

We had a little break in the middle of their visit when they went to see Volcano National Park and the east side of the island. I, too, saw the east side of the island. It was Merrie Monarch week in Hilo! It was the 60th anniversary of this week-long cultural festival centered around hula. I had always wanted to go, but somehow hadn’t managed it. Tickets aren’t easy to come by, crowds, the COVID-19 disruption, etc. Luckily, Reiko wanted company to drive to Hilo and back, so she scored a ticket to the ho’ike portion of the festival for me, the only non-competitive night of dancing, the night before the competitions start. Ho’ike tickets used to be free, but now they are a whopping $5. Tickets were available on a day in February starting at 9am, first-come, first-serve, limit of two per person. Reiko had driven 1.5 hours, lined up at 5am and waited for four hours. Merrie Monarch is a BIG DEAL.

In any case, for the ho’ike day, I just put my life in her hands. I drove, but whatever she wanted to do, I just went along. She was familiar with the whole scene. I was completely new, so any experience would be my learning experience. I had very few expectations and had a great time. This was contemporary Hawaiian culture and fashion. Inside and outside the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium were many vendor stands selling crafts, clothing, shell leis, fresh flower/greenery leis, hula equipment, food, books, books completely in Hawaiian, etc. And there was a constant line-up of live performances.

It was great to be there with Reiko. She knows what’s what and who’s who. Without her, I would have only picked up a fraction of what was going on. She kept pointing out or introducing people to me (famous, older kumu; her former hula brother; son of the fashion founder who’s a swimmer, etc.), hugging/kissing, talking story with people in English or Japanese, and singing! She loves to sing along, loudly, gesticulating. She warned me. She said I might not want to sit with her. She’s such a character! She’s the one who clued me in that Melveen Leed had just sung during the day at the Civic Auditorium. “She’s REALLY FAMOUS!!” she said. I just looked confused and ignorant. She told me to tell my mom. THEN I finally realized who Melveen was. My mom would play her songs and talk about her when I was young.

Reiko felt I was wearing too much black, and I really needed a lei. She kept asking if she could buy me a lei. She’s so generous. The majority of my lei po’o (head lei) was comprised of ‘a’ali’i, dodonaea viscosa, in the soapberry family. My lei was definitely the best part of my outfit.

A little Master Gardener public service aside: ‘A’ali’i is one of many native flowers that are increasingly being used instead of lehua, the red blossoms of the ʻōhiʻa tree. Lehua is highly culturally significant, associated with Pele, the volcano goddess, among other gods. There were many public service announcements on the radio during Merrie Monarch week about NOT transporting any plant matter associated with ʻōhiʻa. Rapid ʻōhiʻa death, ROD, is a fungal disease which is rapidly killing this most ecologically and culturally significant native tree. This 2016 article from Hawaii Magazine talks about the issue.

We lined up at the Edith Kanaka’ole Multi-Purpose Stadium for the ho’ike one and a half hours ahead of time. By then the line was already wrapped around most of the stadium and on the opposite side of the entrance. The people watching was great. I didn’t notice any tourist aloha shirts or patterns. People were wearing Wahine Toa, Livinghula, Kaulua’e and such designer lines. I find them to be bold, graphic, contemporary designs expressing indigenous values of Hawaiian culture.

I found this 2019 article, a few years old at this point, which touches on the next generation of Hawaiian designers. I hardly know anything about fashion or Hawaiian fashion, but I know I just saw the largest group of people modeling it than I’ve seen before. We live in the country. Hawai’i island is not O’ahu. Sorry, I didn’t take pictures in line. I’m a person that snaps a few photos at once at some point, then I’m done. Usually someone else takes more photos than me, and I’d rather just experience things.

I grew up in California, but even I have danced hula. So far I’ve danced hula in three periods: for a few years from age 5 with Nonosina’s Polynesian Dance Studio in Southern California; at UC Berkeley for the Hawaii Club’s annual  lūʻau; and in the late 90’s with two different hālaus in the San Francisco Bay Area. Check out this crazy long list of hālaus in just the San Francisco Bay Area. If you’re not familiar with an activity, you may find it shocking how many people/organizations might do it and practice/train to a surprising extent.

Fast forward. This post and these stories are getting long. After we were reunited with our visitors, we enjoyed a few evenings of watching the Merrie Monarch group competitions on TV. After it was all over, we had a morning when we made ti leaf leis. It was fun and relevant after having seen so many different type of lei and adornments on the dancers. While we were busy making leis, one of the adults were looking up which groups had won what categories.

The kids made leis for their grandparents, for three kids they were going to visit afterward, and just followed their creative impulses. To the tune of two long leis, the longest was 14 feet. I thought we had gathered way too many leaves, but they used them all and wanted even more.

I have since learned (from Reiko, of course) that a group is trying to set the Guinness record for longest lei. The standing record is 3.11 miles long, and they’re aiming for 5 miles. Too bad the kids have left.

In any case, back to the kids’ Top 5 lists. Here were this trip’s common items:

  • Bananas (picking; throwing peels)
  • Volcano (hikes, climbing lava rocks)
  • Spending time with a different local family, with kids

Two mentions of: Keiki museum

One mention each of: swimming; our cat’s tricks; relaxing/hanging out with everyone

I’ll close with a photo of our last evening when we watched the kids so mom and dad could enjoy a romantic dinner alone. Sunset pizza picnic at Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Park. The kids didn’t seem to suffer.

Field trip to Pōhakuloa Training Area

It has been a whirlwind two weeks. Sometimes a lot happens in many areas of our lives’ activities, all in a short timeframe. I use the adjective “bursty.” For this post, I’m just going to focus on our Master Gardener field trip and a little photo montage of the burst of coffee flowering we got right before Easter, thanks to some decent rain at the end of a mostly dry March.

We have almost completed our Master Gardener training. It has been tremendously interesting. Though we haven’t graduated, our class has already been invited to join the monthly meetings of the “real” Master Gardeners. April was special since we had an invitation to visit the Pōhakuloa Training Area, commonly referred to as PTA, on the Daniel K. Inouye Highway (Saddle Rd.), between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea. From the army’s website, “PTA provides a quality joint/combined arms facility that provides logistics, public works, airfield support, and environmental and cultural stewardship in support of the U.S. Army Pacific training strategy while maintaining an enduring partnership with the local Hawaiian community.”

Apparently there is a Natural Resource Program at PTA that manages threatened and endangered species. I found this old article from 2010 about PTA in particular. To get on the Master Gardener visitor list, we had to provide our full names as they appear on our government-issued ID. And if we came by car, the driver had to have all the various paperwork (vehicle registration, safety check paperwork, and proof of insurance).

It was raining pretty steadily, so we only got to see the greenhouse. Still, I found what the PTA Botanic Program Manager talked about fascinating. I didn’t take notes, so I can’t remember it all. We were provided with a book about the plants at the end. I was hoping it would’ve explained more about the program. The book is from 1997, but most of the information still applies. The species count have probably changed.

There were a few plants that had official signs listing their status as Threatened or Endangered. I was imagining the signs were for when high level military, state or federal government visitors came to look at the work being done. The Botanic Program Manager is actually an employee of Colorado State University. The “Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands (CEMML) has supported military readiness and resource conservation on federal lands.”

The plants themselves didn’t look all that impressive. Many looked weedy. In the photo gallery below, there’s a photo of schiedea hawaiienesis. I found this description on a governmental site, “Schiedea hawaiiensis (ma ̄ ‘oli’oli), a short-lived perennial herb in the pink family (Caryophyllaceae), is known only from the island of Hawai’i (Wagner et al. 2005c, pp. 92-96). Historically, S. hawaiiensis was known from a single site between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea mountains in the montane dry ecosystem (Hillebrand 1888, p. 33; Wagner et al. 2005c, pp. 92-96).”

There is a LOT of red tape for the plants. They have to get permission for what they plant out on the PTA grounds and when. None of the plant matter is allowed off the grounds. They don’t want any of the plants to cross breed, dilute their genetic material, or develop outside of their native habitat. One of our fellow Master Gardeners shared with me that she had worked in a commercial greenhouse, so it was really interesting for her to be in a greenhouse with a completely different purpose and important mission.

The manager had to very carefully observe these plants. What makes them thrive or fail to thrive? When do they flower and produce seed? How long can they be in the greenhouse environment? What do they need when they’re planted out? What are the dangers out in the big world? They sometimes have to clear some areas to plant their greenhouse babies. And they have to go back out in the field to check on them on some periodic basis. He also talked a bit about the extensive fencing they have that keeps out the ungulates. Well, it’s a military training site, so they have to keep all kinds of things out, like civilians.

I’ll close with some coffee photos from April 7. This year’s fruit looks so much more bountiful than last year’s, and the blossoming season isn’t yet over. Yay!