What’s called an alligator strawberry in the South?

Hello, again! I gave myself a month off of weekly blogging. I read my last post to remind myself where I had left off. So, updates: 1) Our cacao seeds seem to have stagnated and we’re tossing them and will try again. Hubby thinks it was too much rain; I think it didn’t have regular enough water. (We could both be right). 2) All our kabocha seedlings planted outside the pig-protected courtyard are alive, some with powdery mildew (to be expected). We seem to be in a phase where pigs are going to and fro on a nightly basis, but their destruction isn’t as obvious. We did lose a longan seedling, but we don’t love longan anyway. Hint: longan is similar to the alligator strawberry.

Otherwise, same old rainy season story: weeds, weeds, weeds. We received 13.6 and 11.8 inches of rain in April and May, respectively. The stumped coffee trees recently had verticals selected. In other words, they no longer exhibit puffy lollipop green growth, but have been thinned to 3-5 verticals. Unfortunately, in the photo below from today (2nd of 3 photos), the weeds haven’t yet been managed (tomorrow, I’ve been told), so it is difficult to make out the more svelte greenery shape. That’s almost six weeks since last ground cover maintenance; things got delayed for various reasons. One learns to not get too worked up about many things involving time here on the Big Island. At a mom&pop store I’ve experienced a customer who had moved here from O’ahu who got all worked up about the inefficiency in the way the owner dealt with customers. He started making polite suggestions, which I agreed with, but I’ve learned to take a lot more in stride.

This month’s excitement, though, is lychee! I just learned today that lychee are called alligator strawberries in the South. Aunty says her lychee trees produced mature fruit two months earlier than previous years. Last year we had a dismal crop, and it was ready early July. This year we have plenty, and there’s even plenty that we can reach. AND we finally bought a telescopic pruner with the cut-and-hold feature. We used to have one that we used for many years, but we left it out in the coffee land one time and it got lost. I don’t think it will miraculously reappear like Hubby’s reading glasses did one year after apparently getting buried. We always looked at stores for a replacement extension pruner (critically, with the cut-and-hold feature), but no place ever had them. We recently got it at our local shop, Farm & Garden, and they said that every time they get them, they fly out of the shop.

Now I don’t have to run around and catch the falling fruit cut from our other inferior extension pruner. The new pruner can hold the cut branch and the fruit gets gently lowered. No fruit falling from high above and splitting and splatting.

Our first harvest was motivated by our friend who wanted to bring frozen lychee home to California. Yes, you’re allowed to, as long as the fruit is frozen solid when it goes through the agricultural check at the airport. The fruit defrosts nicely, too. I might slightly prefer almost-completely thawed fruit to fresh fruit. It’s like a frozen treat. It’s similar to how thawing frozen grapes sometimes satisfy better than fresh grapes.

Post-picking tasks are to trim the stem as close to the fruit as possible, or stems might puncture other fruit when they’re altogether. Sort any fruit with cracked skin into a separate box. We soak the fruit in a bucket with a little bit of dish detergent, rinse them, drain them in our largest colander, then lay them out in shallow boxes to dry. The cracked fruit get immediately peeled, de-seeded and eaten or frozen. The rest are good to eat, share with others, or freeze.

And you can’t really judge our fruit from its external appearance. With our tree, some of the fruit have large seeds and some have small. So a small fruit might actually have more flesh to eat than a big one. Hubby and I have different philosophies on freezing lychee. I like to freeze the whole fruit with the peel. He likes to peel and remove the seeds. My way takes up a lot more room in the freezer, but it’s easy to take out just a few to thaw. Hubby’s way is more space efficient, but you have to defrost the entire package, and then you just have days to eat a lot of defrosted lychee, which don’t have a nice shape. His way is a good way to deal with a lot of fruit whose skin crack during the harvest. We shouldn’t have that problem as much with our cut-and-hold pruner.

Photos below are from our friends, except the ones showing seeds:

I’ll close with a link for six summer coffee cocktails since summer solstice is this week. Note to those who recently deposited an empty bottle of Aperol in our recycling bin, there’s an Aperol coffee cocktail recipe. To me, the recipe and the photo of the cocktail don’t seem that appealing (other than the recipe being simple), but report back if you make it. If any of you have a good lychee cocktail recipe, please share. Happy summer!

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. Agroforestry.org 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.

Little updates from the farm

At the start of our rainy season, we almost received two inches in March. We had five inches of rain in February, supposedly the end of the dry season. An acquaintance in Pahoa on the east side of the island said they got 30 inches of rain in February. Last year we only had 50 inches of rain for the entire year (measured Oct 2021-Sept. 2022), and 70 inches the year prior.

The coffee on our fruit-bearing trees look pretty good. And the trees look pretty healthy despite not getting great rain in March. They have leaves. They have berries. They aren’t drooping from thirst.

UH (Uncle Harold, if you’re new to this blog) frequently tells us that he talks to his trees. For example, “Hi, little mangoes. Grow to be big mangoes.” His friends asked him if the trees talk back to him. Yes. “What do they say?” “I’m thirsty.” “Something’s biting me.”

Sunday, April 2, before 7am, we saw a big mama pig and her litter of seven piglets that we’ve been seeing lately. You realize you’ve had a break from pigs when all of a sudden they return. The photos are blurry since they were quickly taken with a phone from a distance.

On to the hard life of the red plumeria. We now have three pieces of the same red plumeria in three different locations. Maybe the pig attacks will be a good thing in the long run. Maybe many years from now we’ll eventually have three red plumeria trees.

In the photo on the left, taken today, is Take 1. It was broken by pigs in early 2021 at what’s now the base of the two branches. That broken off top branch was put in a pot, protected in the courtyard, and allowed to grow roots and was even developing flowers. Two years later it was planted outside the courtyard and Take 2 was quickly taken down by pigs. In the photo on the right, Take 2 is in the foreground, circled, a four inch stump, the bottom part of the branch, with roots in the ground. Take 2 could eventually grow to be like Take 1 now appears. Take 3 is what was broken off, has no roots, and was stuck in the ground and surrounded by the cage. This red plumeria tests the humans’ ability to maintain peace with the pigs. Like I mentioned before, this red plumeria isn’t even amazing. It just has sentimental value, and we want it to survive.

The seed pods from our mgambo tree that we planted in December 2020 have burst open, displaying their pretty red color and the grey velvety seeds. It was three feet tall in November 2021, and 7.5 feet tall one year later. We’re growing this tree for the novelty of the red seed pods and the seeds.

Lastly, our rollinia tree is doing well. We even have at least a dozen flowers. The tree is large and growing vigorously, but young, so we aren’t sure if fruit will develop or if they’ll develop to maturity. We’ve still never even tried the fruit, so planting it was a leap of faith. We’ve had cherimoya many times, and this is supposed to be similar, some say better. They are soft and very perishable. We’ve occasionally seen them for sale at various farmers markets, but some were small and brown, and others were large and cost about $30/pound. So, we still haven’t tasted them.

It has taken us two tries to get this rollinia rolling along, since the first tree got abused in the paranoia about Little Fire Ants. Hubby, unbeknownst to him, buried his reading glasses (needed to see teeny ants), which he found when he dug out the first rollinia five months later and planted the second rollinia in the same hole.

Now we’re on our way to becoming Master Gardeners! Ha ha! We have to “keep it real,” as they say. We are willing to learn, and there are so many opportunities to learn … mistakes, successes, experiments, observation, reading, studying, etc.

Doutor coffee farm, bananas, and the cat and the gecko

Last week we went to Doutor Mauka Meadows coffee farm again to show two visitors. They’re STILL closed, but you can do a tour by reservation. Because we’ve only visited them in COVID-times, I’m not sure how they really operate. It’s all a little mysterious to me since they cater to Japanese tourists. Many signs are only in Japanese.

I used official channels this time to make my reservation, and I didn’t know what to expect. Our friend of a friend opened the gate so we could park, then closed it, saying, “Oh, it’s you!” Then she opened the gate to walk into the property and closed that behind us. Then we made our unaccompanied way down the hill, at our own pace. If I were a first-time, English-speaking visitor, I don’t know what I’d think. There are a few signs to lead you down to the beautiful infinity pool, but the place begs for a guided tour. We were served coffee and could buy roasted coffee that had been roasted that morning, which we did. It just feels really strange when you have this whole place to yourselves, and two staff members waiting for you.

We were last there around this time last year. Again, we collected many varieties of citrus from the ground, and picked a few with the pickers they conveniently leave for visitors (I assume). I was envious of the rows of beautiful pineapple in the ground. I think pineapple, I think pigs. There was a large pig trap discreetly located on the side of the property, near the banana plant borderline.

As for our farm, it was pretty windy a week or two ago. We didn’t realize it at the time, but wind had blown at least ten banana stalks over. It’s such a tight grove, the other stalks still propped up the fallen ones. Some of those had bananas, so those had to be harvested a little early. Hubby had already harvested several ripe clusters, so we’re in one of those periods with lots of bananas. He hangs them in our unfinished lower level.

If they’re ripe, though, it can happen from one day to the next that all the bananas drop down, tearing their peel as they go. Those aren’t suitable to give away, so we have to dehydrate them ASAP. People ALWAYS say to make banana bread. Banana breads don’t use enough bananas to solve our problem. We don’t (yet) have an extra freezer, so we can’t just peel and freeze. I’m afraid of a chest freezer. It’s so easy to stick things in the freezer and forget about them. It has strong potential to be one more accumulation and clutter problem.

Lastly, the stumped coffee is coming back nicely. I usually take photos when they’re reached pom-pom stage (prior to vertical selection), but this is a photo earlier in the cycle. And, there’s a photo of our cat in one of our master gardener germination experiments. She had been playing with a gecko who had, of course, quickly employed tail autotomy (i.e., ditched its tail). TWICE she brought the tailless gecko over and dropped it into that box to bat it around inside there! What a weirdo. Why?!!

There’s no chocolate without cacao

Before getting to cacao, a few updates from our farm. The papaya tree (AKA, avocado or green bell pepper) is tall enough that six foot hubby now needs assistance. I bought the toilet plunger at Lowe’s. A stranger passed by me when I was in the plunger aisle and had it in my hand. He said, “I know what you’re going to do with that!” I answered, “Pick papayas?” I could almost see his head swivel a few 360’s in confusion. A few months ago we couldn’t even find this cheapo plunger. All the plungers were too fancy and designed for good toilet plunging.

This inexpensive rubber plunger, with a shallow cup and an edge around it, is better for picking papayas than other “real” fruit pickers we’ve found. The metal claw, kind of lacrosse stick shape, often pokes holes in the fruit, and might not even dislodge the papaya. With the plunger, you come up from under the fruit, and give it a little supported twisty action, and maybe you need to use that gentle rubber edge to help. Our family always seemed to have this type of cobbled together picker around.

Unfortunately, an update on the red plumeria is already needed. The pigs got to it last Friday. Argh!! We probably needed some stakes inside our pig protection. They knocked it over, and it broke the trunk. But the roots and a short stumpy piece are still in the ground. We just gave that ripped trunk a clean cut, and we’ll see if it does anything. It’s a bit low to the ground, though. And we’ll have to stick the longer branch in the ground. So, at this point, we now have three pieces of this red plumeria, pictured left to right below: (1) a Y-shaped piece from the first pig attack, (2) a stump with roots from the piece we potted and kept in the courtyard for over a year, and (3) the bigger trunk from (2). It’s just becoming its own special challenge — get this plumeria to grow into a tree!

OK! To the cacao. We visited a friend’s who’s a neighbor who has now planted about 400 cacao trees in the past year. I’m very interested because we have to be prepared for possibilities other than coffee. Our coffee is pretty old (80-ish years), and there are problems, as you know. I asked a lot of questions about the cacao and their farm, but I’m not sure I understood or recall all the details correctly, so just consider this a general story.

When they brought their lot about only four years ago, it was full of big trees. As for size, Hubby and I already remember differently, so let’s say the parcel is 5-8 acres or so. They took the trees down, used heavy equipment to make some big terrace levels, flattened out a big section for their house, some plantings, a barn, etc. They didn’t have coffee. They had someone consult them about agroforestry, edible landscaping and planting a diversity of plants and trees. So in addition to cacao they have bananas, avocados, citrus, breadfruit, etc., the usual suspects.

They bought their cacao seedlings from Sharkey’s on the Hilo side. The seedlings are in a blue grow sleeve to protect the young trees from beetles. Supposedly, once they’re big enough they can handle the beetles. They set up irrigation. They have cut monstera leaves around the base of trees. We forgot to ask them exactly why. We figured it was to keep the growth down near the base of the trees. When you mow or weed whack, you don’t get too close to trees and typically tufts of longer grass surround trunks.

They already know a business here on the west side of the island that offered to buy any of the cacao they have, so their sense is demand is high. They’re feeling optimistic about this endeavor. I wish them lots of luck, and I’m thankful to know someone in our area who’s trying it. I’ve seen some smaller scale, but more mature cacao in South Kona, but I don’t know those farmers.

A side note, my friend is a very talented artist. We had gone to their place to oooh and aaaah at her art studio and to look more carefully at the cacao. She’s trying to keep the art of wood block printing alive. She is so generous with her time, skills (beyond the visual arts), knowledge and sharing her art. She is very inspirational and I am so glad to know her. Check out her website and her Etsy store.

By the way, there’s a fairly new shop here in Kainaliu, next to the parking lot we use for our Master Gardeners class. It’s called [Kainaliu] Hale Cocoa, part of Puna Chocolate. They’re working on getting a little cafe established at the makai (ocean) side of the shop, too. They have some interesting posters on the glass windows at the storefront, sharing that cacao can only grow within about 20° north and south of the equator, etc. The trees only flourish under specific conditions, including fairly uniform temperatures, high humidity, abundant rain, nitrogen-rich soil, and protection from wind. It seems like the market for Hawai’i chocolate is growing. We’ll have to attend one of the conferences or classes that further educate farmers about the crop.