Kauai Trip Post #2 – 4-1-13 – Gardening on the Garden Island

It’s been three weeks since I arrived on Kauai. My biochar project has been slow to get off the ground. The biochar kiln on the South Shore has needed further tweaking to get it to run at the correct temperature, which is around 500 degrees F. The higher the temperature, the more surface area is made available on the char – which holds onto nutrients and creates the so-called “condominiums” for soil bacteria and mycorhyzzal fungi. But at higher temperatures (700 or 1000 degrees F.), the bio-oil condensates are driven off, and it is believed that these are more desirable for soil bacteria. So hopefully the biochar kiln will be cranking out the good stuff by next week for me to sell at the Farmers’ Markets around Kauai as I’ve planned.

I’ve also had to jump through many hoops to get my legal paperwork to register my business in Hawaii and in order to sell at the Farmers’ Markets. My business name “Bios Design” was too similar to a company registered in Hawaii already as “Bio Designs” (a prosthetic manufacturer). So I resubmitted my application under the name Bios Permaculture Design. The County Farmers’ Market administrator was negative when I talked with him on the phone about accepting biochar as a “value-added” farm product, even though it is a product made from harvested agroforestry timber. But when I went in to the Kauai Made office that evaluates value-added products – mostly to make sure it’s not jam bought from Costco and re-packed for the Farmers’ Markets – the woman became quite inspired from talking with me about biochar. She introduced me to the County Farmers’ Market person, who also became supportive of me after we talked. The Kauai Made administrator asked me to bring her a bag of biochar next time I go to her office.

Getting accepted into the Farmers’ Markets has been another hurdle to get through. The biggest markets are the County’s Sunshine Markets, and the ones that are most desirable are of course the ones with the least vendor openings. There are also private markets which aren’t as well attended, which are glad to accept me. So I turned on the charm, and went in-person to talk with all the Market Coordinators. Several became interested in getting some biochar from me to try out, after talking with me. I’ve been given permission to sell at two of the best County Markets on a “space-available” basis.

I set up my living arrangement at Ahupuaa Village (the name of the community apartment complex) to work 48 hours per month in exchange for my apartment. With the biochar project on hold, I’ve been focusing on designing and creating gardens at Ahupuaa Village. There are already a number of mature fruit trees (papayas, coconuts, egg fruit, bananas, guavas, liliquoi, sugar cane, etc.) – and some producing perennial vegetables (edible hibiscus, taro, cassava, katuk, gandule beans, etc.). I’m living with my good friend Paul, whom Judy and I met in our Damanhur New Life group in Northern Italy last summer. I bumped into Paul at the Kapaa Farmers’ Market in January. I answered an add for a work-trade arrangement, and it turned out to be at the same place where Paul was living – Ahupuaa Village. Paul has planted some vegetables which provide some delicious tomatoes, kale, basil, and cilantro. My goal is to grow more food here, and also to make it enough of a permaculture demonstration farm that I can further develop it with apprentices and teach a permaculture class here. I’ll be able to sell any surplus vegetables at the Farmers’ Markets with my biochar. I’ve also started doing trials with some biochar in the vegetable beds and with new plant starts.

Hedda, the owner of Ahupuaa Village is also a designer – an architect. I have been working with her to develop an initial permaculture design for Ahupuaa Village, with a sequence for implementation. I wanted to get the feel of this place, and of tropical permaculture by doing the work myself in the beginning. I will bring on some apprentices now that there will be significant food production, so that I can accurately describe this place as a working permaculture farm.

There is a previously-terraced garden on the rim of the ravine which comprises much of the 3 acres of this place. The ravine itself has great potential, but will require some challenging arbor work in cutting down the existing jungle and transforming it into a productive Food Forest. So I began with the overgrown, terraced gardens at the top of the ravine next to the main building. The terraces were poorly constructed and someone had planted different kinds of vines – mostly liliquoi – which had covered everything, including sprawling cassava, avocados planted by throwing pits off the kitchen balcony, and tall papayas (also started by throwing seeds around). I spent a couple days clearing with my machete, to get a feel for what plants were growing there, since they are all new to me.

Paul and cassava

My friend Paul with the giant cassava roots

I encountered cassava for the first time, which is a starchy root staple of the third world – also known as manioc root and refined as tapioca. The roots I dug out were left in for years longer than their usual harvest time, and were as big as a small child, with some of the smaller ones a foot long and 4” – 6” in diameter. I learned how to cook and eat them from the internet. It turns out that they contain cyanide which requires cooking to drive it off. I read on the internet about 25 Philippine kids who died a few years ago from eating cassava from a street vendor who didn’t deep fry it sufficiently. It was probably the bitter kind, which has more cyanide than the sweet white cultivar we are growing, but I didn’t take any chances, and boiled mine excessively. I found it to be most excellent when I fried it up after boiling it. I also discovered that leaving a huge pile of cassava on the basement floor for a few days resulted in a disgusting bluish tinge inside when the root was cut. They don’t store like root vegetables I’m accustomed to. Now I make sure to process it on the same day whenever I harvest it. The usual way of growing cassava is to stick a live cassava branch in the ground to grow. The tubers are harvested nine months later, radiating out from the bottom of the plant in a star-shape pattern.

I switched to Hedda’s chainsaw to speed up the clearing process. Then I shaped the beds with a grubbing hose. I used my newly shipped white truck (named “Albie” in honor of the Kauai albatrosses) to pick up a load of excellent compost for topping the beds of reddish clay soil. I kept the pre-existing terraces and dug out paths, tossing the loose soil on top of the beds. I designed the paths to direct the runoff water meander around and soak into the beds rather than eroding straight down the hill into the ravine.

I used Hedda’s bobcat to begin the second garden, removing huge piles of soil, leaf debris, and trash – all covered with huge clumps of buffalo grass. The bobcat is a great tool, except after the excessive rains that came right after I planted the first garden. I almost got stuck in the slimy red clay goo. A few days of sun and I was able to move the mounds and clean out the area. Then I felled two large trees which were shading the area and were leaning over the planned garden area. I went to my grubbing hoe to dig out four large keyhole beds (a “keyhole-shaped” path enables access to all the planting areas of a large bed). I had been driving my truck around the Island with a full load of compost for the past week, so I could now unload the compost to top this extensive garden bed area. I had initially created a nursery area adjoining the new sunny garden area. Every farm needs a nursery, and this one is already filled with cuttings, new seed starts, and the start of our food forest collection.

Chuck in South Kitchen Garden

In newly planted kitchen garden - next to the new nursery

As I was finishing the garden today, Hedda informed me that a new start-up community in Kilauea is going to visit our place next Saturday to see Hedda’s architectural design of a 10,000 square foot living space as an example for them to design their own building. So it’s great timing for them to visit our place after I’ve spiffed up the outside gardens with some sweet permaculture keyhole beds. My other intention in working on this place was to create a showcase of my permaculture work, for obtaining paid permaculture design projects around the Island. The veggies in the first garden have already grown rapidly with the rains and sun that we get here. When I go outside and put my hands in the plants and soil, I feel like I’m living in a lush greenhouse. In fact that’s exactly what this place is like. The plants literally grow before my eyes. It’s truly a permadise here.

I’ve had many serendipitous experiences here – similar to when I was at Damanhur. My good friend from Port Townsend, Forest Shomer (a renown seedsman), came here in January around the time Judy and I did. He is developing a business here (teaching a marimba ensemble) for the colder months, and working at his native seed company in Port Townsend for the other half year. Forest is also mentoring the permaculture leaders here here who are developing a seed business with Hawaiian-selected seeds. They are also leaders in the design and planting of a Kauai Community Food Forest here – where Judy and I volunteered in January, and I’ve worked several times since I’ve come here. The Kauai Food Forest has amazing plant diversity – 60 different overstory fruit trees, 50 midstory trees, and dozens of different understory cultivars. A living library of edible and functional tropical permaculture plants. Forest was the guest speaker at the Seed Exchange I attended a week ago. At the end of his talk he surprised me by introducing me as his good friend who will be selling biochar.

Opal tour guide

My friend Opal explains about breadfruit trees, a "canoe plant" on her first Botanical Garden Tour

One of the other people who also has a room at  Ahupuaa Villagers, Opal, invited me to her first time as a tour guide for the Princeville Botanical Garden. It’s a fabulous private garden on 8 acres, with an amazing collection of tropicals – including food producing plants as well as natives and “canoe plants” (carried to Hawaii on canoes because of desirable properties) – in addition to a collection of exotic ornamentals. Opal went through the training which involves learning the 3-hour script and taking 6 tours with other guides before being accepted as a tour leader. It’s modestly paid, but it includes tips. The guests pay $50/each for the tour, so they often tip well). Training hours are also remunerated during the six observation tours. The night before I went on Opal’s first tour, she asked if maybe I would be interested in becoming a tour guide. After talking more with her, I realized this would be a perfect way for me to learn hundreds of tropical plants, local Hawaiian stories about the plants, and make potential connections with people who might be interested in my design services. I’d already been acquiring online PDF’s to learn about tropical plants, and I’d joined the Kauai Fruit Growers Association. But this would put me under the gun to learn all about tropical horticulture – and I’ll be paid as well. The tour guides only work one day per week, so it wouldn’t interfere my other projects.

In some ways I’ve made slow headway here. The feeling I get, however, is that I’m being welcomed with open arms by the people here; by the opportunities that are arising; and by the soil, plants and climate. My social life has been much more active than I would have imagined. The friends I’m making invite me to Sufi Dances, pizza parties, and permaculture events. I’m living on next to nothing (gas is my biggest expense at close to $5/gallon – although my hybrid truck is getting 22 m.p.g. on the highway). I love the mostly fruit and vegetable diet that I’m living on (with occasional fresh ahi at $3/lb – sushi, poke, seared, and soup afterwards). Doing all this garden work is keeping my body in excellent shape. As my favorite Chinese gardening book says (my apologies for the old school Chinese sexism): if you want to be happy for a day, drink a bottle of wine; if you want to be happy for a week, take a wife; if you want to be happy for a lifetime, make a garden.

Bios Design
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