How To Train Your Dragonfruit (Pitaya)

We sell delicious ripe sweet dragonfruits (also called pitayas) at ARTfarm, but we also occasionally make cuttings available so you can try your hand at dragon farming. These domesticated cousins of the wild night-blooming cerreus are relatively easy plants to grow in the subtropical climate of the Caribbean, and can tolerate full sun or partial shade. Dragonfruit is a climbing cactus vine of spiky green triangular sausages whose care leads to some odd bedtime habits: certain varieties need to be hand pollinated, and the blooms only open at night. This article will get you started, and then you’ll want to search the web for more details. Welcome to our obsession:

Planting Your Dragonfruit Cutting

Water, water, anywhere? A tiny anole lizard licks moisture off of a dragonfruit bud in the dry pasture.
Water, water, anywhere? Look closely to see what Farmer Luca saw: A tiny anole lizard licking moisture off of a dragonfruit bud in the dry pasture.

Beware of the sharp spines! Your cutting is pretty tough and can wait a few weeks to be planted in a pot or in the soil and start its upward trajectory. In fact, the cut end should be fully cured and dry before planting.

So take your time to find the perfect spot: this desert plant becomes incredibly heavy as it grows up and up, so if you put it on a weak structure the vine will eventually pull it down. The vine can handle shade or full sun, thus a large tree seems like a perfect sturdy natural support; but left to its own devices, the dragonfruit vine will eventually grow high up out of your reach for pollinating and picking the fruit. The roots can adhere to many surfaces and will grow up walls, too. For cultivation practicality, we’ve found a sturdy wooden fence or trellis is best. At ARTfarm we have had better luck on 3-4 foot high fences rather than single-support trellises (as the vine gets heavy, some of our ‘tree shaped’ single-post-supported vines have fallen over when rain events soften the soil). A wattle fence is a simple, attractive, ecofriendly and inexpensive way to create a support for your dragonfruit vines. We made one near the ARTfarm farmstand entrance from manjack cuttings. Whatever growing structure you choose, keep the vines out of reach of livestock and deer, who enjoy munching the juicy interior of the vine segments.

When you’ve found a good spot, take a close look at your dragonfruit cutting: it’s directional. The spines should point up. Plant the cutting’s bottom end 1″ into a one gallon or larger pot to start, with a stake or other temporary support to climb, or plant it directly in the ground near the support where you plan to have your vine grow. Once you see some growth on the top of the cutting, you’ll know it has rooted in the soil.

Dragonfruit Vine Care

Dragonfruit (pitahaya) ripening on the vine.

These tough desert vines are a relatively slow growing plant so be patient and prepared to wait up to several months before you see initial growth from your cutting.

Dragonfruit vines do need some water, but not as much as other plants. Once well established, especially on trees in a well-drained spot, we find they will survive and thrive without irrigation. They will develop roots all along the green segments, against the support you provide. The vine absorbs water from the air and from the surface they grow on. But depending on conditions they will also need regular watering with good drainage as they get established. They don’t want a wet spot but prefer to dry out between waterings. The smooth green segments of the vine will start to look wrinkly if it is thirsty.

If you prune the dragonfruit vine by cutting in the center of one of the green sections, it will often branch. So if you choose a tall support like a tree or wall, you can chop the growing tip of the vine in half as it grows and it will bush out and start to arc gracefully downward. You can also add more cuttings along the bottom of your structure, to keep the vine dense but within reach. There are industrial dragonfruit farms in Vietnam with thousands of vines on concrete posts, and the profuse spreading growth from the top makes each vine appear like a strange palm tree.

Flowering and Pollinating

Dragonfruit vines put out fruit buds near the tip of their length.

Dragonfruit vines need to grow to a certain overall length before they will flower and fruit. This reproductive effort doesn’t start until the cutting has grown into a fairly substantial vine of six feet or more; it can take up to two years from planting to fruit from cuttings, even longer from seeds. But once they start, you’ll see buds forming along the edges of the outer segments of the vine.

How many of you are old enough to remember the R.E.M. song “Gardening At Night”? Dragonfruit blooms only open after 8pm, and often need to be hand pollinated in order to bear fruit. So forgive us if we’re a little sleepy!

The dragonfruit is the domestic cousin of the rarely-flowering night-blooming cereus. It is a night blooming cactus vine. Like the night-blooming cereus, each large, showy dragonfruit bloom is active for only a single evening, generally opening after dark and closing by mid-morning the following day. Night pollinators such as bats and moths can pollinate the dragonfruit, but for the most reliable harvests you’ll want to research further into how to choose, collect, and apply dragonfruit pollen to your open flowers at night.

Different varieties of dragonfruit pollinate themselves and each other differently. Natural Mystic has a high success of blossoms turning into fruit. Physical Graffiti doesn’t seem to self-pollinate, so it’s not a bad idea to have both varieties planted so they can pollinate each other to make sure fruits will form. Farmer Luca has experimented over the years and now pollinates all his blooms with pollen collected within 24 hours from newly opened Natural Mystic blooms.

Once the flowers are pollinated and have closed, you can prevent end rot in the developing fruit by trimming the excess wet petals from the tip. Birds and other wildlife love delicious ripe dragonfruit, so we often protect the fruit from damage with reusable fabric mesh bags.


Heavy basketloads of fresh ripe dragonfruits at ARTfarm

To harvest the ripe dragonfruit for immediate consumption, you can twist the fruit and break it free of the vine. We prefer to use a hand pruning tool and cut the small portion of attached green stem away to free the fruit without damage.

Good luck with your new dragonfruit cutting! Wishing you fun nights of pollinating under the stars!

How to Plant Your Pineapple Slips

A good pine takes time.

Sooo…you stopped by the ARTfarm and bought some pineapple slips, or a pineapple fruit with its spiny top, and you’d like to grow your own pineapple. Hooray!! Here is the ARTfarm step by step guide to becoming a blissful pineapple farmer. We’ve also made a short video of most of this information! Link at the bottom.

  1. The first thing you will need is patience. A pineapple plant with optimal conditions can fruit in a year but could take three years. Usually it will take up to 18 months for a slip (one of several shoots or runners that sprout from right below the mature fruit) to form a pineapple fruit. If your plant start comes from the fruit’s top (the ‘crown’) it can take two to three years.
  2. Prepare and strip your slip. If your slip has a bulge at the end, like a mini-fruit with dark rough skin, remove that (cut it off). You’ll see some short leaves at the bulb of the end. The emerging roots of the pineapple plant are hidden inside those short leaves. To give your pineapple slip a little head start, peel off a few layers of the leaves (about half an inch along the bulb) and reveal some of those tiny roots. If you are a visual learner, check out our YouTube video linked below that contains a demonstration of the trimming and peeling techniques for the slips.
  3. Age and dry the slip. After removing those leaves, let the slip injury heal for two to three days in a dry shady location. They can sit for a week or longer, without water. No worries. Pineapples are drought tolerant, slow growing plants, so don’t fuss over them like they were lettuce.
  4. Choose your planting site. Pineapple plants are not terribly picky about their location but they have a few requirements. Full sun will help your plant grow fastest. Pineapples do not like caliche (kuh-LEE-chee) soil* (whitish color, limestone deposits, high pH, alkaline). They like good drainage (loose gravelly soil is good) and don’t tolerate waterlogging. If growing in a pot, use a minimum of a 3 gallon pot (with loose soil and good drainage) so you won’t have to repot it before harvesting. In the garden, Farmer Luca likes to plant pineapples on raised beds (or on a slope) so they aren’t subject to flooding or standing water. Also, if mud or loose soil gets into the crown of your pineapple plant, it will rot and die. So keep your digging animals (particularly dogs and chickens) away from your pineapple patch! And remember pineapples are somewhat spiny plants and will get fairly large, so space multiple pineapples at least 12 inches apart and not in high traffic areas.
    Farmer Luca plants his pineapples in raised beds to keep their “feet dry”.
  5. Plant your slips about two inches deep in the soil. Just deep enough to keep the slip from flopping over, but not so deep that soil can get into the heart of the slip.
  6. Don’t overwater your pineapple. Mulching is highly recommended to prevent water loss and prevent the need for weeding. Water a pineapple plant once or twice a week at most.
  7. Protect your baby. In terms of pests, the biggest issue we’ve seen is rodents eating the ripening fruits. Surprisingly young unripe pineapples can be eaten by mice and rats. Set traps, or get your pets to help out.
    Our adopted border collies, Ginger and Spice, vigilantly patrol the pineapple gardens in fallow summer times to discourage rats. We’ve seen these athletic dogs leap all the way over the row of spiny plants during the hunt. This is a viable and much more entertaining alternative to poisons for controlling crop pests on an organic farm. During dry times there is increased pressure from all pests on farm crops and resources.
  8. Harvest! Keep an eye on your pineapple fruits, and as soon as the green of the fruit turns a slightly different color and the scent becomes tantalizing, harvest it and bring it inside! It will continue to ripen off the plant as long as the fruit is full-sized, and some ripening has started before harvesting. This timing of the harvest is a tricky thing to learn… through trial and error.

* “Caliche is calcium-carbonate cemented soil that is formed in semi-arid climates. Calcium carbonate is derived by the dissolution of [coral reefs,] shells and shell fragments … especially during the Ice Age when the sea level was much lower and the beaches were more extensive. Rain is a weak acid, formed by reactions between water vapor and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and it is this acid that dissolves the shell fragments … [Caliche forms in] a semi-arid climate; …when it rains, the volume of water is too small to carry dissolved materials away from the area, and they remain in the topsoil. …Groundwater dissolves the calcium carbonate from [coral and] shells in the surface layer and re-precipitates it a little lower in the surface profile, where it will act as a cement, binding the soil material into a hard substance that is called ‘caliche’, or ‘calcrete’, or ‘hardpan’.” From NPS information about the Channel Islands, CA. Some plants in the Virgin Islands prefer caliche soil (avocado trees) but most crop plants find it difficult to secure nutrients out of the calcium-rich caliche.

Small Container Gardening for Beginners!

A small garden bed is surrounded by rocks. Garlic chives and mint grow in partial sun.
A small wicking bed at ARTfarm holds water in a reservoir below the soil surface and produces herbs, lettuce and flowers, even in the dry season. The solar lamp in the center blocks frogs from entering a PVC pipe that is used to fill the reservoir.

Some of you who signed up for farm shares in the last few weeks have expressed interest in learning to grow your own food. We have great news! UVI’s Cooperative Extension Service will be hosting multiple FREE online video classes on Small Space Container Gardening for Beginners with Vanessa Forbes and friends, with the first session on Monday, April 27th at 10am. Everyone who signed up on our farm share order form was sent an invitation, and quite a few of you attended! Thanks!

If you missed out, the course will be repeated again. Also, below is a rough outline of what Ms. Forbes covered in the class. You can also check out this list of books to jumpstart your ideas. We are also still working on a longer article for this website with more information on gardening in the Caribbean. Soon come! Of course there are always lots of things to learn on the Internets about subtropical farming, we enjoy Rob Bob’s Permaculture YouTube Channel for ideas about container gardening!

Notes from Small Space Container Gardening for Beginners…

…held on Zoom and hosted by Vanessa Forbes, Horticultural Agent at UVI’s Cooperative Extension Service (summarized and combined here with a sprinkling of bonus thoughts from Luca, Christina, Bob and Rudy):

  1. Start with a DREAM list of what you’d like to grow, and then come up with a PLAN.
    • Start researching if the crops you like can grow in our climate, if they like wet soil or good drainage, full sun or partial shade. Hint: to grow well in a hot place with lots of bugs, you need crops that can grow quickly and be harvested before they rot or get eaten. There are varieties of crops that are specifically bred to grow better in a southern climate, so use sources of information specific to tropical climates. UGA is one source and here is a list of crops they recommend.
    • Ask your neighbors (with similar conditions) what crops have been successful for them. Literally small differences in exposure, wind, soil type and rainfall can make a huge difference. Things we could grow at Southgate in the old days (1998-2007) we can’t grow at ARTfarm (2008-present), and vice versa. So ask your neighbors! Wearing a mask! From six feet or more away!!
    • Visit the VI Department of Agriculture. In the greenhouse area (all the way in the back, east of the abbatoir), they sell slips (baby plant starts) to the public, for selected popular vegetable varieties that are proven in our climate.
    • With COVID-19 affecting businesses and shipping, some online seed companies are only supplying commercial growers right now (spring 2020), but local hardware stores may have seed.
    • Water is a precious resource. Start small and expand your project once you have done some experimenting!

  2. Location is important. SCOUT the spot for your container garden.
    • What conditions do your dream crops need? Is your proposed spot sunny/windy?
    • Is there enough space? Info on seed packets will often include recommended spacing between plants for optimal yields and plant health.
    • Is there a water source nearby? Does any excess water draining from your pots have a place to go?
    • Is it located in a spot where you’ll pass by frequently and remember to check on it?
    • Is it accessible to pets/pests/wildlife who might damage or teef your crops? Think of deer, iguanas, trushie bird dem, neighborhood cats looking for a litter box, chickens, rambunctious dogs… but don’t forget that some wildlife is important for pest control and pollination. Observe closely and you’ll begin to learn who eats what.
    • If you decide to grow on bare ground, don’t forget about root competition. A raised bed garden on the soil surface in your yard that is regularly watered will become a mecca for every surface tree root within 50 ft. and you will soon be watering a forest around your garden, unless you cut and trim a “root moat” around your garden.

  3. CREATE imaginative spaces for your plants.
    • MINI crops like a single herb, succulents or flowers can thrive in a large tin can, an old shoe or purse, a teacup or coffee mug…
    • MEDIUM sized crops like taller herbs, pollinator attracting flowers, can grow in planters, windowboxes, tires, vertical pallet gardens.
    • LARGE crops like lettuces, cooking greens, can be grown in vertical pallet gardens, raised beds, tires, cinderblock raised beds
    • DEEP crops with a substantial taproot like tomatoes, carrots, root vegetables; or with a vining tendency like cucumbers or melons, will need a larger garden bed with deeper soil depth.
    • Drainage is important. Most crop plants do not want to sit in heavy wet clay soil; they need aeration at the roots. So make sure to toss a few pebbles or some mulch in the bottom of grow containers or otherwise make sure the soil doesn’t clog up the drainage holes.
    • Fabric or poly reusable shopping bags past their useful life for groceries can be repurposed in the garden as a permeable growbag. You can place several of them together to create a little garden bed.
    • Tires as planters are a great way to UPCYCLE. Cut them apart with a sawzall power tool or simple box cutter, using safety protective gear in case you hit a steel belt radial while cutting. Tires are still being studied for the uptake by plants of chemical leaching, so to be on the safe side for food crops, line tires with water permeable landscape fabric/cardboard/paper, and/or consider painting them to seal in any dry rotting synthetic rubber polymers that may escape (of course paints are polymers too!). Use tire planters in partial shade to slow their degradation, and remember they can be stacked up to accommodate deeper rooting plants.
    • Shipping pallets are very popular for repurposing as planters, as they are often made of naturally termite-resistant tropical hardwoods. There are entire Pinterest channels devoted to their clever use either whole or disassembled for all kinds of gardening, storage, woodworking and crafting. Selecting safe, clean, untreated pallets is important so that they don’t contain harmful chemicals. Look for pallets stamped ‘HT’ for Heat Treated. (Pallets without the HT stamp may have been treated with highly toxic methyl bromide, which could leach into your crops!) Pallets can be used flat on the ground as is, filled with soil as a raised bed with plants growing between the slats. They can be wrapped with landscape fabric, propped up on end, filled from the top with soil, and propped up or hung on a wall as a vertical garden. You can place four of them on end in a box formation attached at the corners, to create a composting bin.
    • Plastic shipping barrels and old rum barrels make functional and even beautiful containers for planting. Drill holes for drainage.
    • Kiddie pools or wading pools can be repurposed as bottom waterers for your containers or growbags. Drill some holes in the sides a few inches from the bottom to allow excess rainwater to escape without drowning your plants. Anyplace in your container garden where water may sit, treat with a little food-safe soap or neem oil (from the hardware store garden section) to keep mosquitos from breeding within.
    • Cover your small garden area with a wire mesh tent or other barrier to discourage the hungry critters from feasting and exploring your little Eden. You will want pollinators to be able to get in, so use an open mesh such as hardware cloth or chicken wire!
    • Finish your containers with safety in mind. Make sure there are no sharp edges or tripping hazards to catch on clothing or skin, when you’re done.
    • Make sure you CLEAN any old repurposed or previously gardened containers prior to use. Chemical residue, funguses and plant viruses, even eggs from pests can remain on old containers, so clean them as if your food was going to touch them. (It is.)

  4. Now that your containers are ready and clean, let’s SOIL them.
    • Most trucking companies on St. Croix sell ‘topsoil’ but it’s often subsoil – soil that is heavier with more mineral content, with much less organic matter (humus) in it. Caribbean islands generally have very little topsoil. Create good topsoil by mulching, resting, crop rotating, aerating, and compost amending, your soil.
    • Bringing in topsoil from elsewhere on the island may invite weeds and pests to your property that were not already there.
    • Organic potting soil from the hardware store may be your best choice.
    • Mulch (chipped plant debris from Hurricane Maria) is available at the Department of Agriculture and by appointment at Body Slob dump site in Kingshill. You can also mulch with yard clippings, but be careful not to mow seedy grass as mulch unless you love weeding!
    • Pickup truck loads (or a few buckets) of sheep manure for composting and soil amending can usually be purchased through the Schuster family at Echo Valley Farm. Stop by their tire shop to inquire. The number is (340) 719-9944.

  5. Start your grand garden EXPERIMENT! (Here are some rando tips!)
    • Don’t count on huge yields that replace your need to grocery shop right away.
    • Remember that the soil in containers and pots will dry out much faster than ground garden soil. So keep checking moisture levels (a terracotta “worm” that changes color is a fun way to monitor soil moisture – or your finger is a higher tech, less expensive option you’ll probably never misplace)
    • The soil in container gardens can get compacted much faster than in a ground garden plot. Be sure to recycle your soil and repot your container garden on a regular basis to fluff things up.
    • Your plants will continue to remove minerals and nutrition from the soil, and you’ll need to amend it from time to time (hopefully with homemade compost from your own kitchen!). Repotting, rotating, and cleaning your containers when trouble arises, can reduce the effect of residual problems compounding over time that could lessen your success.
    • If you really want to get fancy with your bad hippie organic food-growing self, start learning about companion planting.
    • In general, watering in the evening saves more water and is more useful for your plants.
    • Drip or emitter irrigation conserves water, and lessens the spread of some plant funguses, diseases and pests compared to simply spraying your garden with a garden hose.
    • Gird your loins to the idea that you may have to grab an icky caterpillar or grasshopper or stink bug with your bare fingers and squish it. Unless you want to share all your crops with nature.
    • Weeds can be gorgeous. Native pollinators love them. Allow some biodiversity.
    • Observe, observe, observe. As with any other health concern, it’s best to detect an issue early on instead of when it is too late. Watch your plants like a hawk. Learn the difference between plant-destroying bugs and bugs who eat those other bugs. Don’t just try to kill everything with six or more legs!

There will be more classes coming up from UVI CES on container gardening. We’ll try to post more information as it emerges! If we forgot anything, please include it in the comments (link at the top of the article)! And PLEASE share pictures of your mighty garden with us!!

ARTfarm NEWS: Summer Recap, Saving Water, Open Soon!

Dragonfruits harvested at ARTfarm in October 2018

It’s time for an ARTfarm update! Lots of people have been asking when we’ll reopen, and we’ve been busy as bees since we last posted on June 1st.

Long story short: We are aiming to open early November 2018 and hope to see you at our farmstand. Thanks for your patience.

The farm is currently under an unprecedented siege of army worm caterpillars, who are eating many of our vegetable and fruit vine seedlings to below the soil level, which may delay our opening unpredictably. Yikes! So more updates, and a firm farm opening date, soon come!

Short story long, for the ARTfarm news junkies: Read on below for the summer/fall “recap” all in one newsy post. With photos!

We were all depleted after Hurricane Maria.

By the end of the 2017-2018 farming season, which started relentlessly after Hurricane Maria and continued unabatedly active for nine months, we were VI Strong but also exhausted and stressed, like many islanders in the post-storm recovery process. We were demoralized by the lack of disaster resources and by the growing evidence in the scientific community confirming what we’ve been feeling on the backs of our necks: the looming spectre of climate change accelerating.

With our fruitless applications for disaster relief denied, a powerful drought killing off the post-storm vegetation boom, and the loss of most of the fruit trees in ours and our friends’ orchards that would have provided the usual mangoes and avocados for us to sell over the summer, we decided to close early for the season in late spring of 2018, and work on storm recovery and our health.

Luca reflecting on one of his older paintings on display at CMCA in May 2018 – the Senepol show. Christina also had works in this show.

In May, art lifted us a bit. Luca and Christina both participated in group art shows, primarily using previous works from our own and private collections.

We began work on our printmaking project to help raise funds for rebuilding our destroyed farm structures.

One of our new layer chicks being socialized by our poultry wrangler.

And we picked up seven baby chicks at the Ag Fair to replenish our layer hen population on the farm.

Visiting friend Duvan lifted our spirits and got us to the beach!

We also had a farm volunteer (our old friend Duvan from art school days) come and stay with us for over a month in May and June. He completely rebuilt our rickety blue farm cart that was on the brink of oblivion, painted things that needed painting, cleaned up and organized post-storm disaster areas of the farm (like piles of mashed-up stuff around tool sheds), repaired a gaping hole in the farmstand, constructed a new rat-proof chicken coop for the new baby chicks, and many other useful helpful things. He reminded us to do yoga and breathe and hit the beach and celebrate life and eat good things and make a little art every day. Thank you, Duvan, for helping us start to get our joy back!

Farmer Luca with lots and lots of ginger! Big end-of-season harvest for seed stock and making drinks!

We had a bit of good news in June, when despite the dry conditions, some of our dragonfruit vines began to recover from storm damage and produce a few fruits. We weren’t sure they would produce again after being knocked down and righted, but they did!

Also in June, Farmer Luca harvested over a hundred pounds of organically grown ginger, which he mostly sold to restaurants, in particular Chef Isumyah at Vegetarian Creation in Barron Spot Mall (she and her family make a ginger-tumeric elixir tonic that is incredible!). We participated in more group art shows.

Opheeeeeeeeee-liaaa! The curious peahen.

And a very friendly peahen we christened “Ophelia” showed up one day, and adopted us and our new baby chicks as her own.

Brushfire on the West side of Great Pond Bay near the Boy Scout Camp. VIFS suspected this was set by an individual. It quickly hopped the road and burned rapidly to the west.

Hot ash, lit cinders and smoke filled the air over the farm for two days as the fire continued to advance toward us.

But, the drought continued. We had some major brushfires on the South Shore in early June, started by humans at Great Pond Bay.

Big props to Faye Williams, our NRCS rep from USDA, who came out and inspected our newly erected EQIP fencing, and “Cheech” Thomas who brought heavy machinery and helped cut emergency firebreaks, in the early evening of June 8th as the flames, live cinders, ashes and thick smoke upwind of us threatened the farm and clouded the air. VI Fire Service came through for us again, helped by miraculous last minute rain showers.

July was spent completing the restoration of fences that were destroyed by utility poles that fell in Hurricane Maria, and finishing more pasture division fencing for NRCS. Huge thanks to superARTfarmer Bob Boyan who did an incredible amount of work on that project. It’s beautiful.

Dividing pastures supports soil conservation, and prevents soil erosion, by aiding the farmer to keep livestock OFF of most of the grass, most of the time, so the sward can recover quickly from grazing, instead of getting eaten down to the bare soil. This rotational grazing also helps foil livestock-killing predators, gives the livestock a more varied diet, and greatly aids in keeping them free from parasites, so much less veterinary treatment is needed to keep them healthy. (Brush fires can destroy this expensive and labor intensive fencing.)

Our layer hens were all killed by unusually aggressive mongoose attacks over the summer. RIP girls.

Throughout June, July and August, despite our prevention efforts, we lost all of our layer chickens who survived the direct hit of Hurricane Maria – one by one – to mongoose predation. Farmer Luca said, “I’m pretty sure there was something different about this summer for that to happen, because we’ve been raising chickens the same way for 15 years, and this is the first time we’ve had such intense attacks from mongoose on adult birds.” We believe the mongoose were extra desperate this summer for any kind of food during the drought conditions that started in March. It is possible that the omnivorous introduced predator’s population exploded post-Maria, with all the available food that grew from the lush post-storm vegetation growth, later putting intense pressure on our poultry when the drought began killing off the boom in the mongoose’s natural food sources.

Our young “Viequen Butterball” mango that survived Maria fruited for the second time, and gave us about five fruits. A few pineapples came ripe, but not enough to open the farmstand with. We made salad mix a few more times for the tail end of the last lettuce still growing, just for the family.

Famer Luca and Farmer Dennis Nash discuss the construction of water-conserving Hugel beds at ARTfarm.

ARTfarmers prepping drip irrigation on a heavily mulched Hugel bed for watermelon and coconut. Fall 2018.

Farmer Luca made six large new half-buried Hugelkultur beds in July with downed tree debris, which he is getting more and more excited about. He successfully grew watermelons all summer long in an older Hugel bed, and the same watermelon plants survived more than three times as long as they normally do. (Vines that were planted in March – at the beginning of the drought period – have continuously produced melons since May – through October and beyond! This is unheard of!) These permaculture beds require less watering than regular garden beds, as the rotting wood at their center holds water like a sponge, creates positive rhizomal activity, and sinks carbon by naturally composting large masses of storm brush piles.

An interesting side-effect of composting for Farmer Luca is painting from the visuals of the colorful contents of the bins. An appreciation for the contribution of these lifeforms.

We have spent the summer, particularly in August, composting wood chips (from hurricane debris) and brewer’s grain waste product from Leatherback Brewing Co., along with composting lots of fish and lobster carcasses from local restaurants, and fish scales and fish guts from the La Reine fish and farmers’ market.

Just through the bacterial activity (aided by the farmer’s tinkering to get the perfect air and moisture conditions), we’ve been able to get our compost pile temperatures up to a blazing 160°F! The more of this composting we do, the more we can eliminate the purchase and shipping of ANY organic soil amendments or fertilizers. This means LESS carbon footprint. Our goal on the farm is always to eliminate fossil fuel intensive shipping, and close the nutrient loop.

PBS film crew with host LaVaughn Belle in the ARTbarn, interviewing Farmer/Artist Luca about his inspiration.

Luca had one last hurrah in the storm-halved ARTbarn gallery, when local artist LaVaughn Belle came out to interview him with a film crew for a new program she is hosting for our local PBS station about local St. Croix artists and their inspirations. We’re looking forward to the announcement of the title and air date of the show, and will post it to our website!

August is also that time of year when we normally prepare soil and start lots of vegetable seedlings for the season. It has been another extreme and unusual drought this spring and summer of 2018. Rainfall at ARTfarm has been way below average, we’ve lost a few more trees, and the radiant heat coming out of the hard-baked soil has been intense, making the brushfire risk high. So we hesitated to start the season at the usual start date.

In late August it was finally often raining heavily. But… Unfortunately the rain was consistently falling about two miles northwest of the farm, while missing us entirely. So, we contracted the VI Department of Agriculture to bring some of that rain back east to us in a pair of ‘portable rainclouds’: shiny tanker trucks. The 9,000 gallons they delivered will last us about nine days in season when we are irrigating row crops twice daily, possibly less if weather conditions of extreme heat and dryness cause more evaporation and transpiration. So we are working on even more ways to conserve our water use than the highly efficient drip irrigation we’ve been using for years.

Three equipment operators with a new tanker truck.
Farm irrigation water delivery to ARTfarm with a new tanker truck, some familiar faces and some new employees.

Thanks to the operators at VIDAg, who also expertly managed this second gigantic tanker truck on our busy road.

Thank you to the awesome VI Department of Agriculture, for sending trucks out quickly! Their administrative buildings are still completely without a roof. Please ask your favorite candidates in the upcoming election how they plan to support agriculture in the Virgin Islands.

…and then it was gone. ARTbarn preventatively demolished during the height of the storm season.

September graced the Caribbean with more much needed rain, but plenty of PTSD: multiple massive hurricanes looming on the satellites. Sadly, it was time to fully demolish the unstable ARTbarn gallery building that was mostly destroyed in Hurricane Maria. (We are continuing to raise funds to rebuild our ARTbarn gallery as well as our destroyed seedling house to better shelter, steward and serve our customers and our seedlings!)

In the end, the 2018 hurricane season brought us no direct damaging hits, but a number of good soaking rains totaling close to 3 inches. But still not enough major rain events to fill our pond reservoirs. So we are behind on rainfall collection for this coming season.

A mostly empty water catchment pond with a flush of water hyacinth blooming.

Our pond storage system can hold an estimated half a million gallons and is normally replenished by spring and fall rains to at least 80% capacity at the start of the dry winter season. As of the end of September we had an estimated 175,000 gallons, or roughly 35% of capacity.
We also nurtured our ginger and turmeric plants and our badly storm-injured papaya grove, also spent time caring for our mango fruit trees and of course our dragonfruit. We also successfully grew onions all year long which was one of Luca’s goals.

ARTfarmers collecting sargassum seaweed on the south shore for various farm uses.

Ruminants need salt added to their diet to thrive. Sargassum seaweed is rich in salt and minerals and our sheep take to it quickly.

The end of summer into fall saw tons of sargassum seaweed washing up on the shores of St. Croix. It is a great soil amendment. We like to harvest it fresh out of the sea with baskets to avoid excess sand. Then we pick through it and remove all plastics. Finally, the seaweed can be fed directly to our sheep for mineral supplementation, or composted, or placed in Hugel beds, or used as mulch in the bottom of pots for young saplings.

Farmer Luca is also a surfcasting fisherman. A young permit he caught and released.

And of course, going to the beach brings Luca all kinds of inspiration.

Farmer Christina really doesn’t care for heights. But it is kind of peaceful up there on the greenhouse roof, sweating away in the blazing sun.

Lots of odd rainbows this fall with blessed rain showers passing with greater frequency. Luca and friends reassembling the roof of the greenhouse.

In early October with the bulk of the storm season behind us, we decided to replace the plastic sheeting on the greenhouse roof to enable more rain catchment.

We’ve been seeding and planting like crazy, but stymied by the intense pressure from caterpillars. We’re noticing a lack of the typical predator insects on the farm like Jack Spaniard wasps to control the army worms and other crop-destroying insects. There is a loss of equilibrium, and we are patiently waiting for it to return to balance.

Farmer Luca concludes: “We’ve been selling to a few restaurants and a few chefs over the summer, but for the most part we have been growing for ourselves while we organize and prepare for the future. We struggled with the drought this summer and that made us quite nervous about growing this coming season, but we are now at 30% rainwater storage capacity (normally we’d be at around 80% at this time of year). Which is not good but at least we can start the season with the water we have. And hopefully we’ll get more rain. Do a rain dance for us! See everybody soon!”

Love, ARTfarm