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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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):
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!
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.
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.)
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.
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!!
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!
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.
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.
And we picked up seven baby chicks at the Ag Fair to replenish our layer hen population on the farm.
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!
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.
And a very friendly peahen we christened “Ophelia” showed up one day, and adopted us and our new baby chicks as her own.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And of course, going to the beach brings Luca all kinds of inspiration.
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!”
Six months ago, in November 2017, we had newly opened for the season and were giving away birdseed amidst barren trees and broken everything. We were hosting our farmstands on the roadside due to Hurricane Maria damage. Around that time, a journalist from the BVI Beacon, Freeman Rogers, visited us while researching a Caribbean-wide story on climate adaptation and resiliency. He is a humble and thoughtful character and his findings are well-researched and noteworthy. Hope you’ll enjoy a read and share on social media! (It would be great if his story made its way to a major news outlet!) There are mentions of St. Croix and quotes from Luca and other residents in both articles listed in this link, do take a few minutes to read them both, and share: http://bvibeacon.com/sections/climate-change-series/
Saturday farmstand, 10am down the South Shore Road: Plentiful sweet salad mix (thanks to recent, frequent small rain showers that made the size of the lettuce heads grow bigger), a very few slicer and cherry tomatoes, Italian basil, parsley, lemongrass, some seasoning peppers, serrano and chili peppers, lots of fresh ginger and turmeric, cooking greens, bunched arugula, some papaya, some watermelon, some pineapples, and zinnia flowers. For the growers: lots of native trees, bigger pots of rosemary herb, small pineapple slips! For the art lovers: we have performance/raffle tickets to the Caribbean Dance School 2018 show available, Friday and Saturday June 8 & 9 at Island Center, $15!
Okay, get a cuppa and a few minutes for some deep farm talk here: Farmer Luca and Farmer Bob have been busy this week building some new hugelkultur, or “hugel” beds on the farm. And YOU CAN TOO!!! Read on if you like food and want to save the planet!!! The secrets will be revealed!!! Mom! Dad! Uncle Fungus!!?
Hugelkultur is a ridiculously simple permaculture farming technique with a fancy name and multiple benefits: carbon is sequestered, water and fertilizer is conserved, erosion prevented, and messy, organic storm debris such as logs and branches are repurposed and turned into a valuable resource. You make a tidy brushpile, and you bury it in soil. No burning, no chipping. And then you grow food or other plants on it. That’s the whole story. And it’s AMAZING!
A hugel bed is a raised garden bed that is naturally, passively aerated and thus doesn’t need any cultivation (tilling or plowing or other soil preparation) other than mulching and weeding. Hugel beds hold micro-pockets of air and water underground, as the slowly decomposing wood in the center acts like a sponge. Plants growing on top LOVE it. After a rainstorm, the beds require much less irrigation for a looong time. This is a great garden bed technique for the lazy or forgetful gardener, as it is forgiving!
Here’s how it works at ARTfarm: Farmer Luca has modified the typical hugel bed stacking technique for our dry, subtropical latitude and conditions by partially burying the hugelkultur bed into a minor trench in the soil where water can collect. This low spot helps to slow runoff and erosion, conserve water and topsoil, and limits the bed’s exposure to wind and sun. Farmer Luca’s basic process involves the digging of a large, relatively shallow bed area (carefully setting aside the topsoil), the burying of the brush into the hole with that topsoil, and mulching, and it can be done on virtually any scale. Here’s the step-by-step:
Dig a shallow area (18″-30″ deep as you wish) to fit the brushpile you want to bury, reserving the topsoil nearby.
Optionally, you can line the bottom of the hole with compostable plant-based material to help slow down water flowing out of the bottom of your hugel bed. Seaweed adds essential nutrients and minerals (with an added plus – burying kills the stink of decomposing south shore sargasso seaweed!) Also effective on the bottom might be cardboard packing material, leaf litter, grass and yard clippings, or even old cotton clothing.
Add the brush and logs into the hole. The neater you stack ’em, the more you can fit in the bed, which is good. Stack a few inches above the original soil level.
Optionally, if you want to get fancy and improve the bed further you can sprinkle or layer nutrients such as charged bio-char, compost, more seaweed, coconut husks, green waste, some woodchips. We haven’t had time to experiment with this yet!
Replace the removed topsoil back onto the bed to bury the brush and logs. Pack the soil in well – stomp on top or agitate as you go – don’t leave large pockets of air in the bed that will erode in the rain!
Cover the topsoil with a thick, heavy layer of mulch – such as wood chips or hay.
The finished bed will be raised about 8-10″ above the original soil level.
Add drip or microsprinkler irrigation.
Beds can be built consecutively next to one another to create a larger hugel bed growing area, if desired. Our objective was to bury tons of wood to sequester carbon, but you can take a little more time to add even more nutrition to your bed by adding composted materials as suggested above. Think of the worms!!
To start, Farmer Luca chose areas in the gardens to build hugelkultur beds where he had observed the soil was underperforming – that is, where crops were less successful. These spots, he discovered as he excavated, had very hard, compacted clay-like subsoil. If you’re not sure how your soil is performing, you may want to choose a spot that tends to collect water, if that is an option.
The type of wood used in the bed is not terribly important, although known toxic tropical varieties such as manchineel apple are best avoided. A mix of both harder and softer wood varieties (mahogany, manjack and palm trunk, for example) is probably most effective. It’s better to use both large and small sized wood pieces (both logs and branches), but whatever you have will work. Fresh cut wood is arguably better in the short term since it already contains a lot of moisture, but it can also start growing in the bed (we’re talking about you, Beach Maho and Madre-de-Cacao)! We have mostly used old, dry wood materials and that works too. Fine material such as wood chips alone might decompose too quickly, whereas larger diameter hard logs offer a more slow-release effect over the course of years. Hugel beds are a monster sized, long-acting injection of fertile organic matter into your garden’s topsoil!
The quality of the available nutrition for plants in hugel beds change over time, tending to improve for a wider variety of crops as the interior wood composts into humus, and fungal growth and diversity inside the bed starts to really kick in. That’s yet another big win-win of hugelkulture: a biodiverse world of fungus, that create mycorrhizae, a working symbiosis with fungi and living plants, creating more bioavailability of nutrients and breaking down dead plant material. (Think kombucha or sauerkraut!) We had noticed years ago on the farm that impromptu/accidental hugelkultur beds created by the bulldozing of old brush piles with some topsoil resulted in an almost bluish-green color, drought resistance and vitality in the grasses that grew on those spots, even after the pile itself was moved away. Go fungi!!!
After establishing the first hugel beds, Luca started some simple trialing of different crops into the hugel beds with every transplant set. So every time a few hundred seedlings went into the drip-irrigated garden rows, he’d also put a few plants from that same batch into the hugel beds. The hugel plants tended to be noticeably healthier, larger and stronger, without the additional fertilizing and regular daily irrigation that the row plants got. WOW!
Crop plants that seemed to best tolerate the environment of a new, freshly layered hugel bed included pumpkin, zucchini, watermelon, herbs, and peppers. Corn, sweet potato and jicama (a crispy root vegetable) were not as successful in the newest beds. Our oldest hugel beds were built during the extreme drought of 2015, and exploded with zucchini in their first year. Those three-year-old beds are now successfully supporting lettuce and brassicas like kale. (Whenever we have extra tree trimmings and a little time, we build another hugel bed.) Even more exciting, Luca has been trialing fruit trees in a few of those older hugel beds. Citrus, mango, avocado and coconut trees are so far very healthy and show robust growth. We are especially excited about the success of the avocado, which is a variety that normally requires heavy watering and has never really taken to ARTfarm’s high-drainage, rocky south shore soil and dry conditions.
Farmer Luca uses water-conserving drip irrigation or microsprinklers on his hugel beds, so the plants do receive some irrigation in dry periods, but only every 3 – 4 days instead of daily, as the row crops require. And if it rains heavily, the hugel beds can go for weeks without watering. In our super dry conditions on the South Shore, this is essential resource conservation. So a new hugel bed made from dry woods will need a bit more irrigation, but once it gets a good heavy rain, that seems to prime the bed, and water is soaked up and maintained inside for an extended time.
Slugs and snails and termites, oh my! With all of the fantastic nutrition available in a hugel bed, of course there may be some less welcome visitors. Our experience has been that, given a bit of time, balance happens and the pest invaders leave of their own accord. Here’s what happened:
There was a period after the 2015 drought broke when conditions were very wet on the farm, and our existing recent infestation of slugs and snails (who hitchhiked here in some donated pots in 2014) started booming. These creatures were probably attracted to the hugel beds’ moisture as conditions began to dry out, and were feeding on the leaves and fruit of the crop plants. Farmer Luca stopped planting and irrigating in that bed for about six months and gave it a lot more mulch, and the problem resolved itself. As for the slimy population of intruders, they were virtually wiped out all over the farm after another year or so by another stealthy predator, possibly mongoose or night herons.
Termites seem to be the biggest fear with this technique. We have had surprisingly little issue with them except for one hugel bed that was built only 3 meters away from an existing huge woodpile with a very large termite colony that was extremely active and untreated. They built tunnels above and below ground into that hugel bed. After a few years, they disappeared from the bed. The termites did NOT affect the watermelon crop in that bed, but they probably did a lot to aerate and decompose the wood within! I might not build an enormous hugel bed right under my untreated wood house, but it seems that generally speaking we have not seen termites sprouting up in these beds despite having active colonies around the farm. In general, termites are always around whether we see them or not, so the presence of a hugel bed is not going to create termites. It might even divert them from structures! Here’s a discussion about it: https://permies.com/t/28384/Termites-Hugelbeds
Gungaloes (large armored millipedes) are also attracted to the hugel beds, which is great because they can improve soil (much in the way that earthworms do). But they would sometimes eat the skin off the stem of very young plants, girdling and killing them. The solution was to pull the thick mulch layer back from around the seedling, and/or to put a small ring of stones around the base of the plant to protect it.
Farmer Luca would love to see agricultural researchers in the Caribbean do more experimentation and dedicated trials with hugelkultur beds. Unfortunately, since ARTfarm is a commercial production farm, we don’t have the time or staff to devote to approaching all the variables from a purely scientific method or collecting more than anecdotal data – but the early results show that this technique is incredibly productive while solving a post-storm solid waste problem at the same time.
Luca has been farming on St. Croix to the specifications of the USDA’s National Organic Program (which regulates the certification of organic produce and farms in the USA) continuously since 1999. According to the techniques logged in our detailed farm records, we have either met or exceeded the USDA standards for the production of organically grown produce consistently over that entire period. ARTfarm in its current location is situated on pastureland that has been farmed and ranched (free of any chemicals or non-sustainable methods) continuously since the 1700s. However, we have not been certified officially by the USDA as a certified organic farm. Therefore, even though all of our produce is organically grown to USDA Organic specs, we cannot and do not legally claim that any of our products are “USDA Organic”.
MANY if not MOST small farms that fall under the jurisdiction of the USDA have chosen NOT to get certified, not because they aren’t practicing organic production techniques, but because it is a lengthy and rather expensive process that for the most part does not justify its expense. Unless you are a large farm growing commodity amounts of a crop to be sold as certified organic for use in packaged products, organic certification with the USDA is a marketing strategy. It does not change one’s farming philosophy or choice for or against sustainable techniques.
So, if a customer asks us if our arugula is organic, the answer is “officially, it is not considered organic by the USDA because it is not certified.” If a customer asks us if our arugula is grown to the standards of the USDA National Organic Program, we would say “Yes, all of our produce at ARTfarm is grown to the USDA organic specifications. We keep detailed records, we use sustainable farming methods, only when absolutely necessary do we sparingly use nonsynthetic treatments only of the type that are OMRI certified for use on organic farms. However we have not been inspected by a USDA approved organic certifying agency.”
If a customer asks us WHY we are not certified organic, we’d say, “We pursued it seriously and actively and found this: it’s incredibly expensive and not eco-friendly to fly in and house a USDA certified inspector from off island ANNUALLY, it involves reams of federal paperwork that is onerous and uses up many man-hours in labor, and we don’t believe our customers want to offset that cost in our prices. We’ve already got enough documentation chores from the local Department of Ag, and the USDA’s NRCS and FSA. We’d rather spend the time and energy growing more food. It simply does not align with our core values or the needs of our business to spend money and time getting USDA Certified.”
If a customer asks us WHY we bother to grow sustainably and organically, we’d say “We’re parents. We care about safety and want to trust that our farm is free from harmful substances. We’re artists. Organic sustainable growing is more harmonious, fascinating, challenging, and personally and aesthetically satisfying. We’re conscious humans. We care about stewarding the environment in the next seven generations and beyond. Big Ag loves to debate it, but we and the FAO think growing organically with sustainable practices is better for the planet. We’re foodies, and we agree with our customers and chefs who constantly tell us the food tastes better when you put that kind of care and love into it.”
Does it really matter if your produce is: locally grown with organic approved methods, by conscientious people you know personally, or: certified organic by a federal agency?