We neglected to acknowledge two important community milestones; Juneteenth happening tomorrow — a day too often overlooked in our schools and society — and in the middle of Pride Month, which intersects in many ways and culminates on Pride Day, June 28th. We encourage everyone to learn more about the history of both.
Thanks to all in our community who are continuing to do the difficult, exhausting work of exposing social justice issues, and pushing us all to look inside and understand our ONE humanity. It is a necessary step toward solving many of our other species-threatening challenges on our one planet. Big shoutout to the angels at Theater Of the Oppressed VI, Come To The Table, VI Good Food Coalition, the St. Croix Environmental Association, the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix, and others who help us hold respectful space for justice, communication and finding solutions. We support and celebrate you!
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.
It was just another Saturday, until I heard this: “NOOOOOOOooooo!” The anguished cry went up from the farmstand, more than once. “I missed the greens?” Soulful eyes pleaded. “I can’t survive without them.” And another, maniacally gripping my lapels: “Don’t you see?! I have an addiction!!” My partner and I couldn’t escape the plaintive cries, even through our phone lines: “But…I’m a chef! What about my customers?!” As the voice trailed off into gentle sobbing, even the cashbox had a hollow, mournful clunk at the end of the farmstand, devoid of lettuce sales.
How to explain this? It all began in 1999, with the coconut coir, and it ended in December, with hundreds of pairs of beautiful legs. But I digress…
(To read more of this agricultural noir thriller, scroll down after the farmstand listing!)
Wednesday afternoon 3-5:30pm, we will have: loads of tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, criminal amounts of cherry tomatoes, regular cucumbers, tiny wild pasture ‘gherkin’ cucumbers, lots of cooking greens, bunched arugula, beets, various butternut pumpkins, radishes, carrots, seasoning and Serano peppers, Italian basil, very little cilantro and parsley, lots of dill (great for pickling those tiny cucumbers), garlic chives, tons of ginger and turmeric, a good bit of watermelon including the yellow variety, about 10 bags of fresh figs, and zinnias! Also, no lettuce or salad mix. Learn why:
It was late November, 2017. The island mood was lifting after the storm, but many of the electric lights were still dark, when I stumbled across a tragedy of growing proportions. The crisp, leafy victims? Young, too young. Baby lettuces, mysteriously disappearing or dying. Their tantalizing, sweet potential, dashed into the compost heap like another shiny American dream. Nearly broke the heart of even a seasoned professional farmer like myself. My partner and I were determined to dig to the bottom of this and find out what was happening. We hung out our agricultural investigative shingle and started burning the shoe leather.
At first we had fooled ourselves, bellying up to the bar of the future for a lukewarm glass of false hope with a chaser of denial: we chalked missing lettuce seedlings up to the statistics. But as a week passed, there was a pattern: part of a tray of lettuce seedlings, just missing. Then another section, and another. Too many, just not surviving to the light of day.
But those who were able to thwart this mysterious abduction were not thriving. Instead of the vibrant, green, bushy seedlings I had grown accustomed to, they were limp. Lanky. Languishing. Lifeless.
And then came the wilt. The rot. The small percentage of who had survived were now dying. Something was destroying our lettuce before it ever made it to the field. Four out of five seedlings, dead. What was this mysterious, unseen, evil force? I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, as the dreaded words I could not say aloud flooded across my mind: “lettuce crop failure.”
My mind spun, counterclockwise, to the past. September, 2017. I thought of the powerful, angry dame with the breathy voice who had whirled through my office then. Maria, she said her name was. Could she be behind this? There was no doubt in my mind, but I still had no way to pin these crimes on her. I knew I had to find a way. I was being cold framed!
I combed through the furthest reaches of my memories, scratching my beard and searching for clues.
Could it be the seeds? It was now early December. We’d gone without electricity for months after Maria ravaged the island’s infrastructure, maybe the seed stock had gone bad and wasn’t germinating. I checked with my partner, but she said she’d ordered new seeds that miraculously came in the mail as soon as the airport reopened after the big storm. So we ruled that out.
I knew that Maria had destroyed our seedling house. It was the place where these young lettuces would have been protected and nurtured, instead of being exposed to all the tropical dangers that can turn a fresh, innocent seedling into a twisted heap of rotting cellulose before you could say “romaine”. I had hard evidence. I had satellite photos at the scene of the violent crime. Maria had her footprints all over the mess. We knew this was big. Then, Washington put out an APB over the wire on Maria and was offering a reward for information, so we called our contacts in D.C. and filed a pile of paperwork that could’ve choked a horse. But the Feds said their hands were tied. They wouldn’t back us up. My partner cursed them with language that revealed her nautical roots. But it wouldn’t change anything. We, and all the other farmers on the island with broken and crushed buildings, were going to have to go this alone.
We knew there were occasional roving gangs of mice in the neighborhood. Mostly they stayed clear of us, but with the seedling house reduced to a pile of broken lumber, their territory had likely shifted. Meanwhile, the lettuce trays had been crowded together in a smaller space to survive. The presence of this crowded, vulnerable population could have caused the gangs to become organized. We set up a sting operation involving some traps. But these were well trained soldiers and they did not fall for our subterfuge. They continued to pick off the young innocent sprouts, one by one. I laid awake at night, hearing their teeny tiny squeaky voices. Mocking me.
And what about the rot? That was not gang-related collateral damage. There had to be something…something in the coir.
Over eighteen years of farming, I had stubbornly resisted the use of commercial potting mix. My partner and I were both philosophically opposed to importation of resources that could be found on the island. The commercial potting products usually contained questionable characters, such as peat bog products which are not renewable. We had inherited a mountain of coconut coir nearly 20 years ago in 1999, and had been using the goldmine of fibrous hairy brown material to keep our potting mix light and fluffy. But it was heavily processed, and had to be imported. And we were running out. Maria’s punishing rains had soaked the molehill of our coir mountain that remained, and it had grown fungal and rich. Perhaps too rich for the young and delicate, innocent victims of this mysterious crime.
Perhaps it was time to shut the door on the coir and find a solution that could close the book on this perfect storm of plagues. But what was the answer? I began spending sleepless nights in the crime lab, trying old and new formulations. Each one took agonizing days to test. Failure after failure threatened my resolve. There had now been nearly two weeks of greatly reduced lettuce production, a disaster that I knew would come to haunt me in early February 2018, if I couldn’t solve this problem now. Only one in five seedlings had survived the mysterious onslaught of crime. The compost was piling up. Two weeks had passed.
Time was running out. Christmas was nearing, but despite the cheerful blinky battery operated lights and the holiday songs on the emergency radio, my heart was a fragile, empty shell. Bleary-eyed, I could see a dismal future ahead, full of disappointed customers, angry chefs, bills stacking up with no sales. It was a disaster borne of a disaster. But what could I do?
Then my partner said, “Wait. I know a guy.”
Bob was a guy, a Guy that could Build Stuff. Sure, we’d brought him in to repair the miles of fencing that had gotten knocked down. But this was a culinary emergency, we needed all hands on deck. Bob and I threw together a tiny protected hut from the shattered remains of the seedling house. It wasn’t much, but perhaps it could save a few lives. Then another mysterious figure emerged from the mist. It was Roi. We couldn’t believe our luck. Roi knew how to build stuff. He put a sturdy roof on the hut. The shattered pieces of our lives were starting to come back together with the glue of the Guys who could Build Stuff.
Back in the lab, I had become obsessed with the granularity of wood chips. We had stockpiled mountains of wood chips for mulch prior to the storm. Could an answer lie within these sleeping behemoths? I didn’t know it at the time but it was a dead end, an end that would lead nowhere and would not solve my problem. Or could it? One night, as I mopped my brow under the dimming light of the failing solar lantern, SHE walked in.
She was petite, not unusual, I’d seen her type around the farm before. But what really caught my attention were those legs, those beautiful legs. She had a sinuous way of moving them that put my frontal cortex into a deep freeze. They were smooth, waxy, bright red. She had to have about 300 of them, two per segment to be exact. She crawled up my arm and looked me straight in the eyes, meaningfully waving her feelers at me. I could almost hear her teeny tiny voice say, “Use the force, Lucaaaaaaaaa.” I knew it was the hand of fate, Lady Luck dealing me a winning hand. And I knew what I had to try.
The wood chips to replace the coir had to be gongolo and millipede composted.
I tried to hold myself back from counting unhatched chickens, but I could feel it in my bones. I knew I had finally stopped this crime wave and restored a new normal to these young summer crisps, with the help of my leggy friend, the Guys Who Could Build Stuff, and my faithful and salty partner.
After a few days, I reaped the success of my experiment. The sweet sweet smell of our new formula of potting soil soothed my soul. The emergency lettuce hut kept the mice at bay. And the seedlings begin to show a vitality and vibrancy that made my heart sing. The lettuce was growing leafy and full again.
I knew the customers would never understand. It was too complex, too nuanced, too frightening, too much to wrap your head around. Plus, insects. The whole thing was like a dream. A nightmare, really, one that I’d feared I’d never awaken from. But now, the birds were singing. The lettuces were growing again. The mice had moved on. I knew that there would be lean times ahead. There would be at least a week, maybe two, in mid February, when the people would cry out in sheer agony, for lettuce, for lettuce products, blissfully unaware of the struggles and darkness we had been through in the dark, dark days of December. But that didn’t matter now.
Because we had so many cherry tomatoes.
Post-hurricane adjustments took time, during which we were also trying to train a new employee, repair broken infrastructure on the farm and in our home, apply for federal disaster programs and make business decisions based on unknown disaster zone variables, including the size of our customer base post-storm: many of our permanent resident customers had taken mercy flights to the states for an unpredictable period of time, and we had no way of knowing whether our seasonal resident customers would be back for the season. The customer response this season has been unpredictably huge, and we are fielding a few complaints that there is not enough produce to go around (despite the fact that we are always packing away some food items at the end of every farmstand). Please know that if we could grow more food for you, we would. Farming is seasonal and subject to the vagaries of nature. And other farms on St. Croix will soon be producing more food, stay tuned!
Farmer Luca’s latest obsession and favorite treat after a hot day in the fields is watermelon. He has been on a quest to find new or rare heirloom varieties of melon that are drought tolerant. He has planted a lot of interesting stuff and is learning a lot about cultivating the vines. It’s a challenging crop to grow but he is highly motivated. We truly hope there will be some left for our customers. 😉
Lots of fresh greens from all the rain. Come out for 10 AM tomorrow morning and you’ll find: Sweet salad mix, baby arugula, teen arugula, baby spicy salad mix, teen spicy salad mix, escarole, several kale varieties including tender Ethiopian kale, dandelion greens, onions, scallions, baby carrots, radishes, sweet potatoes, new baby ginger so tender you don’t have to peel it. Loads of watermelons (multiple red and yellow fleshed varieties to choose from), Japanese sweet crunchy green mini melons, beautiful Indian honeydew melons, papayas, passionfruit, and loads of Mediterranean figs, beautiful cut flowers, lemongrass, garlic chives, recao, dill, cilantro, rosemary, the basils. Local honey from Errol. Early birds will find a few cucumbers and the first of our cherry tomatoes (just a few pints).