Thursday, April 7, 2016

Digging in the dirt — Feb and March 2016

 

We (Renee mostly, let's be honest here) have been doing a lot of digging since we bought this piece of land, but you know who's *REALLY* good at digging?

 

Pigs.

Wild pigs are in abundance, as I'm sure that I've mentioned a time or two, and the evidence of their passing through an area is hard to miss.

 

 

 

This area looks like it's been gone over with a rototiller. Maybe it would be a good spot for a new garden?

 

 

Unfortunately, they also found something interesting in Renee's shade garden.

 

 

Trampled and dug through but, as tasty forage is abundant and most of the plants are purely ornamental, the pigs left most of the plantings alone. We have been expecting this sort of thing to be a common occurrence, but nonetheless this serves as a good wakeup call, a thing to keep in mind for our edible endeavors.

 

 

Many families here keep a pig or two, and more and more it's feeling like a practical decision. We generate very little household waste, but despite a lifetime habit of composting vegetable matter and recycling what we can, there always remains the question of dealing with non-veg materials, meat scraps and the like. It's highly unlikely that we will go vegan anytime soon (like...never), and a pig is happy to turn that nasty garbage into protein and manure. Pen them into a restricted area and they will also do an admirably thorough job of tilling the soil, as we have been reminded.

 

Pigs....the garden tool that you eat.

 

 

 

While thinking of pens and enclosures, I started putting a bit of the rampant tangle of Guava to a more directed use. It's my intent to lay the guava as a hedge row in the English tradition, using its resilience and vigorous nature to help define the property boundaries, but this day was more of a fun start.

 

 

 

 

 

This area is the only level spot large enough to fit our two (small) cars and it's proximal to the road. After removing the guava, we'll actually have an area to park! First though, the stumps and roots must be removed.

 

 

A lashed-stick tripod and hand winch make the task a bit easier than tearing away with a pickaxe alone. I pull the root mass upward, then work around the perimeter, severing the remaining roots using a hatchet and knife until the clump is free. My saving grace is that the soil in this area is fairly thin with lava sheet below, and the guava is a shallow rooting plant, here at least. 30 minutes? Then on to the next.....and the next.....and.....

 

Every now and then our neighbor Robert Sr. drives by, giving us crazy haoles mildly incredulous looks and offering a tepid wave. After watching me take the better part of a week to clear a 10' x 20', he says he's had enough and that watching me work like this is making HIM tired. Crazy haoles! He fires up his old Case backhoe, then finishes stripping off our parking spot in about 15 minutes flat, haha.

 

 

After pulling out some of the loose lava for Renee to play with, we've got the beginnings of a parking lot. Thanks Robert!

 

Having neighbors like Robert Sr. is one of the reasons why I like this part of Hawaii. He's a grouchy old hawaiian dude and not overly friendly to strangers. Opposite his driveway is a derelict school bus of his that acts as a local landmark, and from what little bit of his property you can see from the road, it seems to consist of a couple of junk cars and an old shack, all of which is almost entirely hidden underneath 20 years of jungle growth. The cluttered mess and gruff demeanor are a front. He plants starfruit that are hugely prolific, right next to the road so that neighbors can share the bounty. He drives old cars because only fools drive new ones that are troublesome for the owner to fix. Likewise, his old backhoe gets worked one periodically by Robert himself, just enough to keep it functional. He saves his money, only spending when necessary. My kinda guy.

 

 

Well, a couple days later, what should I find but this?

 

 

Robert put Renee in the driver's seat, and told her to have fun. She did, and quickly roughed out another garden bed, then dug up more stone for the remaining wall.

 

 

 

 

Renee says "Wow! That was awesome! We should get one of these things!

 

Haha! Bingo! Just what I was waiting for! I had been following the Big Island backhoe and excavator market for the last 4 months, and it just so happened......

 

 

 

 

And Renee is right. Backhoe's ARE fun!

 

 

 

I must admit to feeling a bit conflicted in buying/using heavy equipment to aid us in our endeavors. Foolish perhaps, but.....

 

Clearing the land is a large undertaking. The general means of doing this is tohire a huge bulldozer to strip off every bit of living matter, then drag a 3' long tooth through the lava to break things up. The resultant rubble then gets driven over repeatedly until the stones crushed into an even size, then spread around to contour the site. Finally, it all gets covered up with imported topsoil so that stuff can grow, usually a grassy lawn. I think I could safely say that a lawn would be the LAST thing that we want to surround ourselves by, to look at every day.

 

 

 

 

We pass by this neighbor on our little side road, and we've been able to watch as he developes this property.

 

 

Not too bad, as these things go. He had a smaller bulldozer brought in to do the work, taking about one weeks time. He left some trees for visual interest (the permaculture guys here call this "native landscaping") and I'm sure that it will continue to improve in the coming years. Still, wherever the bulldozer goes, the soil disappears. That thin brown patch is all that's left of the soil, the rest of the place is bare, gray stone.

 

 

 

In some areas, the amount of topsoil is insignificant. This stretch of road I cut is 100' long and runs atop an old lava tube. Zero soil here.

 

 

 

Other spots however.....

 

Large areas of our place have these fields, full of climbing Aluhe fern.

 

 

The soil here is so deep, 4-wheel drive would've been a nice option for the backhoe. 2-3' deep with some chunks of old lava thrown into the mix, rich, black soil. At least with a backhoe, you never get stuck, haha.

 

 

 

 

So my quandary? Why would anyone NOT want to use bigger tools, get the work done with dramatically less effort? Back in the old days, a poor farmer would have to clear his entire field, carved from the forest itself, using only an axe, pick, and shovel. Of course, as soon as he could afford it, he bought a plow-horse, a team of oxen if he was doing really well. There is always work to do, and it's just natural to shift the burden to other things. God knows, I've got plenty of other things to occupy my time. The days are almost NEVER long enough, and none of us know how much time we really have.

 

My issue is with scale. Bigger tools mean bigger projects, more time, and more expense. When your tools are a shovel and a hatchet, you build within the inherent restraint of the tools. My original intent was to clear a small spot from the jungle, then build a quick shelter. My enthusiasm for digging stumps from the ground is not boundless, and at the rate I've been going, the time required to get to the back of our 1045' deep property would be likely measured in years. Renee is patient, but even she has limits. So yeah, the time thing is important too, but again, much of this is about scale of work.

 

Small. Small is good. Using just a shovel and pick, I can build a very cute and practical garden bed. Big gardens are a PITA, small pocket gardens are fun. I'd rather have 10 small gardens than one large one. Likewise, are homes. Small houses are great, cheap and funky. A big house (and mortgage!) is a quick route to an unhappy life. I'm usually more enchanted by a cute garden shed than a pole barn.

 

Enter Sjovel (he's not Swedish but, what the hell, it's a good name for a guy who digs holes). 10 days of digging has gotten me 1/3 of the way into the property and, while its far from being a road that you could actually drive on, at least it gives access. Another week of work should put me in the general vicinity of where we would like to begin building. Along the way, I've been collecting Ohia to use for future construction and a difficult proposition I had been dwelling on for ages, moving SUPER heavy logs, has been solved with the stroke of a pen. Making new garden spots will be a breeze.

 

The problem is that it's too easy. I need to reign myself in periodically, to remind myself that the trail should be as narrow as physically possible, to not dig up every rock I can find, and not pull up every guava within reach (and it's easy, let me tell you, ripping out the guava). See, every patch of Guava that gets torn out, every clump of Aluhe that I rip up, it all gets replaced by something else. All garden spots need a cover crop ASAP, otherwise there are a multitude of nasty weeds that will fill that void. This virgin land has very few weeds, so few that you can infer their introduction based on how far the new growth is from the parent stock next door. I think of tearing up the land as an obligation, like having children or adopting a pet. A lifetime contract of sorts. A cleared field needs to be worked, fed and nurtured, else it runs amuck and goes to hell.

 

And a bigger house would be nice, but a larger structure takes more time and money to build. A small house is efficient to build, easier keep warm or cool, and is more comfortable to be in. To keep things in perspective, 900 sq/ft is getting too big for our liking, so it's not like we are talking about building a mansion or anything, but....when the limiting function changes from what one man can lift and carry, into the monetary restrictions on buying big pieces of lumber, it's something to think about. How much of your life are you willing to trade for a larger house? Me? Not much.

 

The garden might get bigger though.


 

 

 

4 comments:

  1. Mark recently found his copy of "A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction" by Alexander, Ishikawa, and Silverstein. It has tons of great analysis of why buildings, cities, and towns should be build to suit the patterns and nature of the humans inhabiting them. Really good depth too, I'm wondering if your local library would have a copy. I had been looking for something that covered permaculture construction at the practical and in depth level, and its right up your alley if you haven't already run across it.

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    1. Thanks for the excellent recommendation Gabe! I've long had a love of architecture, and it was a very near thing, deciding between majoring in ARCH or BIO. The critters won, but all my friends were architecture majors and engineers. I read the book over 20 years ago, but my frame of reference is so dramatically different now, it would be a great thing to check out again. A great suggestion!

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  2. What native plant do you use as a cover crop? I can hardly wait to see the new place.

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    1. Brandon! It so good to hear from you, on your exciting voyage! Don't sail here too fast. Enjoy Mexico first!

      The closest thing to a native cover crop that comes to mind would be the climbing Aluhe ferns, often the exact plant that I have been ripping out. They do an excellent job of blocking out competing vegetation, but I've got something of a more edible nature in mind. While not being a native species, the Okinawan sweet potatoes that we love so much serve the same purpose. Tasty leaves and the delicious tubers (MUCH better than the sweet potatoes that we grew up with) make it a winner in my book. And it's easy to grow, just nip off a length of runner, then stick it in the ground, it's my kind of gardening!

      Another cover crop that works well in Hawaii is the ground peanut. It's a legume obviously, so it is a nitrogen fixer, and the flowers taste like peanuts. It's not much for actual "peanut" production ironically.

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Like all of us, I am figuring this out as I go, so when you see something that is incorrect or flat out wrong (and you will!), let me know. This is a learning process. Real people and names, please. Constructive comments and questions are very welcome, but hate speak/politics are not! Life (get one!) is too short.


Thanks, Jason