May Showers and Hugel Beds and Freeman Rogers!

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Farmer Bob builds a hugelkultur bed at ARTfarm using leftover storm debris. Hugel beds improve drainage, sequester carbon, reduce cultivation work, increase good fungal growth in soil, save on irrigation water, tidy up storm debris and grow huge healthy plants… What’s not to love? More below on DIYing your own hugel bed at home!

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.

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Bigger logs were used in a hugel bed we built in 2016. These logs grew some great watermelons, and are now growing peppers.

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!

This finished hugel bed, with young watermelon vines, is approximately 15′ wide by 55′ long.

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.

You can read more about hugel beds here: https://richsoil.com/hugelkultur/ and also here: https://permies.com/t/17/Paul-Wheaton-hugelkultur-article-thread

And if you missed it this week, here’s an article in the St. Croix Source about farmers and post-storm mulch material. Ask any farmer how they feel about all of the downed tree debris being shipped out of the territory:  https://stcroixsource.com/2018/05/09/st-john-farmers-disappointed-by-missed-mulch/

Farmers In The News

We had a nice mention and link in Frommers.com this week. ARTfarm has been photographed or mentioned in a number of articles this year, including in Travel and Leisure magazine, Coastal Living (pictured here) and other print/online lifestyle news outlets. The hot topic for these travel writers is St. Croix transforming into a foodie’s paradise, but Frommers’ writer, Alexis Flippin, seems to capture it in a way that is really succinct and well researched.

We love this focus on a more sustainable, tourist friendly, picturesque and healthy industry direction on St. Croix. We are proud to be a small part of the greater agriculture community here and grateful to our fantastic chefs and tourism department who are directing attention toward this topic.

Wednesday stand, 3 – 5:30 PM: Sweet salad mix, baby arugula, baby spicy salad mix, all of our tomatoes, all of our peppers, beautiful big onions, beets, sweet potatoes, Italian basil, dill, parsley, recao garlic chives, radishes, cooking greens, dandelion greens, loads of papaya, a few pineapples (it’s not over, but it’s just not abundant at the moment), watermelons, lots of pumpkin, a few passion fruit.

No zinnias today – they all are attending a wedding!

Wednesday 3-6pm, Fresh Fish, Chef of the Week, Spring Planting, Q&A

As is typical for this time of year, the tomato season at ARTfarm is beginning to show signs of slowing down (as are the farmers!). While we still have plenty of beautiful ripe tomatoes, you may notice a reduction in the average size of the bigger slicing varieties.

Today, 3-6pm: Sweet salad mix, plenty of baby arugula, baby spicy salad mix, onions, all the (cherry, heirloom, slicer, plum) tomatoes, lemon basil, holy basil, Italian basil, parsley, garlic chives, pumpkin, sweet bell peppers, hot peppers, seasoning peppers. Earlybird specials (small quantities): cucumbers and passionfruit.

From our partners we have fresh Mahi and tuna from fisherman Ryan DiPasquale, Fiddlewood Farms fresh locally made goat cheese​, and local coconut vegan ice cream in various local fruit flavors from I-Sha.

Spring is rapidly making way for summer! Dragonfruit are blooming, watermelon trials are going well. Pineapple plants are setting fruit. Luca is excited about planting more sweet potato to keep Pete happy. (Are you reading this, Pete?)

Also figs are bursting with new buds. Hopefully we’ll have loads of fruit in a few weeks.

 Q&A Wednesday: many questions were asked and answered when Farmer Luca appeared with Farmer Grantley of GLG Plants & Produce on the “It’s Your Perspective” YouTube live streaming talk show with hosts Ras Kimba (David Christian, CHS ’83) and Ras Soup (Campbell Carter) last night. They talked for about an hour about farming, the state of agriculture today, and the Taste of St. Croix. Their 4/12/2016 interview is archived on YouTube.

We look forward to seeing friends at the Taste tomorrow night! Stop by our table and say hello! If you are not attending, we urge you to make a reservation at Chef Ken Bigg’s kitchen over at Galangal for a lovely night out! Chef Ken wins the ARTfarm Chef of the Week award for personally delivering seven boxes of fresh frozen fish carcasses he saved for our composting system. Nothing says “I love you” to this farmer like a tower of fresh fish parts on your doorstep!

ARTfarm holiday weekend schedule: OPEN!

Greetings ARTfarm family! We will be open on Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, at our regular hours of 3–6 p.m. We will have our regular assortment of freshly made salad greens, herbs, plenty of tomatoes for everyone, and other typical ARTfarm goodies.

In the media: Luca appeared briefly on the Fresh From The Farm talk show hosted by Mr. Errol Chichester on Saturday morning from 7 to 8am on WSTX-AM 970. It was a lively discussion, for two men who were both a little sleepy at that hour.

They also tell us ARTfarm will be in the Avis and the St. Croix Source on Monday to divulge some of the details of our encounter with Martha Stewart. Martha’s sister has also informed us that there will be a post about us on Martha’s blog on Monday and Tuesday at themarthablog.com — Enjoy. And if anyone has an extra copy of the Avis article, please bring us one!20140119-152817.jpg

Martha Stewart’s Visit to ARTfarm!

Happy New Year, dear farm supporters! We are very excited to say that we ended 2013 with a positive and thought provoking hour-long farm visit from vacationing celebrity Martha Stewart and a few friends. Martha found out about ARTfarm because one of the local private chefs she hired to do some (not all!) of the cooking during her St. Croix vacation shops at ARTfarm. After tasting our produce, Martha was curious to find out where her fresh salad greens were coming from!

We were extra motivated to give her a farm tour, not only because we know Martha is a famous foodie who’s extremely knowledgeable about sustainable farming and artisanal food production, but also because Christina was her employee in the art department of the award winning “Martha Stewart Living” magazine in New York. AND, need we say, because it would be completely surreal and fun for us to have an international pop culture icon of the American kitchen and garden walking around the ARTfarm.

We prepared our five-year-old for the visit by explaining that the ‘Martha’ coming for a farm tour was not the talking dog from the PBS Kids cartoon, but a real ‘princess’ like Audrey Hepburn’s character in “Roman Holiday” – this Martha had castles with pretty chandeliers and gardens and staff, and horses and fluffy cats, but also a lot of work responsibilities and a hectic schedule. She was here on St. Croix with her family to relax and ‘let her hair down’ AND she was about the same age as Grandma.

So ‘Princess’ Martha, along with her MSLO colleague Kevin Sharkey and some family friends, arrived around 5pm on a Sunday afternoon, armed with sensible shoes and cameras. Yes, Martha is quite tall! She was relaxed, energetic and engaged, and immediately noticed Valeria’s orchids blooming in the trees. She and her friends all kept us on our toes with dozens of rapid-fire questions about the farm, crops, livestock, and growing methods, while simultaneously shooting dozens of photos and managing to charm the shyness out of our kid.

Celebrity Martha Stewart poses for a photo with the ARTfarm family in the pasture while on vacation.

ARTfarmers posing in the pasture with Martha Stewart! Note the beach-blown hair.

Luca’s favorite moment: Martha picked up a fresh fig off the ground, ripped it in half and started eating it and sharing it with her friends, passing the other half back to Luca.

Christina’s favorite moment: Slinging our cordless power drill in one hand, Martha executed an uncannily accurate turkey call which caused our second Tom turkey (who usually hides in the group, acting like a hen) to respond by puffing up in archetypal male turkey form. Perfect.

As we surveyed the vegetable gardens, Martha told us about ingredients she’d discovered on her visit to St. Croix, and how she’d delved into local cuisine (I noted her trademark fearlessness and skilled hand), making conch fritters and soursop ice cream for her family and guests. They were all very excited about discovering fresh Caribbean fruits that are too delicate for export, like mamey sapote. “I’ve been putting that stuff in everything!” Martha exclaimed of recao, a.k.a. culantro/shado benni, the ‘cousin’ of cilantro we sell at the stand. (She collected a few seeds to start at home.) She was familiar with dragonfruit and fascinated to see how we cultivate the plants. She admired the red Senepol cows grazing in an adjacent pasture, and we compared home dairy aspirations.

Our junkfood pop culture has an obsessive fascination with the benign, off-screen moments of the rich and famous. Airbrushed Martha Stewart in full hair and makeup is all over your TV, the newsstand, and the internet, but along with many other St. Croix residents this year we were fortunate to meet the unretouched mortal on holiday. (Let’s congratulate ourselves for keeping a low key vibe on STX – this is apparently an island where celebrities feel comfortably anonymous enough to eat out in town with their families, go to church, shop at Plaza Extra and pump their own gas!)

Luca and I felt commonality with Martha’s passion for simple, excellent food and growing what you eat, meticulously. You can sense one of the keys to her success immediately: she has a child’s fearless curiosity and ravenous appetite to learn something new. Nothing escapes her observation. Cross that child with a gracious 72 year old grandmother who gushes about her toddler grandkids and is eager to share many years of accumulated how-to knowledge in the garden and the home. (Add a pinch of drill seargeant.) She didn’t want me to forget my cordless drill in the rain, so she picked it up and carried it around. To be the recipient of this mama-hen practicality took me a bit by surprise. Pun fully intended.

The public figure of Martha Stewart has always been polarizing. She’s the overachieving queen of the sparkling clean American house and perfect dinner party, a wildly rich and powerful female publishing and licensing magnate, and one–name A-list celebrity icon (along with Sting; Cher; Britney; Lindsay; the Donald) whose first name goes beyond proper noun to adjective, verb, and running cultural joke. The use of Her Name denotes a level of quality, even smugness, that seems curiously detached from what is deemed necessary in the ‘real world’ of packaged convenience: “I went full Martha and made my pie crust from scratch”, “My handstamped gift wrap is sooo Martha”, “I Martha’d up my dinner party with personalized origami napkin rings and rustic floral arrangements. Can you believe it?” or “I summoned my inner Martha and organized my closet by fabric type.” Eyeroll.

Martha’s brand of domestic art can be a draconian standard to contemplate. For the average understaffed person trying to get through the messy realities of life (let alone the extra helping of salt spray, mildew, mold, bugs and dust that comes with island life!), it doesn’t help that Martha is authoritative and unapologetic; she lacks the self-effacing, sympathetic delivery of other self-help gurus. In person she has a sparkling sense of humor, but she doesn’t wield it constantly, or automatically direct it at herself. She is cut from sturdier cloth. There’s something deeply retro – beyond ironic hipster retro – about Martha and her dignity and her obsessions with heirloom chickens and wreaths and root vegetables. She wants you to iron your tablecloths the right way, but she’s modern, too: CEO and Chairwoman and star of her own 638-million-dollar media enterprise, flitting between photoshoots and regular television appearances – and a trading conviction and time served for street cred. Who are we mere mortals to compete with that? Anyway, who can be so serious about housekeeping?

In the decade plus of Christina’s professional graphic design and art direction work at various companies in New York City, there was never a tighter ship than the one that Martha helmed at Martha Stewart Living magazine. From the top down there was an absolute insistence that no miniscule detail of quality be overlooked. This made for a relatively serious workplace, but the level of focus was formative and one slept well at night knowing the rigorous product of your workday was as close to the razor’s edge of perfection as humans can achieve.

Martha Stewart and some family friends pose with a small white lamb.

Martha Stewart and some family friends on vacation have snuggle time with a two-week-old lamb at ARTfarm.

Martha is often dismissed as a frosty WASPy ‘beech’ (her word), and when I left the magazine in 1995 it was primarily because I wasn’t sure I was helping to make the world a better place. Back then she was a tough boss who seemed to regularly churn through personal assistants, but in meeting her again after so many years, my perspective on Martha and her message has enlarged. She IS patrician, but her intent is to inspire us to do the better job she knows we are capable of. And like most artists, she simply can’t help but immerse herself in her passions. We can envy her success, or judge how she spends her earnings, or be annoyed by her perfect tarts, but they are a direct result of compulsion plus talent, multiplied by opportunities seized. Love or hate the monarchy, but the power and trappings of celebroyalty are part of what attracts us to them in the first place; a brush with a princess elevates us, temporarily. It’s a rush of adrenaline.

So is Martha going to save the world with her aspirational lifestyle? Maybe. Martha knows (just like any other stickler: your mom, or that impossibly tough high school English teacher you’ll never forget) that even if you don’t initially like the level of performance she is holding you to, it will make your life better if you give the details a little more rigor. Her message may be obscured in a puff of highly staffed, professionally styled, wainscoted New Englandish smokescreen, but all she REALLY wants you to know is that if you’d only put your mind to it, you really can do anything. (And with a little more effort, you can do it REALLY WELL.)

With Kmart as our only ‘big-box’ department store on St. Croix and Martha’s longstanding licensing agreement there (which ended in 2009), it is likely that many of us on our little island own at least one or two tastefully understated household items with Martha’s label affixed. The surreality was not lost on me of having Order Incarnate, whose name is on towels, sheets, an ice bucket, bowls, storage containers, and God knows what else in our home, standing in our cluttered kitchen. Graciously, she didn’t bat an eye as she shifted aside a pile of farm detritus on the entryway countertop to find the space to write down some contact information on a scrap of paper we had located for her.

That low, distinctive, commanding voice paused all conversations in the crowded room, as she reminded me to give her the phone number of a neighbor. Boom. This lady has always had power, but she has been canny enough to direct it into the construction of an empire to broadcast her message. There she was, moments ago in my pasture, holding my drill like Rosie the Riveter: We Can Do It!

The next day, I vacuumed like crazy, cleaned my dusty screens, attacked the laundry pile and got rid of a bunch of clutter. Thank you, Princess Grandma Martha.

In 2014, let’s go big and go Martha: let’s not fear measuring up to our inner yardstick, and celebrate who we are. Let’s embrace power – our own and that of others. Let’s embrace the striving for perfection, accepting the likely possibility of falling short in our quest for balance and light. And broadcast our message as loud as we can.

Here is an apt quote from Rainer Maria Rilke to start our year off (thank you Tanisha, our Crucian Contessa – and dear Kevin, apply this thought to banana spiders!):

“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

And a song with its heart in the right place:  A Great Big World – “This Is the New Year” – YouTube

And one final, completely out-of-context quote from Martha that might just become the 2014 ARTfarm t-shirt and reusable shopping tote design: “I just want to focus on my salad.”

Happy New Year!!

xoxo ARTfarm

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