First big pruning of the tea field

March 19th, 2009

This long wet winter has been great for the tea.  It just loves misty wet weather.  The most healthy and well-established plants have been growing fast and strong.  I’ve collected branches several times to make cuttings.  Community folks Heidi and Mary came by with her kids to get tea cuttings to start their own tea.  After that, it was time to prune all the plants even further down.  Experienced tea growers taught us that when the plants are young, they should be pruned down to encourage a strong root base and lots of branches, which should make for a thick full hedge later on.  Here’s how the field looks:

Biochar news, terroir, local ag, collapse, stoves

March 7th, 2009

A collection of things i’ve recently found fascinating:

  • International Biochar Initiative (IBI) projects, with cleaner char-producing stoves and gasifiers for all parts of the world.  Dozens of universities and thousands of farmers and researchers are busy with biochar, even though the “larger world” still hasn’t heard.  I’m dying to make or buy some char to test on our farm.
  • Peter Schmidt on Terroir, Biodiversity, and Biochar Even though this expert is talking about wine grapes, it’s very easy to see how it pertains to tea as well.  As he says, Soil is an endless science.
  • I’ve discovered mailing lists for Big Island Self-Sufficiency (chatty) and Hawaii Chickens (less so).
  • Dmitri Orlov’s Social Collapse Best Practices talk given in San Francisco.  As he says, when any society collapses (as he observed in the Soviet Union), what matters is food, shelter, transportation, and security.  The time to think about how to secure those post-peak is now.
  • I ordered a small rocket stove and a larger wood gas stove to experiment with.  Stoves are way more interesting than i ever knew.  It seems millions of us who live outside cities could be cooking this way – clean, no smoke, and carbon neutral.  Some stoves will even gasify, there are hundreds out there as research, but i still haven’t found a unit that cleanly produces char that you can just buyWorldStove looks promising – see video of their LuciaStove in Pyrolytic Gasification Mode.

Farm update, and the state of the world

March 2nd, 2009

We’ve had nine days of very wet and cold weather.  Can’t do much gardening, using the wood stove a lot to drive out the cold and damp.  The tea plants are the only one who appear to be very happy with our wet winter so far.  It seems they love all the rain, with fast and strong growth.  I made another 200 cuttings from the growth (oasis cubes, dip-n-grow); with the success rate i’ve been having, that might become 20 new plants.

Meanwhile, the new house has been moving forward (photos).

Last week we had a mainland visitor, my old friend Aix, who now lives in Arcata, CA.  Incredibly, we hadn’t seen each other since i visited him in Kyoto in 1997.  It was great to catch up, and he briefly got to experience working in the tea field, running to shredder to make compost, and digging on the new house pad.

I’ve been spending quite a bit of time recently studying the big changes going on in the wider world – peak oil, peak everything, climate change, collapse of the banking system, instability in global agriculture.  Will the future look more like Mad Max or the Amish?  While it’s all super complex, one clear conclusion is that in the future, those of us that survive will be growing more of our own food.  I give tours of our farm often, and when i tell people that we grow around 1/3 of our food, they are very impressed and say we are better prepared for the coming troubles.  But i’m not so sure.  Where will the other 2/3 of our food come from?  What about all our hungry neighbors?

There is more to survival than food.  The staple carbohydrates that we can grow here are tubers – potato, sweet potatoes, taro.  We buy/import our other staples, so our food is based on tubers, bread, pasta, and rice.  I realized recently that if ‘the boats stop’, then our food will be based on tubers, tubers, tubers, and tubers.

Down at Evening Rain Farm in Puna is another family, who are growing perhaps >80% of their food, more than anyone else i know of (starting with their Food Experiment).  I haven’t met them personally, but their blog is fascinating.  It is a jungle where they live, so they have fewer tubers, but a ton of breadfruit.  Breadfruit and pig, every meal, every day, “breadfruit alfredo, breadfruit parmesan, breadfruit pesto”…

One major challenge on our land, for food sustainability, is garden space.  We have so many giant eucalypts around, on a L-shaped skinny lot, that shade is a big issue.  We’ve been cutting them back (endless firewood!) but it’s a lot of work, and they are also serve as beneficial windbreak – a complex trade-off.

Tea cuttings – at 4 months

January 9th, 2009

Out of 424 tea cuttings started back in September 2008, only 43 are still going today.  That’s only 10%, but of the oasis cube/dip-n-grow cuttings, it’s closer to 20%.  The results of the test are clear:

  • oasis cubes worked better overall (15%) than potting soil (9%) or soil/manure (0%)
  • dip-n-grow worked better overall (7%) than peroxide (4%).

Next time, i’ll do them all with cube/dip.  Other findings:

  • Some cuttings take a really long time to start producing roots.  I culled some in potting soil which appeared to be failures (no sign of roots) after 2 months, putting them off to the side.  Lo and behold, after more than 3 months, some of those have sign of roots.  The lesson seems to be: as long as there is still a green leaf attached to the cuttings, let it keep going.
  • The shade tent i built based on the CTAHR Mealani paper didn’t seem to help any, even though it did clearly elevate moisture levels.  Next time, i’ll just set them in a nice shady spot like under a tree.

Farm Update

January 9th, 2009

What’s going on with the farm recently:

  • Egg production is up slightly.  It dipped really, really low at the end of November (some days with zero eggs, out of 38 hens!) but finally it is back up to 6-7 eggs/day.  I always knew that eggs decreased with day length, but it actually dips most before the winter solstice, as explained by Plamondon in Why We Don’t Eat Eggs at Thanksgiving
  • The established tea in the field is growing well.  The new irrigation system plus some nice winter rains have boosted growth.  I’m going to have to/get to prune again soon.
  • Of the 424 tea cuttings, only 10% are still going… details to follow.
  • We got our building permit to build our house!!  The approval came on December 31, after 2 years of struggling with design, 8 months in the permit process with the County, thousands of dollars in various costs, and much grief.  Now, one consideration is that the new house site is immediately adjacent to the chicken run – pretty much inside it.  Good thing we like the sound of chickens!

Latest tea cuttings – at 3 months

December 6th, 2008

You may recall from my previous posts big new batch, and after 1 month.  It’s now been nearly 3 months, and here’s the breakdown.  Here’s what was left in the trays today:

Of the 424 cuttings:
20 have produced some visible roots.  I have potted them up.
32 remain in limbo; not obviously dead, but no visible roots either.
392 were culled, for dying, clearly not rooting, or making only a rootball.

Here’s all that survives from tray 3Y, 7 with some root, 2 with rootballs:

This is rather frustrating.  Granted, this batch was meant as an experiment, rooted 6 different ways to see what works.  And that breakdown on the survival rate is:
in oasis cubes: 19%
in potting soil: 9%
in soil/manure: 0%
For choice of dip:
with Dip’n'grow: 8%
with hydrogen peroxide: 5%

The success rates are so low that i’m not sure how much to read into the results.  The ones with roots don’t have much leaf growth either, which in the past has meant it won’t survive all the way into the field.  So, roughly estimating that only 50% of pottings like these will make it:

then the overall success rate (excluding the soil/manure) will be 6%.  My previous best result, from Eliah’s branches, produced 25 plants in the ground, from 255 cuttings (10% success), and they took a full 8 months to all leave limbo, from October 2006 to June 2007.

<Sigh>  It seems like i’ve tried every single way – in soil, in cubes, with powdered root hormone, liquid root hormone, partial shade, heavy shade, outdoors on a table, inside a greenhouse, watering, misting.  I’ve made cuttings with 1, 2, 3, 4 nodes.  I’ve cut precisely the section between brown and green wood that should do best.  I’ve inserted the cuttings straight up, and at an angle.  I’ve studied the chapter in the Tea textbook from India.  I’ve taken instruction from Aileen, gone home to try it, and they almost all die.  I’ve followed the Mealani published shade-house instructions precisely, and they almost all die.

I really wish there was someone i could go to for advice or help.  But the Tea Society doesn’t do that, CTAHR doesn’t do that.  There’s not even a mailing list to ask for help, because HTS wouldn’t allow it.  It’s frustrating, but i will not be deterred!  I will grow a field of tea one way or another, and keep looking for ideas.  Have any?

Hamakua Alive! 2008

October 26th, 2008

There were 50 tables at yesterday’s agricultural fair – local farmers, producers, restaurants, school gardens.  We were there with a informational table, telling people about chickens and tea, and sharing what i’ve learned about how to feed chickens locally.  Mostly we answered a lot of backyard chicken questions.

Our fellow tea growers were there again this year, from Onomea Tea and Mauna Kea Tea Garden:

Cuttings in shade structure, update

October 21st, 2008

After adding the plastic sheet over the structure, as expected, both temperature and humidity have gone WAY up:

Compared with before, humidity range has gone from 40%-90% to nearly 98% almost all the time, only dipping slightly on hot days.  The dew point is now exactly the same as temperature, which can spike hotter, over 40ºC on some days.  I have no idea how this will be for the tea, but it certainly looks happy in there, the tender green shoots are not wilting, despite the heat.  One day, i also discovered a toad happily lounging in a square pot, i guess a moist place to hide during the day is perfect:

Cuttings in shade structure, after 1 month

October 10th, 2008

Here is the results after one month, the percentage of each test case that still appears alive:

Method Cultivar Label 10.Oct
1. Oasis cube, Dip’n'grow B/B 1B 80%
Y/Y 1Y 52%
2. Oasis cube, hydrogen peroxide B/B 2B 73%
Y/Y 2Y 43%
3. potting soil, Dip’n'grow B/B 3B 68%
Y/Y 3Y 92%
4. potting soil, hydrogen peroxide B/B 4B 72%
Y/Y 4Y 96%
5. soil/manure, Dip’n'grow B/B 5B 0%
Y/Y 5Y 0%
6. soil/manure, hydrogen peroxide B/B 6B 0%
Y/Y 6Y 0%


  1. Every single cutting in the soil/manure mix died.
  2. The dip’n'grow vs. peroxide cuttings are doing about the same.
  3. The potting soil is keeping the cuttings green and alive looking, but i think they aren’t actually rooting.

I bought a small temperature/humidity logger, and clipped it inside the tent.  Here is a typical 11-day period in September, while the cuttings were being misted a few times each day to keep them moist:

As you can see, temperature can dip down to 11ºC at night or spike up to 35ºC on hot days. Humidity it pretty much the inverse of temperature, around 92% at night, dropping as low at 40% on hot days. But the article on the HTS website says: “Propagation of tea plants needs a facility where constant temperature 23-29ºC and humidity (80%) are maintained.”  Daytime temperature seems OK, but nighttime is way outside this range, and humidity is almost never close to 80%.

Today i bought a 8×20′ piece of plastic to cover the tent, following Mealani’s shade tent instructions.  They said to add this cover for the second month, so that’s what i’m going to try.

Why to grow tea

September 10th, 2008

I saw this blurb on the Onion recently which made me laugh.  I am putting a lot of work and passion into our tea field.  Why are we, as highly educated members of a developed nation, so eager to do the sort of work which is relegated to peasants in poor parts of the world? I do hope that some day our tea makes the world a better place, in a small way.  True, you can’t (really) eat tea.  But good tea, the kind we hope to make, is more than about what the Onion blurb says, growing caffeine or antioxidants.  The way i am beginning to see things, tea can be a holistic experience, the fulfillment it brings may be beyond scientific analysis.