Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Japanese Hinai Chickens

Woo hoo!!!! I've got chickens now!
Two of them, to be exact. A birthday gift from my friends Ken and Yuko.

There is only one problem..... they are surprise chickens.

You see, my lovely wife doesn't like chickens. She likes to eat them, but live... they kind of freak her out a bit. And she doesn't want any more animals around the place. (Of course, she said that before she adopted our two cats while I was at work, so I think it is only fair...) That is why I haven't told her yet. I'll wait until we have enough eggs for an omelette. Once she tastes real eggs, she may come around. If not, we will have a nice chicken dinner or two.

They are Hinai-jidori, one of the "big three" Japanese chicken breeds, along with Nagoya-cochin, and Satsuma-jidori.
The breed is a stabilized hybrid between male Hinai-dori (notice no "ji") - which was designated a living natural monument and can no longer be legally eaten in Japan- and  female Rhode Island Reds. The crossing made a bigger chicken, and they do have a lot of their mothers in them. I can hardly tell the difference. And it is legal to eat them.

But anyway, they are happily ensconced down in the orchard, and tomorrow, or the day after they will be in their new chicken tractor! More about that one later.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Rice Hull Charcoal- Making and Using it

(Rice hulls before charring)

Ok, so now you are wondering what rice hull charcoal can do for you? Charcoal of any sort can open up the structure of dense clay soils, and allow water to permeate more thoroughly. And in sandy soils, the addition of the charcoal can help hold moisture in the soil longer, rather than letting it just drain through. And even a nice, sandy loam will benefit from the addition of charcoal.

The secret about charcoal in the soil is in how it is made. When you make charcoal, rice hull, wood chips, any kind, you are simply driving off most of the non carbon bits. This leaves a structure that is honeycombed with tiny pores. The cumulative surface area of this is immense! And they provide a home for billions of beneficial bacteria and other micro-organisms. These in turn release minerals from the soil for plants to use, fix nitrogen in the soil, and add to the biomass of the soil. Truly a win-win situation. As you probably remember from your Junior High School science lessons, the more organisms in an environment, the more stable it becomes. That is why a garden with charcoal added will show you fewer major pest problems, better soil texture, and more nutritious crops than a traditional chemical fertilized garden, and much better than a garden sprayed with pesticides.

Making the Rice Hull Charcoal

***This will produce a LOT of smoke***
It is not so hard, but you really should have a source of rice hulls nearby. if there is a rice- producing area nearby, getting your hands on rice hulls should be no problem. If there are none, you might try asking local nurseries if they can sell you some (many use rice hulls as a major component of their potting soils).
So, to make the charcoal, you will need a large tin can. The 10L cans of oil that are used in fryers would be great, try asking around your local greasy spoon cafe for their empties. You also need a short chimney, maybe two feet or so. Easy to find at a home center. And of course rice hulls . As much as possible. 10-15 hefty bags is not too many. Basically the volume will shrink by about 2/3. So 15 sacks of hulls makes about 5 sacks of charcoal.

Now be warned- this process involves fire and heat. Get permits if needed, and take precautions! I am not responsible for you!

Punch some holes in the sides of the tin can with a nail and hammer, etc... One every inch or two. It's not rocket science.
With a tin-snips, cut an X the diameter of your chimney pipe in the bottom of the can, and cut the top of the can right off. (we will use it upside-down)
Bend the four flaps up to allow the chimney to sit on the can. Now it should look like a factory with a smokestack.
Find a nice flat place that you can scorch. It should be away from trees and houses of course.

I have been experimenting with a 55 gal oil drum, cut in half- put the can and chimney in the drum
, and proceed as below. Keeps the rice hulls nicely contained, less mess.

Crumple up a few sheets of newspaper, maybe roll up a piece of cardboard and tuck it under the can. Then set up the chimney.
Pour rice hulls around the can. More is better. They should cover the can completely in a rough mountain shape.
Light a twist of newspaper and drop it down the chimney. It should light the newspaper and cardboard and begin the process. Keep an eye on the burning. There will be smoke. As you watch it, you may notice that the hulls are blackening on one side or the other. Try to cover them with uncharred hulls from the base or other side. Eventually, this will become impractical. When the rice hulls are mostly blackened, (80-90%) take out the chimney and can, rake the pile fairly flat, and turn the hose on them to extinguish the smoldering. They will dry quickly. You will probably have a few uncharred hulls. Don't worry. If you try to let it burn till they are all gone, you will have a lot less charcoal.

The mechanics of it are simple- by starting the fire under the can in the beginning, an updraft is created, drawing air through the hulls to the can, then up the chimney. Meanwhile, the hulls in contact with the can begin to burn. As this burn zone continues outwards, the charred hulls near the can can no longer burn, since the oxygen was consumed by the burn zone already. When all the hulls have been charred, then they begin to burn down to ash. You don't want that. That is why you should try and keep the blackened spots on the outside to a minimum until near the end.

Now using it in your garden- simply sprinkle it along the row if you are a row gardener, or add a garden trowel full to the square if you are a square foot gardener. Nothing could be easier! If you have a lot of it, you can try broadcasting it over the garden, but most experiments suggest that adding it along the row is the most effective.

Why does it help your garden? Well, for one, the rice hull charcoal is weakly alkaline, so if you add it to acidic soils, it should help to balance the PH towards the neutral range, where most plants grow better. The carbon will trap water and provide a home for micro-organisms- most of them beneficial. The black color will darken your soil and help it to warm up quicker in the springtime. The list goes on and on.
 (Charred hulls ready for the garden)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Natural Agriculture and Me

Ever since I heard about natural agriculture and read Masanobu Fukuoka's book "One Straw Revolution" I have been interested in the theory. Stop tilling the fields, work with nature, not against it, use less time and labor, and so on.

There is only one problem....

I like digging! I love the way a freshly double dug bio-intensive bed looks! The smell of the freshly tilled ground, counting the earthworms, the neat and tidy look of it... I just love it! I even love to weed the garden- I just don't have time to do it!

So I think I will continue to double dig for now at least, and just admire my Natural Agriculture practicing friends.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Spring Blues

Kind of a love-hate relationship with spring.
Want to garden- can't garden because the 20 degree (celsius that is) days were all back in winter, we are lucky this past week if it gets up to 4-5 degrees.
Everywhere I look I see fresh green- but it is only about 2cm tall... Cutting more bamboo for goat fodder.
Warm enough for the winter cabbages and other brassica to bolt, too cold for new transplants to grow.

At least it will be over soon and I can get planting and transplanting.

Yep. I love to hate spring.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Good Wife

Now, I know a lot of you will think I am being sarcastic, but it's true! My wife is so great she let me bake my own Birthday cake! :D

You see, while the Japanese have mastered the art of not cooking fish, their cakes.... well... they suck. Hard. They look beautiful when you see them in a store, for example. But they don't call them sponge cakes for nothing. They have about the same texture and taste as one. So my wife, in her wisdom, allowed me to bake a yellow cake for my birthday! It is in the oven right now. Leif and I made it while Ewan was chilling on the table in his baby bouncer next to us.

So our house if full of the scent of sweet vanilla (with an undertone of sour milk and diaper from Ewan- I should go take care of that now :) )

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Hybrid Tomato Seed Saving

Everytime I look up seed saving on the internet, it always tells me to "make sure you are using open pollinated seeds."

Remember that old ditty- "You say To-may-to, I say To-Ma-to"

If you plant a tomato seed from a hybrid, you will still get a tomato. Maybe not the same one, (although it is possible) but really, if you took a blind taste test of 5 varieties of homegrown beefsteak tomatoes, could you tell the difference? I have never had a bad tomato from my own garden. From the supermarket, yes, homegrown, no.

As an added bonus, if you keep on saving the seed from the most delicious of the offspring, it will probably stabilize and give you your own personal variety, suited perfectly to your climate and region. How cool is that?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Dessert first

Goats are possibly the most wasteful critters I've ever seen. In the winter here, when it is too wet for them to go out to pasture, they stay in their pen and I feed them there. Or at least I try to. Some days I go to the mountain and pick "Aoki" (lit. "Green tree" in Japanese, Acuba in English). The goats go nuts over the pretty little berries. So much that they throw the branches to the floor of the pen, and urinate on them in excitement. And of course, they then wait for me to bring them more leaves to eat, since they have soiled the first batch. They sure love dessert first... Hmmmph.

It is not only acuba leaves, but oat hay as well. They love the milk oats in the hay. So would I, if I was a goat. But when they throw out all the stems to get to the oats, and refuse to eat what they spilled..... Hmmph. When I was a young'un, we had to eat our meal before the dessert by gum!...

Oh well, at least they are cute, and when they eat the oats, they make the sweetest little grunting noises, like a couple of pigs. I just wish they could understand why I look so exasperated when they throw the meal on the floor to get dessert first.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Plum Blossoms

Ah, March is the season of "ume" plum blossoms here in in Japan. Well, to tell the truth, they are actually members of the apricot branch of that tree (pun intended), but that doesn't matter. They are pretty. I took this picture at the "Forestry Tree Breeding Center" near our house. They have a whole orchard of hundreds of plums, all different species, some weeping, some erect, some spreading.... and all of them just a little bit different. It really makes you feel that spring is coming.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Soil Blocks and Seedlings

I love it when a plan comes together.

I have been searching for ways to start seedlings that are more eco-friendly than the plastic pots you always find them in.

It began when I saw an article about making pots out of newspaper. The first few methods I saw were OK, but most of them used tape or staples. I thought there must be a better way. So I turned to another hobby, origami. I started making origami seedling pots out of newspaper, but despite the assurances that "The roots will have no problem penetrating the paper," my seedlings never thrived.

Then I tried peat pots, but the netting and use of peat really got to me. I wanted something more local, and well, cheap.

I made some flats out of cedar scrap boards and tried compost and soil for the medium. It was effective but weedy.

Then I saw a soil block maker on the Path To Freedom website, and the Johnny's Selected Seeds Youtube channel. I really wanted one, but had no luck finding it here in Japan. So I thought, maybe I could make one myself? And with a little help from Google found Topper's place and instructions for a DIY soil blocker! :) Great! I found an old plastic container, drilled a hole in the bottom for a long bolt to pass through. Then I cut out a plywood washer and secured it between two nuts and metal washers.

Well, it works great. I have made 50 or 60 soil blocks, and the mizuna, komatsuna, and today eggplant seedlings were popping up! It is still too early to tell for sure, but I think they will work out pretty well.