Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Why people come here

I sometimes check the stats about visitors to this blog, especially the search strings that have led people here. There seems to be an element of misdirection involved, for which I'm very sorry. I'm posting the latest haul of search strings captured by the stats, and it's a very representative 'Top 20' sort of deal. I've also endeavoured to provide succinct answers so that people searching for the same thing won't have to delve around through the back issues.

Queries answered include;
  • i keep finding little mothlike flys in my house
  • bamboo bee hive
  • insight versus fit
  • how often should i spray peony bush with neem oil to prevent powdery mildew?
  • pickled habaneros jar
  • can-o-worms smelly liquid
  • train go under water to matsuyama
I hope this is helpful, but I offer no guarantees.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hog-wild for charcoal

Since I learned how to make easy biochar, I've been at it hammer and tongs. I discovered that it needs at least 1 hour of burning to make sure that the content of the inner can is properly carbonised. 45 minutes is not enough -- the central part of the material is only half-charred.

Having laboured several times to fill a small can using a handsaw, I finally took myself to the DIY store and purchased a nifty little electric chainsaw. A task that took nearly two hours now only takes about 15 minutes.

I also took a metal saw to my incinerator and opened up the top so that a bigger can will fit inside. Next weekend I plan to try a double-decker can tower, or what we in the defence community call a multi-stage biochar weapon.

Now that I have the means of cutting up bamboo very quickly, I can achieve my long-cherished dream of taking out all the dead wood from a bamboo grove so that everything can grow straight and without disease. Amazing as it seems, the small oil drum in the bottom left of the picture above contains all of a single mature 'moso' bamboo culm, nearly 10 meters tall. Plus quite a lot of rice husk. Of course.

Pruning a weeping plum tree

In Japan there's apparently a saying "Sakura wo kiru baka, ume wo kiranu baka", which roughly translates as "Twerp as prunes a cherry, idiot as doesn't prune a plum".

Not wishing to be condemned as an idiot, I got to work with my pruning scissors.

But first I consulted the interweb, because it really isn't obvious where to make the cuts. However, I found a very helpful website with the following pictures on it.

With these as my guide, I got cutting. It's a fairly savage business, because nearly all of last year's growth is amputated.

The result is a very stumpy-looking tree, much reduced from the many-tentacled thing that we saw in spring. I had assumed that the wilted-looking leaves that were folded in half along the long axis were a sign of stress due to the prolonged drought. But according to a garden shop lady (more about her later) who visited the other day, it's a sign of good health. Could have fooled me...

More than one of each

The single almond and apricot were, truth be told, disappointing. But the figs are a different story. I don't believe that anything much can go wrong with the figs. And there are more than one.

The fig in the photo below is the 'Banane' variety. If you're thinking of planting a fig, this is one type I strongly recommend. As you can see, the plant is small, but even last year it bore two delicious, sweet figs. This year, it's set to bear more, and it has weathered the drought very well without wilting. If it does well this year, I may even pull out some of my Japanese varieties and replace them with more Banane. I daresay these figs when dried would be fantastic.

One of my bigger fig trees is populated by miniature praying mantises. I learned the other day that figs in Japan are traditionally planted next to the privy. This is because the big rough leaves make a very good bottom-wiping medium in the absence of toilet paper. This is also the reason why figs are not typically planted close to any other part of the house. This 'fact' has been intimated to me by countless people before, and whenever I asked if it was because the roots might undermine the foundations, I always got a cocked head and a long "Mmmmmm...." in response. I'm glad at last to have met a gardening lady who is not squeamish about mentioning bottom-wiping.

Praying not to be 'wiped out'?

Rice planting

It's the weekend for the farmers to plant rice, and our neighbourhood has been flooded with water, much to the joy of the frogs. And me. I think this time of year is very pretty. We seem to be having a respite from the drought too, as the monsoon rain front has moved up from Okinawa for a while.

We buy our rice from the field where the little rice planter is at work, bottom right. As far as food miles go, this is at the close end of the scale. The farmer's mother and other relatives are buried in the graveyard next to our house. Most of the people planting rice here are over 50, so I'm thinking that I might go down the hill one of these years and ask if somebody is prepared to show me the ropes.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

One of each

It has been apparent for a few weeks now that our almond has not fulfilled the promise of its flowering. Either a large number of the flowers were not properly pollinated, due perhaps to the absence of bees at that time of year, or the tree decided that conditions were not conducive to heavy fruiting yet. Whatever the reason, the result is just a single almond. The rest shrivelled to nothing after a promising start. However, a single almond is far, far better than none. We will observe with great interest the process by which it turns into a single, edible nut.

The apricot which also arrived from the Co-op bedecked with flowers only produced a single fruit this year too. As soon as the fruit appeared, it was -- well, damaged-looking. A nearby branch was constantly rubbing against it, and something obviously tried to eat some of it at an early stage.

I plucked it after I determined that it was now quite soft, and left it on the front step where the missus and young master mistook it for a potato (they reported this ghastly mistake with no apparent shame whatsoever). I ate the apricot and it wasn't nearly as bad as it looked. It had the right balance of sweet and sour, even if the meat lacked something in juiciness.

I also harvested a single green pepper, and single carrot. While not much more can be expected of the carrots, one hopes that the pepper will be the first of another abundant crop.

One of the figs, the 'Banane' also looks set to deliver more than one fig this year, in spite of the plant being very small. If the fruit is as good as the couple I got off it last year, I'll be tempted to plant several more of this variety.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Terra Preta holes

We are currently in the midst of a 'stealthy drought'. It's been raining off and on, but the amounts have apparently been trivial. The first hint of drought was when Matsuyama City suddenly announced that groundwater was at 40% levels. Everything came up nice and green at the beginning of spring, but when we had a full week of sunny weather recently, the new growth suddenly started to turning brown. Or even black in some cases, where the new growth is especially new. Once again, the clover has all wilted and makes a crispy, crunchy sound underfoot. This seems all the stranger since my rainwater butt is still full.

There's quite a stark contrast between my vegetable plot and the garden areas around the house. In the vegetable plot, I buried a lot of compost from our old house, leaves, straw, rice husks -- charred and raw, and new compost. This organically-charged soil holds a great deal of moisture making the plants very resilient.

But look at the soil in that white bucket below from in the garden. It's just rock dust. When rain falls, the surface turns to mud while below the surface it remains a hard, dry, compacted mass.

I bought a metal tool with which I fondly imagined I could dig out deep 'cores' of soil. But after digging six or so small holes about 18 cm deep, the inside of my knuckles were beginning to get sore from gripping my new tool and banging it into the ground. (Panic! I type for my living!)

If you look at the far side of this hole, you can see streaks of white powder. This is where the tool has crushed some of the grains of quartz in the soil. The whole situation screams "Inabsorbent!"

Having made some biochar, the question arises, what to do with it. I hit on the idea of making Terra Preta holes. Since it's impossible to deal at one stroke with the great expanse of dryness that currently presents itself, I resolved to make small areas that retain moisture and contain the ingredients of fertility.

This hole contains bits of biochar mixed with compost. The compost contains a lot of rice husks, weeds, and kitchen waste, including seashells.

If I make enough of these holes, they should eventually join up into a single layer ('horizon' as we scientists call them), and the garden should be able to withstand drought better.

Well, even if my soil is rather horrible at the moment, it is located in a good spot, generally speaking.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Medaka condo

A friend gave me this old charcoal brazier, but since we don't burn charcoal to keep warm (having other purposes for charcoal and other less smelly heating options), I put some medaka ('rice fish') in it.

It sits outside my office window, and it seems to attract a young lad with a bag of fish food. I hope to make this piece of decking into an attractive spot with more containers of water plants and perhaps a pergola-type thing with ivy