Organic farming, Japanese recipes


On mulching, organic soil, fruit trees, and mushrooms

I finally got the garden space near the tracks cleared enough to plant the trees we wanted, so I  took a trip to the local home improvement store, sore back and all, to pick out the shoots that I hope our kids will be picking fruit from.  $100 later I was on my way home with yuzu (right), lime, two seedless kumquats, and three blueberries.  An extra treat from the store was a bag of oyster mushroom starter.

It was a really slow day at the restaurant, so Hiro agreed to take solo duty while her mom and I went out to plant the yuzu, lime, and kumquats in the garden near the tracks.  I had two holes already dug and the other two were pretty easy to put in.  We poured some mikan haigo, a fertilizer for citrus and other fruit trees, put a layer of native dirt over that, and in went the trees.

I also carried in a big green composting cone so I could make my own compost in that space over time.  The family has been digging the restaurant scraps into the main garden, which is great, but I think we can do a lot better and maybe with even less work.  Compost generally takes a 1:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen (also called browns and greens); the carbon would be fallen leaves, newspapers, grass clippings, etc., while the nitrogen would be food leftovers.  If this is news to you, well, it was news to me too.  At any rate, I had some nice dry leaf material at the site which went in with a couple buckets of coffee, eggshells and food remains, about a 1:1 of browns and greens, add a little water, mix, and we’re off to a good start.

Then the hard work started.  A few days ago I started talking about how I want to use plant remains for mulch instead of the plastic sheeting that everyone uses around here.  In fact, the word mulch in Japanese, マルチ, is synonymous with plastic sheets.  I always figured that it meant ‘multi’, which is another meaning for that pronunciation, as in multi-purpose, but no, when you use the word mulch in Japanese without specifying anything different, you’re referring to a plastic sheet.  Oh, the horror.

If you’re curious, here’s a google images link for mulch in Japanese (combined with ‘garden’, since マルチalso means ‘multi’):

And here’s the English

And you see what we’re dealing with.

So the mother-in-law and I went to one of the rice fields whose surrounding banks had had its weeds cut a while back, and raked up all of the dried stalks.  Wheelbarrow load after wheelbarrow load we carried back to our little truck, and we filled the truck three times over.  Two of those went to the potato patch, where we covered one (one!) row of potatoes, and the last one was split between the garden near the tracks to cover our newly planted trees, and the blueberries.

It was nearly dark when we got back to the restaurant, and I hurried out to plant the blueberries in the corner of the near garden.  We decided to put them there for easier and safer access in the future.  And that was the end of what turned out to be a seven-tree day.

All this talk about mulching and organic gardening—I feel like I’m either preaching to the choir, or to people who don’t care either way.  Whichever you are, let me run this by you: It bugs the crap out of me that I’ve been digging in various dirts here for almost a month now, and have found only a few bugs and no earthworms whatsoever.  Regardless of how we got to this point, it’s no surprise to me that people given these conditions feed their crops artificial foods and cover them with plastic sheets to get them to grow.  But I’m determined to do better.  If normal, natural organisms don’t want to live in my dirt, I don’t want to eat the food that came out of there.

Which brings me to my final unresolved point of this post: oyster mushrooms.  Knowledge-wise, I feel like I’m throwing darts blindfolded, but consider this.  1. You can grow oyster mushrooms indoors in used coffee grounds (yes, google it, get some starter, and swing by Starbucks on your way home!); 2. Oyster mushrooms can de-toxify oil-polluted land more quickly and effectively than any other method currently known; 3. Mycelium networks are the ultimate basic necessity for any natural soil process and should be present in any soil medium but they’re obviously not present in many.

It’s easy and beneficial, so as soon as we have some grounds saved up I’m going to start growing, and as soon as the original base is used up I’ll innoculate my compost piles with it.  I have no idea what’s going to happen, but I envision magic.  

If you’ve gotten this far but you think I’m full of BS (or if you’re the choir but you haven’t seen Paul Stamet’s talk at the 2008 TED), watch the following video in its entirety.

-your tired but dedicated farmer

Leave a comment

Japanese vegetable recipes: easy and healthy

In the not too distant future I hope to report that we’ve realized the farm-to-table dream. That’s still a way off, but here is one awesome veggie that comes directly from our garden. It’s called Ogura-na; the ‘na’ means vegetable, and Ogura is my wife’s maiden name–her grandmother named the vegetable after herself. Good luck with a google search!

Eaten raw, it’s soft in the mouth but hearty like a winter leafy green, and has a pleasant bitter flavor. I love it raw or lightly steamed but that’s a bit much for many Japanese people, who prefer these recipes. If you don’t have veggies named after my wife’s family, you can try them with kale, spinach, collard greens, or anything similar.

Peanuts-ae recipe

(that’s pronounced “ah-ey”, by the way)

One bunch of leaves (about one bag spinach or 3 leaves of kale)
2 T peanuts, crushed
1 T mirin (substitute 1 T sugar if necessary, but not recommended)
1 T soy sauce
pinch of salt, to taste

Boil the leaves until wilted but not longer, cool, cut into small pieces and lightly squeeze to remove excess water. Toss quickly with the other ingredients and serve chilled as a small side.

Sesame-ae with omelet recipe

Same amount of veggies as above
Sesame oil
Dried bonito flakes (optional)
Soy sauce

Cut the leaves into small pieces and saute in a little sesame oil. Add soy sauce and bonito flakes to egg, and cook with the sauteed greens as you like–mix and scramble, or pour over and make an omelet.


1 Comment

Spring vegetables, berries, and citrus

So much going on right now! We’ve had an amazing warm streak in February which has kicked us all into gear—I got the spinach seeds in the ground a couple days ago (whoops, planted them all at once—we’ll have to harvest baby spinach and replant seeds in those spaces to get a rotating crop), today buried our seed potatoes and then sowed carrot seeds (whoops, that’s where the lettuce was going to go … got a little excited there), and Hiro and her aunt got eggplant and shishito in seed pots.

I had hoped to have a lemon tree in the ground by now, too, but instead I’ve spent two days battling vines in that space. What’s that rule? 80% of the work takes 20% of the time, and the last 20% of the work gives you a seriously sore back. These vines literally look like the bad guys from Aliens—you pull a small one that attaches to a bigger one, and by the time you need a pick to pry a hefty mass from the ground you get something that looks like an 8-legged monster that’s going to attach itself to your face. Multiply that by the number of square yards in the bed … this is a huge job. Yesterday I worked four hours and then couldn’t move for six.

Also, we already have two lemon trees on the property. Nobody mentioned them because they don’t bear fruit—because caterpillars get to them. Time to find a remedy. A search for diatomacious earth in Japanese only yielded links to Taiwan. Maybe we’ll have to stick to the charcoal vinegar or the bacterial agent mentioned in a previous comment. At any rate, our tree plans for that space have changed to: Lime, yuzu, kumquat, and some blueberry bushes.

Tomorrow: a recipe for winter leafy veggies!

Leave a comment

Prepping garden fields, planting spinach!

Yesterday the aunt and I went out to re-till the potato field to put in some fertilizer that we didn’t do the first time around. Since I had already done the lines with the tractor, and since it’s rained a bit since then I didn’t want to use the tractor again, so we did it by hand with 3-pronged hoes. I’m a bit sore, but the aunt is pretty mad at me…

Today she spent most of the day in her pajamas. so after lunch I dug in some lime and rice hulls into our garden plot with the forked hoe. Since we’ll use most of that space in March for laying out trays of germinating rice under plastic tunnels I only had one row to do, and it was pretty quick. I planted half of it with spinach; in a couple weeks I’ll seed any areas that aren’t sprouting yet and hopefully get a rotating crop going out of a small space. The other half I’ll do with lettuce and carrots in a couple weeks. I had some space on the edges that I threw some red radish seed at; whatever comes up is fine.

The lettuce I’m going to sprout separately and replant later; I put some of the rich soil in a styrofoam tray and scattered two types of lettuce seed on it. I put a thin layer of dirt over those and watered it, put a sheet of newspaper over that and then soaked the paper. By the way, you wouldn’t believe what they put in the newspaper around here…

Two days in a row with the hoe. Tomorrow I plan to dig compost into the areas where we’ll plant the trees in the narrow garden by the tracks. We’ll see if I make it out of bed!


Clearing a new garden; Japanese property laws

Our schedule is still all over the place, but we’re getting things done. Seems like the days I go to help at the restaurant are the slow ones, and when I’m doing something else, Hiro and her mom come home exhausted after a busy day. Today happened to have good timing—I cleaned and did computer work in the morning, and went to help for what turned out to be a busy lunch. Still, busy these days is nothing like it was even a couple years ago. We have our work cut out for us.

After lunch slowed down, Hiro’s aunt and I went to clear out a garden that had grown over. It’s one of the places I didn’t know belonged to the family property—as you can see in the pictures, it’s really in a lost corner between train tracks and a house! Hiro’s grandfather grew potatoes there and then planted plum trees, but they grew too big and the JR train company asked the family to cut them back. Since then the space has been largely neglected.

The trees you see in the pictures were the least of the work—the vines holding them together were easy enough to cut, but were spiderwebbed throughout the entire space, and are tough enough that there’s a footbridge in Japan built in a traditional manner out of the same plants. Removing each tree became a chore, and even with them out of the way, we still have a lot of work to do getting the vine roots out before we plant anything.

Hiro’s planning kumquat, lemon, and lime trees for this space. This should allow us to keep the weeds at a minimum easily while raising larger plants.

The garden space really begs the question of how you end up with a little corner like that as part of your property. In Hiro’s family’s case it’s a really long story, probably not unique, and I’m not sure I have a handle on it yet.

About a century ago they were big landholders. Before the war, the country bought a right of way to put the railroad through, and that split the property in two. As the family story has it, during the war the trains stopped right in front of the family home due to bombings, and all the passengers took refuge in the mountains.

After the war the landholding laws were changed under GHQ, and landholders were forced to sell to the country agricultural areas that were leased out to people who were either renting for profit, or who may have been the equivalent of feudal vassals. The country then gave the land to the people who were renting or working it. A couple decades later the current thoroughfare was put in to replace the river road; the country bought that land too, but it took more out of the property.

There were gains too: The land where the restaurant currently stands belonged to someone in a neighboring town who requested that Hiro’s family run a rice field there. Because of GHQ requirements, the family was given that land.

During Hiro’s grandfather’s life there were various requests for land donations to the town for meeting halls, encroachments by neighbors, which, left for more than twenty years became common law holdings (it’s a much longer story than that), and even a sale of a rented property—that issue was repaid with the field that we’ll plant with potatoes. So there have been lots of changes to the property, and strange little corners surrounded by walls on one side and train tracks on another are one result.

There’s another right of way going through right now, which I’ll detail later. This one’s not only taking family property, it’s removing mountains.

Let us know in the comments: What’s the smallest rice field or garden you’ve ever seen?


Organic Farming in Japan

Heavy frost this morning. Apparently there was snow in some parts of the prefecture, but all we got was frozen windshields and baby lettuce frozen solid to the dirt. We’re hoping to plant spinach soon, but will either have to lay down some black plastic sheeting to warm the soil first, or just wait til the frosts stop. It’ll probably be soon. We’re still waiting for the ash to coat the cut sides of the seed potatoes as well. We could probably go buy some but it’s more fun waiting for people from our own community to help us.

Speaking of local circles and such, I spent about four hours today on the tractor, then another half hour washing it. Wow. On one hand I feel like I’ve gotten no exersize. On the other, my knees hurt, my thighs are sore (I have no idea why), and I’m pooped. Going up and down the rows at a snail’s pace, what I keep thinking about is, if I spread the fuel for this operation over the area that I’m plowing, it would be such a thin layer, but that tiny amount of fuel is doing something like 10,000 calories, or two marathons’, worth of work. To put it another way, I could put my back out many times over trying to replicate the energy expenditure of those few liters of fuel.

Still, it’s hard for me to balance in my mind the cost of the fuel, the tractor, the yearly maintenance, and all the rest with the idea of saving money by growing our own food. It’s probably something that’ll take me at least a few years to get a handle on as I do the accounting.

Everyone's happy!

Which brings me, sort of, to organic farming. To be honest, I’m not sure what it means, exactly, to practice organic farming. Which is why I’m never terribly confident when I buy something that says ‘organic’ on it. Take that down a level, and I’m not terribly confident when I buy fertilizer that says ‘organic’ on it. As you can see in the picture, the cow that made this manure was apparently a very happy cow, if we can infer a smile from its upturned nosering. But what else is in that bag? I suddenly feel like a character from Portlandia….

I can say this for sure: we definitely won’t be using any insecticide or pesticide sprays that we don’t make ourselves from natural ingredients. I’ve already had plenty of experience with aphids in Japan, and I’m excited to try garlic and tomato leaf-based sprays on them. As far as our rice goes, my wife’s mother has reduced her insecticide use to zero over the years as she’s discovered that she doesn’t actually need it, and the only man-made additive that goes on is a mold resistor that’s put in at the time of seeding to prevent some seeds from molding before they germinate. It’s possible to raise rice without it, but the loss rate is too high for an operation that doesn’t get extra income by charging extra for the organic label.

How do you say organic in Japanese? There are two ways:有機 (yuuki), and 無農薬(munouyaku). The latter literally means ‘without farming chemicals’, and is the equivalent of what ‘organic’ meant in America before the USDA stuck its dirty fingers in that pie. If your neighbors use sprays, apparently you can’t call yourself ‘munouyaku’. ‘Yuuki’ means organic, literally, in the sense of something natural that can decay, as in organic matter, but is also used to denote fruits and vegetables that are grown without man-made substances. So when my semi-fermented bark says ‘60% yuuki’, is it 60% pure, or 60% natural material? It’s quite confusing, and I suspect it’s confusing to many Japanese people too. I’ll report back when I have more than a picture of a smiling nosering cow as evidence.

One fun part of thinking about the future of our garden fields is the abundance of raw materials: we grow our own rice, so we have piles of rice hulls and rice straw, and from the restaurant come endless piles of coffee grounds and eggshells. Maybe a vermiculture bin is in our future?

Does anyone have experience with organic soil additives or homemade anti-pest sprays? Let us know in the comments!

1 Comment

One garden field finished

[forecast]Now that’s a good looking field! I scattered some composted cow manure and steamed bark today, and tilled it in with the tractor. I’m getting better at my planning and execution with the tractor. There’s no running water at this field, so we’ll use it for crops that don’t need much watering—potatoes and broccoli are in the plans right now. We have some seed potatoes that we’ll be cutting up as soon as we have some ash to spread on the cut sides, which prevents rotting while they get rooted in.
Potato and broccoli field

Tired! I worked on that field for about 7 hours today, raking up bits of plastic, shopping for the additives, spreading them (that’s when my back started to get tired), going over it with the tractor twice, and then hoeing the row ends into shape. The last part is very important, because the neighbors will complain and gossip about you if you don’t make it pretty. The same goes for tilling the rice fields—you have to do it the right way so you don’t leave any big tire marks when you exit the field or you’ll suffer the same social indignities.

I guess an introduction of sorts is in order. Where to begin… I’m an American with about six years’ experience in Japan. I came the first time just after I graduated college, to live with a friend who was on the JET program. Japan unexpectedly grew on me, as it does many, and I eventually applied for the JET program and came to Wakayama in 2004, intending to stay for two years–long enough to pass the 2nd level JLPT test–and then go home. Life being unpredictable as it is, I got married and stayed four years on the JET program. After a break to America my wife and I are back to help the family in its long-running restaurant and farm business, which I’ll introduce more specifically later.

Time for a well earned relax!


The day I didn’t want to end

It wasn’t an earthshattering or lifechanging day, but it was one with lots of accomplishments.  It’s getting on toward the end of the afternoon and the daylight is waning a little.  I’ll be cleaning the house until dinnertime and after will probably work on taxes—both American and Japanese—so it’s hardly bedtime, but the bulk of the work is over and I’m both satisfied and also already a little nostalgic since today was a bit of a milestone.

For the first time since we got back 9 days ago I dragged myself out of bed.  The jet lag is gone, and that means no more getting up before the sun.  It also means no more falling aleep by 9 p.m., so I’ll have to be careful about not staying up too late.

The weather forecast was for rain and the restaurant forecast was for a busy day, so we arrived by 8:30 to help with breakfast and assumed we’d be inside all day.  Both forecasts were wrong, though, and by 10:30 I was out in the sun getting a tractor lesson from the local Kubota rep.  I got the garden tilled, and after a quick lunch took the tractor to till one of the furthest fields.  It used to be a rice field but was filled in for use as a garden.  We’ll plant potatoes there but first I have to go through it with a rake to remove bits of old plastic sheeting (I hope to be the kind of farmer who cleans up after himself) and then till in some manure and steamed bark.

After a long washing of the tractor—today’s mud was easy, but the caked on dirt was hard—the aunt who runs the restaurant with us brought out green onion cuttings and some lettuce from a pot.  We planted those in the first row of the garden that I’d just tilled, and those little green onion roots were my first endeavor as a farmer in Japan.

My feeling of satisfaction isn’t just from planting my first plants here.  Since we’ve arrived I’ve been champing at the bit to clean and get working on the gardens and fields, but when it was sunny I had a cold, and when I got better it got rainy.  Also, just as we had a bit of a shock getting back into this culture, some family members were shocked to have us back.  It hasn’t been an entirely smooth week and our optimism about our future in the restaurant and on the farm hasn’t always been strong, and today was the first day where it all came together.

The evening chime and announcement are just now playing over the loudspeakers: “Hello our townspeople– How was your day?  Kids, it’s time to go home.  Let’s look forward to a fun tomorrow!”

My feelings exactly.