Organic farming, Japanese recipes

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Vacuuming the tomatoes

We can’t exactly say it was a whirlwind tour, but after taking off through a typhoon in early June and returning through a typhoon in mid-July we can surely say that our trip had its ups and downs.

The temperature here has also gone up, and rising with it are all the plants—rice, weeds, and crops.  Rising, or at least growing: we returned to find our new garden plot in disarray.  The broccoli was crawling down the raised bed and the cucumbers had ignored the trellis and were sprawling among the tomatoes, which had been toppled by the wind.

The bugs loved the chaos, too.  Huge drone beetles were crawling facefirst into split tomatoes for feeding orgies, eating until they couldn’t move.  Brown marmorated stink bugs had taken over the tomatoes and sweet potatoes, coating the trunks and branches, raising their young and even mating in plain view.  It was a hedonistic insect heaven.

Our little vacuum changed that pretty quick.  There were far too many of them to pick off one by one, and they seemed to think of my homebrew fermented organic insect repellant as a kind of perfume.  So out came the little hoover, and the stink bug population dropped pretty quick.  The big tomato eaters just got dropped into a garbage bag, tomatoes and all, and were disposed of.

Now we’re back under a semblance of control.  At least our thick layer of grass mulch did a good job of keeping the weeds down while we were gone!



I don’t think I’ve posted about this garden patch before.  We wanted something a little closer to our home, so we dug part of our lawn up over the spring.  The soil was collected from a mountain road our friends knew about; it’s a leaf compost, which is supposed to be pretty acidic, but our plants seem to love it.  We filled our little truck up with bags of the compost, filtered it through a large sieve, and mixed in just a little bit of additives from the store.  Hiro shoveled it into five little rows, and voila, our kitchen garden.

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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!

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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?

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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!