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Self-Reliant Garden Techniques Workshop

Written by Lokahi on 22 July 2010.

Tim Lloyd demonstrates the strength of a garden bench he made in a few minutes out of scrap materials.
Tim Lloyd demonstrates the strength of a garden bench he made in a few minutes out of scrap materials.
I must say I was more than a little skeptical. I had seen the flyer for the Self-Reliant Home Garden Techniques (June 16-17, 2010, Holualoa, North Kona) workshop with the photograph of the presenter, Tim Lloyd, standing on top of his “garden bench” (isn’t a garden bench something you sit on to enjoy the view and smell the flowers?) made out of a couple of pallets. I thought he might just be talented at balancing himself. And a pallet has lots of gaps between the slats—how would the soil stay in? And if it was lined with, say, plastic, how would it drain? Not to mention that the sides were only 3” high—what can you grow in 3” of soil, other than starts?

Then there was the part in the flyer that said we’d learn “how to make Bokashi...using EM (Effective Microorganisms)...” I’d heard about Bokashi and EM for a couple of years, but they sounded like some exotic wünderfertilizer, with little scientific evidence to back their anecdotal claims. I googled both looking for the research studies at places like Penn State, Cornell, Texas A & M, or even our UH CTAHR: zilch. See, another unproven wonder cure for all of our soils’ deficiencies.

Tim Lloyd of Pohoiki, horticulturalist, homegrown food expert, and inventor.
Tim Lloyd of Pohoiki, horticulturalist, homegrown food expert, and inventor.
So, long story short, when I sat down at the beginning of the workshop I was quite unprepared for what turned out to be, or so it seemed, an actual conversion experience.

It began innocuously enough with Mr. Lloyd’s demonstration and explanation of building the garden bench. First, Lloyd was obviously ingenious at devising innovative garden techniques. He’d been doing this kind of thing for decades and in the process picked up a horticulture degree from UH Hilo. His knowledge was broad, deep, and thorough. Second, he easily disassembled the salvaged pallets with his specially invented “disassembling tool,” inviting any of us to try it ourselves. He then masterfully re-assembled the pieces using basic caveman tools (“...if you can’t find a hammer, use a rock...”), producing a shockingly sturdy platform that workshop members were able to stand on without a wobble.

Third, he explained the various types of linings one could use (to seal the gaps in the slats!), mostly from household waste materials, and why, in most cases you needn’t worry about drainage—and if you did want to increase drainage, how to put drain holes in the lining. Finally he passed around big, laminated photographs of the more than 40 gorgeous heads of multicolored leaf lettuce that he grows in one 4’ x 3-1/2’ pallet bench exactly like the one that he had just constructed.

The advantages of this backyard system of garden benches are numerous: they are free; they are low-tech and easily assembled by almost anyone; they are light and portable (even with soil and veggies in them); they can be strung together easily, end to end, in a row of two, three, four, five, etc., some for starts, some for transplants; they can have built-in rain roofs or shade cloths if desired; their sides can easily be built up to grow root crops; they work well for hydroponics; they can save the grower $500-$1,000 each year over store-bought food; and finally, the homegrown food is fresher and more nutritious.

84-year-old workshop participant Pat McDonald efforlessly disassembles a pallet with a tool Tim Lloyd invented.
84-year-old workshop participant Pat McDonald efforlessly disassembles a pallet with a tool Tim Lloyd invented.
As he was building the demonstration garden bench, Tim extemporaneously gave a mini-presentation of many more ways to save time, energy and money in backyard gardening. For example, you thought you had to weed-whack or pull all those weeds encroaching on your bed of veggie plants, didn’t you? No you don’t. If you weed-whack them or break them off they’ll grow back almost instantly, right? And if you pull them out by the roots you’ll disturb the soil, and weeds love to grow in disturbed soil. Did you know that you can kill the weed, and its root, by cutting it just below the soil surface? The soil doesn’t get disturbed, new weeds don’t quickly return, the root ball dies and decomposes, providing food and organic matter for the soil. And then you take the tops of the weeds and lay them on the soil for mulch (but not if the weeds have gone to seed!).

You know your soil needs micronutrients. Most fertilizers don’t have them, and the organic ones that do are expensive. According to Tim, the ocean has all the micronutrients our soils need. Add a teaspoon of ocean water to a gallon of water and water your plants. That provides the basic micronutrients for your soil. Tim was full of homegrown gardening tips like these.

The middle part of the workshop was about EM (Essential Microorganisms) and Bokashi. EM is actually a brand name of a commercial yeast and bacteria-based liquid soil inoculant that was developed in Japan over 30 years ago. When applied to soil, it increases microbial activity, greatly improving soil fertility and farm production. It also eliminates or greatly reduces the odors from putrefied food wastes. Bokashi is a mixture of mill-run wheat bran, molasses, EM, and non-chlorinated water that anyone can make. The trick is to get the correct moisture content and consistency, which Tim carefully demonstrated. It then needs to be fermented anaerobically in a closed container. After fermentation it can be used immediately or dried for long-term use. Although bokashi can be applied in many ways, it is most well known for greatly speeding up kitchen scrap composting and eliminating its odors.

Demonstration of making Bokashi.
Demonstration of making Bokashi.

The last part of the workshop put it all together: only four 5-gallon buckets of soil (with cinder and biochar added) to fill the bench beds, a sprinkling of EM, a sprinkling of Bokashi, and then a liberal amount of lettuce seeds broadcast on one side and cabbage seeds on the other. Smoothed over gently and fine sprayed with water, our mini backyard garden was ready.

Three weeks later I came back to the workshop site at the Holuakoa Gardens & Café in Holualoa and saw a hundred vibrant green seedlings popping up out of the garden bench, ready to be thinned. I’m converted.