La Niña and Outlook for Philippine Forage Crops

We are currently experiencing the extended effects of La Niña. La Niña is defined as the positive phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) associated with cooler-than-average sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. La Niña is said to impact global climate, disrupting normal weather patterns and can lead to intense storms in some places and droughts in others.

In the Philippines, La Niña often means heavy rains and as a consequence, flooding. According to the “Climate Outlook (January-June 2018)” by the Climate Monitoring and Prediction Section of PAGASA-DOST, “Weak La Niña is present in the Tropical Pacific; may not last beyond March 2018, but varying impacts occur.”

Rainfall Forecast:

  • January 2018 – below normal rainfall over western Luzon while generally near to above normal over Eastern Luzon and most parts of Visayas and Mindanao;
  • February 2018 – generally near to above normal rainfall with some patches of below normal rainfall over Ilocos area; Visayas and Mindanao, generally above normal rainfall;
  • March 2018 – below normal rainfall over western Luzon while generally near to above normal over Eastern Luzon and most parts of Visayas and Mindanao;
  • April 2018 – generally below normal over most parts of Luzon (except western Luzon); the rest of the country will likely experience near normal rainfall conditions.
  • May 2018 – generally near to above normal rainfall;
  • June 2018 – near normal rainfall over major parts of the country, while below normal rainfall conditions will be likely over northern Luzon.
  • Generally, near average to slightly warmer than average surface temperature is expected over the coming months over most parts; slightly cooler than average over the mountainous areas in Luzon in January-March 2018; cold surges may occur in December to February 2018.
  • 2 to 5 tropical cyclones may develop or enter the Philippine Area of Responsibility (PAR) from January – June 2018.

Weekly ENSO monitoring is available at: http://www.pagasa.dost.gov.ph/index.php/climate/climate-prediction/el-ninosouthern-oscillation-enso-status

Outlook for the West Garden:

Construction work took place around the western side of the garden in October-November 2017. We started mulching and building rain gardens, paths and plant beds in the effort to get as many crops growing as quickly as possible and to control flooding from storm water run-off in the area.

Forage is one of the most important crops we planted. We don’t have enough forage for the animals and would like 2018 to be the year when we would grow and double our production. Some of our current forage crops are: desmodium rensonii, indigofera zollingeriana, trichantera gigantea (madre de agua), and mini water cabbage.

Indigofera for forage.
Indigofera has 27─31% crude protein, which is relatively higher than any of the locally available leguminous forages. Leaves and twigs are harvested every 30 days to maintain their succulence. Indigofera is not to be confused with Creeping Indigo (indigofera spicata) which may be toxic to some livestock.
Desmodium cinereum (Rensonii) is a leguminous plant tagged as “alfalfa of the tropics” because of its high crude protein content at 20-23% of dry weight. Regular cutting stimulates multiple stems and increases yields of leaf. If seed production is required, defoliation must be timed to avoid destroying the developing seed crop. Not well suited for grazing or browsing.
Trichanthera gigantea is generally propagated from cuttings selected at the basal part of young stems. These cuttings can either be planted directly or put in plastic bags for transplanting later. Harvest begins 8 to 10 months after establishment and the first yields are about 15 t/ha of fresh matter. Trichanthera gigantea can be harvested for foliage every 3 months and yields 17 t/ha of fresh matter at a cutting height of about 1 m. Under hotter and drier conditions, cutting heights can be higher (1.3-1.5 m).

Growing but not thriving well are: ipil-ipil, madrecacao, mani-manian, malunggay and water hyacinth.

Failed to survive are: stylo.

We are looking for seeds/cuttings/seedlings of the following: napier grass, mulberry, mara mais, stylo, azolla.

Papaya planted in the west garden two months ago.

Forage and roughage for pigs and goats also come from the following: various fruit trees such as papaya, langka, banana, coconut, gmelina, mahogany, tiesa, tambis, balimbing; various green leafy vegetables such as amaranth, camote (leaves), kangkong, saluyot, alugbati, casava (leaves), talinum; and various grasses such as carabao grass, paragis, mimosa, busikad, etc.

Sow eating various common grass pulled out from the garden.

Ornamental plants that are trimmed also provide some forage but only in small quantities since some are considered mildly toxic: San Francisco plant (croton), various cultivars of canna, Fortune plant (dracaena), ornamental palms, ferns, wandering jew, lantana, duranta etc.

Piglet foraging in the garden.

La Niña does not deter us from developing the west garden. We have planted forage crops in and around the area. Normally, the rainy/wet season is also good vegetable planting season in the Philippines because this eliminates the need for artificial irrigation. However, tropical vegetable production experts note that the rainy season also means high humidity amidst high temperatures conducive to the proliferation of pests and disease. This is where disease and pest-resistant crops are valuable and topping the list of recommended plants are those with edible foliage and shoots.

Recommended Vegetables for the Rainy/Wet Season:

Rooted taro, kangkong (water spinach) and camote (sweet potato) are easier to grow in wet and flood prone areas. The red and green varieties of taro we planted in the newly dug up rain gardens are doing well.

Okra, eggplant, beans, chili, corn/maize, squash and some gourds are known to thrive in wet conditions. However, they need to be planted in raised beds so they are protected from flooding. When seedlings have established at about 1-2 weeks, mulching needs to be done all around the seedlings in order to protect them from the battering downpour of rain. We have lost many young sprouts to heavy pouring rain, unfortunately, so we are also planting seeds in the beds where mulch have already been applied. The surrounding mulch protect some of the seedlings. Planting under a tree or bush also helps, as long as the area does not get flooded.

Taro thrives well in the rain garden.

 

Toxic Plants and Weeds

Although many plants are toxic in various ways, we try not to allow those with high toxicity to colonise the garden, particularly the weeds. While animals avoid eating plants that are toxic, we also try to identify which plants may be toxic and avoid giving those to the animals. Toxic plants we currently have are Estrella, Sinkamas (seeds are toxic), Sagilala (San Francisco/Croton), Red Ginger, Lantana, Katakataka (linked to some cattle poisoning), Buddha Belly Plant (ginseng in Tagalog), Cat’s Whiskers (Balbas Pusa), Castor Oil Plant (Tangantangan), Bangkok Kalachuchi (leaves and flowers are toxic to goats and cattle), Plumeria.

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Estrella (above) contains a toxic alkaloid, isotomine that can cause muscle paralysis and affect cardio-respiratory functions.

Protecting Plants from Chickens and Ducks

Chickens and ducks love foraging after a downpour. The earth is soft and is easy to dig up as chickens and ducks search for bugs, earthworms, seeds and seedlings. Even if the fowls are sufficiently fed, they still want to go around and forage, especially the chickens. Below are some of the methods we are implementing, hoping to duck and chicken-proof the garden. Admittedly, we are not always very successful but some plants do manage to grow this way.

Seeds are planted between coconut husks – another attempt at chicken-proof gardening.
Portable plastic netting frames are placed over seeds, seedling for protection.
Seeds are planted between stakes for chicken-proofing.
Other methods at chicken-proofing include fencing out raised garden beds and putting pots on wood stumps away from sight of chickens and ducks.

It has been two months since we started work in the west garden amidst the effects of La Niña. Work continues to minimise the effects of flooding and hopefully, get plants to grow and get established before what might be a long season of drought in the near future.

Mulching

Coconut trees finally got cleaned today – after nearly 3 years. It took such a long time because the guy who does it is as slippery as a rat out of a snake’s mouth. “Cleaning” coconut trees means clearing the tree of dead materials, trimming the leaves and cutting down coconut fruits that may pose a hazard over roofs, garden beds and pathways, and of course, cutting down mature coconuts (for copra or cooking) as well as a few young green ones.

We use coconut leaves – green or dry –  as compost, feed for the pigs and for mulching. We specially need mulch for the west garden. Several days earlier, I’ve started work by sowing mung beans and adding a thin layer of dry coconut leaves on the soil, plus spraying with a dilution of lactic acid bacteria to facilitate decomposition. Then we got help from Bebe and Atoy to further mulch the area.

Instead of digging and ploughing through the soil, we rely on mulching. Apart from spraying lactic acid bacteria, I am currently preparing a variety of indigenous microorganisms with large mycelium growth. This will be placed onto the soil, under the mulch, to inoculate the soil and increase microbial diversity, hoping to improve soil texture and enrich the soil at the same time.

I don’t expect to grow anything soon in several areas where mulch has been added specially over where the boar pen used to be. The manure in that area has not yet completely decomposed. However, some of the mung beans I tossed around several days ago seem to be doing fine.

There has been an unusually high amount of rainfall this year and I think we’re nearing the end of the rainy period. This would be a great time to mulch since there will be enough moisture and humidity to decompose the mulch, and the soil cover will be much needed as the dry season approaches.

To learn more about mulching, here are some helpful resources.

How We Discovered the Rain Garden

The use of bioretention for stormwater management has its roots in industrial and commercial site settings. Only in the early 1990’s did residential applications of bioretention for stormwater management begin to become a concern in the area of environmental protection within communities. The term “rain garden” was coined for this purpose.

“Rain garden” is the popular term used to refer to a landscaped depression or hole that catches rainwater runoff and allows it to soak into the ground. This is opposed to drains and surfaces that cause and aggravate flooding, soil erosion, water pollution and diminished groundwater.

A swale is a similar feature, which may be natural or artificial. Swales serve as infiltration basins, allowing increased rainwater infiltration.

We “discovered” the useful features of the rain garden/swale by accident. The previous occupants of the property demolished their old house and left behind a pit latrine, a toilet that collects fecal matter in a hole in the ground. We actually only noticed this hole after the big earthquake in 2013. It seems that the earthquake had caused that area in the garden to cave in.

Shortly, a group of ducklings suddenly disappeared in the garden. We discovered that they had fallen into the hole and had to be rescued. Because the hole posed a hazard, Trevor decided to grow plants in the hole. By then, we also noticed that stormwater flowing from the roof of the house and other higher parts of the garden collected into the hole. Apparently, this had great benefits. It prevented excessive flooding and soil erosion.

Today, this – what we now call a “rain garden” – hosts one of the most lush vegetation in the garden. Below are more photos of the rain garden. We plan to dig a couple more rain gardens to alleviate the flooding in low areas of the garden, particularly in the west section.

Here are some links to get you started in understanding and building rain gardens.

A Gardening Challenge

More drawn to livestock, I have not done much gardening in years. A few attempts have not resulted to anything promising. However, since a section of the garden along the west side of the property has given way to newly rebuilt pigpens and the surrounding area cleared and trampled down by construction work, I may now have to face the challenge of tending not only to the pigs but also to plants.

But the first real challenge is tending to the soil – how to bring life back to soil that has been subjected to abuse.

Here is one area of the west garden between the two pigpens. I have laid down stakes cut from the tough midribs of coconut leaves to fence in what would be garden beds and paths in between for access. The fencing will consist of the thicker and heavier parts of the midribs, and inside the fenced area the coconut fronds will be piled along with other organic materials for composting. This is also where spraying the area with lactic acid bacteria might be helpful.

This is the lower half of the same area, some 25 square meters of what used to be a boar pen. There is still some scrap wood left from the demolition of the old pen. The red bits are from the tattered canvas roofing of the pen.

In this photo, one can see that the edge of the west garden has become devoid of ground cover vegetation due to construction work. A lot of work needs to be done here to revive the texture of the soil so that plants can start growing again. Due to digging and trampling, the soil has become compacted and is very prone to flooding.

Here is the southern corner of the west garden. Likewise, compacted soil, a canal dug up leading to nowhere now becomes flooded. Logs from a tree that was cut down will need to be stood up to serve as plant holders in locations where they will not block the flow of rainwater. Those galvanised iron roof sheets will need to be removed and stored elsewhere.

We have cleaned up as much as we could but much remnants from the construction work remain: pieces from cements bags and broken hollow blocks and a pair of slippers, pieces of plastic bags, paper.

A section of the garden was used for mixing cement, and although the workers have broken up the concrete to expose the soil, they did not clean up afterwards. We will need to remove as much as we can of this concrete and put them nearby where they can reinforce paths around the pigpens.

Here is a closer look at the soil in the area where the boar pen used to be. Heavy rains cause water logging and the ground here is very soft, it is really a mud pit. We will need to compost over these areas and will probably takes several months before improvement becomes visible.

Here is another section of the boar pen which is a mix of soil, composted organic matter and limestone.

And when it rains …

These photos (below) show what the area looks like after a half hour of rain. It isn’t pretty.

Managing the rainwater run-off from the upper part of the property will need to be done along with planting, contouring, rain gardening and such things in the west garden. A not-so-good neighbor has also been dumping their roof rainwater run-off into our property, so that will need to be dealt with later.

Canals were dug up around the pigpens to prevent rainwater from entering the pens. In some areas the water goes down, but in the southern section, the water pools in the canal and doesn’t get drained  into the soil.

I planted tiger tail and fortune plants in this corner at the lower part of the canal hoping that later, more plants can grow in the canals and absorb the water.

In a few areas where the canals flow downwards, I hope to dig a couple of rain gardens to serve as catchment for overflowing rainwater, hoping to avert flooding in the west garden. Soil dug up from the rain garden may be placed over the old pigpen particularly in excessively muddy places where water pools.

Next to a mahogany tree and behind the darkness of a pile of scrap wood from the demolished pigpens this lily has managed to survive and grow.

The mung beans I threw into the wet areas of the west garden have also started sprouting. I don’t expect these to grow and mature but I am aiming for these roots to enrich the soil. More leguminous plants will need to be planted in these areas.

And this grass, pressed between the concrete base of the pigpen and the limestone paving has managed to survive.

So all is not lost, it may still be possible to bring the west garden back to life. It will take a long time, so it will be an exercise in patience. 😉