Posts Tagged ‘Nick Pikarsky’

The skin of a mature luffa just peels right off.

The other morning, Sadie the farm manager was peeling the skin off a long, green, slightly lobed vegetable that looked like a cross between a cucumber and a pumpkin. Underneath the skin was a tangled mass of fibers, and it didn’t look edible at all. “You can try to eat it, but you won’t get very far,” farmer Margie commented. I was looking at a freshly picked mature luffa (or loofah). Sadie shook and squeezed out large, pumpkin-like seeds lurking inside channels that ran the length of the luffa. They will be dried and saved for planting later.

Luffa vine climbed from the wire fence (background) up into an avocado tree.

Loofahs are a member of the squash family, and grow on a long, slender vine that will take over any fence or support you give it. The gourd itself grows to about two feet in length. When they are small, they feel spongy when you squeeze them, and are said to be edible. As they grow, they feel quite heavy and solid. The older they get, the more fibrous they become.

Sadie checks the big loofahs every day as she passes by. “Then one day, magically they feel light, and that’s the time to harvest,” she explained. (You could wait until their skin starts to dry out and turn brown, but you run the risk of the whole thing starting to rot on the vine.)

Peeled luffas soak in the deep sink. They are weighed down with a concrete block.

Inside is a “vegetably slimy flesh on the fibers,” Sadie explained, and the only way to get it off is to let it soak. Peeled luffas sit covered in water for a couple of days, held down with a weight to keep them from floating to the top. The slimy flesh ferments off (and I suggest you do this in a well ventilated place because they stink). Then the fibrous luffa is rinsed, soaked in a mild beach solution (also weighted down), rinsed, and air dried.

The end result is a long, pale mass of tangled fibers that’s the vegetable equivalent of a scouring pad. Ones with coarser fibers work well to scrub a non-stick skillet or barbecue grill, and the ones with thinner, softer fibers are great for the bath. Rise your luffa thoroughly after use and let it air dry. It will last a long time.

Look for whole, dried luffas at the Bee Heaven Farm tent, at the Pinecrest Gardens Farmers Market, starting on Sunday, Nov. 20th. 

Nick Pikarsky of Bee Heaven Farm with organic luffas

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The photographer and her work

The photographer and her work. Photo by Margie Pikarsky.

As I entered the Miami Beach Botanical Gardens, the sweet, intoxicating scent of jasmine greeted me. Friends were waiting for me at the exhibit, and I was glad they came out to see the art and to show support. Farmer Margie and her husband Nick took turns taking pictures of me with my pictures, and it felt like paparazzi. Now I know what it’s like on the other side of the lens! Margie pointed out that the picture Firebush was hanging right below the sign that said FIRE extinguisher. Hmmm, seems like the people who were hanging the art have a sense of humor, I like that. Robert the Cantankerous Chef also came, and was discussing what kind of caterpillar that was. He thinks it’s a zebra Gulf Fritillary butterfly, and Margie thinks it might be a brown orange julia. [Both caterpillars are quite similar in appearance and both are natives, according to Margie, who looked these things up. Thanks for the fact checking!]

Claire Tomlin of The Market Company (whom I’ve met at the South Florida Farmers Market) provided veggie snacks, and Schnebleys brought a variety of fruit wines. I sampled the avocado wine, and it’s similar to pinot grigio with a whiff of avocado, and it’s actually pretty good. Heard the lychee wine (my favorite) ran out fairly quickly. Hung out till the very end with my friend photographer Mark Diamond, waiting to hear the announcements of the winning artists, including audience choice, but neither us of won anything. Thanks for your votes, it’s all good. I’m glad to be in the show, and hope that more shows are to come.

The pictures look a lot better in person, so if you haven’t seen them and you’re in the area, stop in and take a look for yourself. The show is up for only this week. I’m coming by on Saturday afternoon to pick them up — unless you want to take them home with you…? Let me know…

Botanist Steven Woodmansee wrote about the plants depicted in the art works. Here’s what he wrote about my pieces, which was posted on a card next to them.

1.  Beautyberry  – This photograph depicts one of our showier native flowering plants. American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), and its leaves are aromatic when crushed, although it is not recommended for culinary practices.

However, the clusters of purple fruit do attract birds, especially mockingbirds, who will defend “their” plant from other encroaching birds. It is native to upland habitats including pinelands and hammocks, and prefers full sun.  Branches may be clipped, and used in flower arrangements, as they last several days.  In cultivation, it is best to cutback the plant to one third its size at least once a year.  It is native throughout Florida and portions of the southeastern United States.

2.  Firebush – (Hamelia patens) is a member of the coffee plant family (Rubiaceae).  The showy tubular red flowers attract a plethora of butterflies and hummingbirds (and in this photo, a honey bee).  A favorite for the butterfly garden, firebush flowers year ’round, and grows well in partial shade.

Its fruits are devoured by birds.  It is recommended that for a bushy appearance and longevity, plants be cut back to one third its size at least once per year.  This species is a must for any Florida yard.  It is native across most of peninsular Florida where it can be found in swamps and hammocks.

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At the Small Farms Conference, Nick and Margie Pikarsky of Bee Heaven Farm were part of a panel on solar power.

Nick Pikarsky

Nick Pikarsky

They gave a presentation on the two solar systems they have installed at their farm. One is a passive hot water collector, and the other system powers a water pump and freezer.

Water pump and freezer system

This system is used to pump water from the well for the bar, with extra power for the freezer. The pump provides water for everyday farm water uses. The system also does minor irrigation in a small area, consisting of a small mist house and a garden size drip system.

Solar panels mounted on roof of pump house

Solar panels mounted on roof of pump house

Two solar panels are mounted on top of the freezer shed, and were set at a compromise angle between summer and winter positions. Since the farm is so close to the equator in South Florida, the angle of the sun doesn’t change much through the seasons. They learned quickly that you can’t have anything obscuring the panels. A crawling vine once covered part of one panel and reduced the power output considerably. When nearby branches and a flowering bush grow too tall, they get cut back. After hurricanes Katrina and Wilma, the farm was without power two weeks and one week accordingly. The house didn’t have water, but the barn did, and the system was hooked up to supply for the house as well.

24V Dankoff Solar Force irrigation pump

24V Dankoff Solar Force irrigation pump

Nick researched the literature, spoke with suppliers and decided on a 24 volt DC system as a compromise between efficiency and economy. 12V systems are cheaper but more inefficient, and 48V systems were a bit too expensive. Choose the type of pump based on your needs — depth of water table, amount of water needed, and duty cycle — then size the solar system accordingly, Margie advised. The irrigation pump is a 24V Dankoff Solar Force (now sold under the Conergy brand). The pump system runs off 2 deep-cycle batteries charged by a small controller unit. It also powers a Sundanzer 8 cu. ft. 24V freezer chest, and a couple of emergency lights in the barn and pump house.

Inverter and breaker panel mounted on wall. Batteries, pump and freezer on the floor of the pump house.

Inverter and breaker panel mounted on wall. Batteries, pump and freezer on the floor of the pump house.

Passive water heater

Bee Heaven participated in Florida Keys GLEE a few years ago and learned about TCT Solar, which makes passive solar hot water collectors. This particular model is 50 gallons, and was mounted to serve as the roof of an outdoor shower stall. It provides plenty of scalding hot water for the shower, a washing machine, and the big sink in the barn. The passive system heats water only when there is sun, but the water stays hot! It requires no electricity and works really well.

Passive collector mounted on top of outdoors shower.

Passive collector mounted on top of outdoors shower.

Barn system

There is a third system at Bee Heaven Farm that has not yet been fully implemented. It will someday serve all the power needs in the barn. The barn
has a Solar 5K 48V inverter which is designed to power the walk-in cooler, tools, lighting and standard 120V AC appliances. Nick and Margie calculate they need a total of 20 PV panels to power the barn, along with a complement of 40 batteries. It’s too expensive to do that all at once, so they’re hoping to implement in stages, and are excited about new government incentives to help with the purchases. There’s an A-B switch in the barn to go on or off the grid. Margie said their goal is to be completely free of the grid.

Barn breaker panels, A-B switch and inverter.

Barn breaker panels, A-B switch and inverter.

FPL has a net metering policy, but there’s a catch, Margie cautioned. They require you to be down when they are down, and you have to buy power from FPL at retail, yet they buy power from you at wholesale, and that’s a significant difference. FPL will give you credit if you generate more power
than you use, but at the end of the year, you lose any credit you’ve accumulated. Other speakers on the panel cautioned users to try to negotiate a contract with their utility that’s equitable.


These are the prices when the systems were built 5-7 years ago. Some things are now cheaper, and some things are more expensive.

Solar collector for hot water $1400 (copper piping and stand not included)

Pump and freezer system:
Batteries 400 x 2
Sharp modules (solar panels) 550 x 2
Rack for modules 200
Charge controller 140
Dankoff pump 2500
Pressure tank 200
Sundanzer freezer 1200
Total: 6200 + labor & shed

Download system diagrams for the solar water heater and for the solar pump.

Thanks to Margie for collaborating in the writing of this article, and Nick for the systems diagrams.

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