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Getting Started: Creating a Home Garden in Hawai’i

by Glenn I. Teves, County Extension Agent, Molokai’i CTAHR

and Nancy Redfeather Hawai’i Seed Growers Network

Hawai’i Seed Growers Network Blog # 3- April 2020


The Spring Equinox has recently passed, and we are all at home. There is opportunity here, we may have more time than we used to to start a small home garden to supplement our family with fresh nutritious food! We would like to share our ideas about getting started! Or if you are having difficulties in the garden this Blog might be for you also! From now on, the days will get longer up to 13 ½ hours on June 21 the Summer Solstice and the first day of Summer. This is the ideal season for gardening in Hawaii, when the plants will respond positively to weather changes and spring rains, and seeds will spring forth or in some instances, burst out.



Hawaii has such an array of climatic conditions and varied terrain that it’s difficult to write a one-size-fits-all approach to selecting a garden site. What you see is what you have to work with. In some areas, selecting a fairly flat site protected from the wind is a luxury. However, if you live in a lava field or on a slope, that’s what you’ve got; it’s just different but it’s all good. Some areas with thin lava soil are some of the richest areas. Wetter areas are usually not as rich as drier areas, but you’ll need more water when gardening in hot dry places. Right now with the challenges we’re facing, having any garden is much better than not having one at all. If you don’t have access to land you can plant in 3-5 gallon pots.

If wind is a problem, preparing wind protection is important. This can include a windbreak such as sorghum-sudan grass or vetiver. Of these, sorghum-sudan grass is the fastest growing and you can have a 6 foot tall windbreak in 40 days from seed.[1] Growing long-day varieties is important so they don’t produce seed and become a new weed pest. Many of these grasses can be cut back and used for mulch or emergency animal feed during summer months. You could also put in a more permanent hedge of something like panex, ti, or hibiscus.[2] If you’re in a windy area, start the garden by sowing low-growing crops until windbreaks get tall enough. You could also grow a row of pigeon peas on the edge and use the seed and leaves for human, animal food, or mulch. Pigeon peas are nitrogen fixing for the soil so that could assist the fertility of the area.[3] Start them in small pots and set out when about 12 inches high.



If you have a lot of area, you have more options for a larger garden. Each side of your house is different in terms or wind and sun and temperature and growing hours. The sun is still oriented to the south of us so the southern side will have the most sun. The north and east side will be the windiest, and the north will be the coldest. The west side will have the most wind protection but may have fewer growing hours. The southwest will be one of the best areas to locate a garden. Locating your garden so you have good southern exposure is important in order to take advantage of the spring sun. If you feel so inclined, get out a pad and sketch out a drawing, that includes the beds and what you might like to grow in them. (see plant spacing chart)[4]

An understanding of which area has the best combination of conditions takes some figuring out but will make a big difference. Don’t locate it in a site where a structure such as storage shed or your home may block the sun from getting to your garden. Having more than one site, if you have the time and energy, is also a good idea, but you can start with one small area, be successful and then expand. Growing cold-loving crops in the cooler area and heat-loving crops in the warmer area is a luxury but if you have the energy, go for it!

Low-growing crops include root crops such as radish, daikon, beets, carrots, and others. More frilly leaved crops can withstand winds better compared to large leaved crops. Taller crops such as eggplant, peppers, and pole beans need good wind protection staking, or a trellis. Placing crops in the garden based on height is important also, so every vegetable or herb gets its fair share of sunlight. The tallest crops should be sown or planted in the back of the garden away from the sun, while the shortest crops should be in the side of the garden near then sun. This will create a more productive garden. Remember vegetables like sun!


Knowing the space requirements of crops is important, and this comes with experience, or information on your seed packet. Some crops will be better adapted to your location and will thrive, while others may struggle. Experiment experiment. Some crops should be planted directly by seed and others need to be grown up in your nursery[5] and then transplanted into your garden beds. Create a small “nursery” in a place that has a bit of shade for those little babies just coming up. It can be as simple as a pallet, with 4 cinder blocks under a tree!


Some crops are sprawling and should be planted on the edge of the garden where they can run free. This includes squashes, melons, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, chayote, both determinate and indeterminate tomatoes, and others.


Seed is an important part of any home garden. Start with locally grown seed and and then at some point you can start saving your own! Remember to keep your seed cool, dark and dry, in a sealed container in the refrigerator or with silica beads to control moisture. Locally produced seed is available through the Hawai’i Seed Growers Network at www.hawaiiseedgrowersnetwork.com and also through the UH Manoa Seed Lab at https://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/seed/Downloads/New 2019 Seed Order Form.pdf


The most important thing is to enjoy your work and grow what your family likes to eat! Stake your claim to your piece of earth and only take on what you can manage. You take your piece, and Mother Nature will take on the rest. Start small and be successful! Ask gardener friends for advice. Usually most gardeners in Hawai’i love to share cuttings, and advice!

Weeds can overwhelm you so mulching, weed mats, card board or anything to control weeds are a godsend. Planting in pots is also an option as well as flats to grow micro-greens or mini-greens. One thing to remember about weeds is that they come to cover, protect, and build the soil when it is bare. Get yourself a hula hoe and use it frequently when weeds are small; a stitch in time our mothers would say….


Cut and come-again crops are ideal because you don’t have to plant all the time, just maintain and eat over a long period of time, even months. My favorite greens include sweet potato tips and chayote shoots because they’re so easy to grow. Lettuce, mustards, beet tops, chard, spinach, and others can also be grown this way. Just break off the outer leaves and let the plant continue to grow.

With the threat of Rat-Lung Worm (RLW), have a slug-jug around (a jar with salt in water) and pick up the slug or snail with a glove or tongs, and be vigilant. Wash your leaves more than once, especially in bright lights or full sun. Don’t just wash whole plants or heads; separate leaves and wash both sides one at a time. Blanching or stir- frying for at least 3 minutes is another way to protect against RLW since the disease will not survive heat.

Controlling animals is important and every island is different. For some, feral chickens can be an issue, while for others its deer, goats, or pigs. Each pest warrants a different approach, and it may include fencing your garden. Another option could be turning two- and four-legged pests into food. Just be cognizant of your neighbors when using firearms or whether the animals belong to them. We need to keep the peace during these trying times more than ever before. We do lot of deer hunting on Molokai because they are a constant threat to our crops, so erecting 6-8 foot fences around crops and fields are a regular part of life. For us, this is an important protein source, and keeps us busy staying at home where there’s never a dull moment. On Hawai’i Island we must fence our gardens to keep out the pigs!


Some areas of your garden may have soil and can be dug with a garden fork or shovel removing large rocks from the soil before planting. Some areas will require a simple raised bed filled with soil on top of the lava. Remember when you first begin, your soil may not be very fertile but with time and care and compost and other organic materials that will change fairly quickly!


So, don’t forget to start a compost pile in a shady area, near the garden. Cuttings from leafy plants, kitchen compost, etc. can be layered (green and brown/carbon and nitrogen) and will help you create the fertility you will need for your vegetables, herbs, and flowers! [1] We will have another Blog soon, just on soil fertility. Until then you can consult this CTAHR publication.

https://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/uhmg/news/V11-Cyr-HealthyGardenSoil.pdf

Gardening is more than just growing food. Getting out in nature, working the whole body and the mind is part of our renewal as we prepare our families and communities in Hawai’i for the 21st Century! Gardening especially with your family is a great time to catch up on both the daily changes in your new garden and with each other.


So to summarize:

1. Choose your garden area. (ground, pots, etc.)

2. Dig your beds and remove rocks or build raised beds

3. Order your seed – grow what your family likes to eat

4. Start a small nursery in a semi shady place

5. Direct seed or start in small pots and transplant

6. Keep building your compost pile

7. Gather tools and keep them out of the rain!

8. Harvest your food, and enjoy cooking and eating it with your family.

9. Watch the beauty of the Garden unfold and nature’s systems at work.


[1] Sorghum-sudan grass seed is available from a variety of seed companies in the US.

[2] All these plants can be grown from cuttings.

[3] Pigeon Pea seed is available at HSGN marketplace:www.hawaiiseedgrowersnetwork.com

[4] Home Gardening in Hawai’i CTAHR 1943 - https://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/oc/freepubs/pdf/B-91.pdf

[5]Veggies to Direct Seed include:beans, beets, mustards, carrots, melons, peas, radish, spinach, squashes & pumpkins, cucumbers, daikon, and turnips.Veggies to Transplant include:lettuce, celery, eggplant, collards, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, leeks, onions, peppers, chard, tomatoes, and most of the herbs.Flowers can be both direct seeded and started in small pots and set out.

[6] CTAHR has a free publication on Backyard Composting at: https://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/oc/freepubs/pdf/HG-41.pdf


Another home garden historical resource is the CTAHR report called: “Home Gardening in Hawai’i.” It has 137 pages of amazing information and even though it is from 1943 there is so much relevant and interesting garden info. Enjoy!

https://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/oc/freepubs/pdf/B-91.pdf


Evan Ryan, one of our Hawai’i Seed Growers, has written a beautiful and practical book on about home gardening in Hawai’i called: “Hawai’i Home Gardens: Growing Vegetables in the Subtropics Using Holistic Methods.” The book is currently on sale with free shipping through the month of April at https://hawaiihomegardens.com/

[1] CTAHR has a free publication on Backyard Composting at:

https://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/oc/freepubs/pdf/HG-41.pdf

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