My motivation for gardening is similar to what got me into cooking two decades ago. I like good, fresh food, and that's not often easy to find outside my home. I also enjoy following the seasons and tuning in to what's going on around me. And I still delight in popping a sunwarmed cherry tomato into my mouth and sharing a minutes-old salad with a supermarket lettuce-eater.
Organic gardening is a challenge in Hawaii. Decades of intensive monocrop chemical agriculture have nearly destroyed the soil and littered it with black plastic. The year-round growing season is great, but introduced diseases, weeds and insect pests also thrive 24/7. In the veggie garden, I've learned to plant plenty and continuously, harvest early and often and change crops quickly to keep ahead of the forces that prey on my plants. And I'm grateful for whatever I get, because I enjoy the process as much as the product.
Hawaii's benevolent climate makes it ideal for permaculture—the concept of putting your landscape to its most effective use by choosing vegetation that will provide some of your basic needs. That might mean planting a mix of trees for food, building materials and other uses, such as koa, milo, citrus, banana, neem, mango, coconut, kukui and native cotton, and selecting a mix of perennials for their medicinal and other purposes, like noni, Suriname cherry, awa, tumeric and sugar cane. In that way, you'll be able to reap many benefits from your landscape, while still getting the shade, privacy, windbreaks and aesthetic qualities you desire. It's all a way to live more self-sufficiently in these isolated islands, where we are already overly dependent on outside sources for most of our basic needs.
Flowering Trees. Experiment with air layering a favorite flowering tree, like puakenikeni or plumeria. It's easier than you think (look for detailed instructions in garden books) and you'll end up with a tree that has all the qualities of the original.
Seed Sowing. Sow seeds of cabbage, snow peas, Chinese greens, soybeans, broccoli and turnips to make the most of the cool, wet weather.
Compost Time. Start composting in earnest; check with your county's solid waste office as some offer free home composting units and/or presentations on the best method.
Local Trees. Grow an ohia lehua, the beautiful red-flowering, hardwood tree endemic to Hawaii, if you want a striking specimen tree in your landscaping. Although most often found in the mountains, ohia can grow almost anywhere with ample water.
Stay Away From Non-Native Flowers and Plants. Resist the urge to plant wildflower seeds from the mainland—even if they're pretty—and other nonnative flowers and grasses that can easily spread in Hawaii's mild climate. What's lovely elsewhere can quickly become a pest species in the islands.
Developing Delicious Papaya. Plant papaya seedlings in areas with good drainage as they rot in standing water. Plan to feed them monthly through the year; they like lots of nitrogen and compost.
Plan Your Plantings. Schedule your plantings with the moon (and turn off outside lights so you can see it and maintain Hawaii's dark skies.) Plant root crops between the full and new moon, and aboveground crops between the new and full moon.
Cut Back Diseases and Dying Plants. Get rid of insect-infested, yellowing, diseased or otherwise stressed shrubs and landscape plants. A little extra kaukau (food) like compost or kelp will help restore their health.
Splendid Starfruit. Plant a starfruit tree now and you could be eating its sweet, juicy fruit this time next year.
Be Civil With Spiders. Resist the urge to kill spiders, although they're everywhere now. Their numbers will diminish as spring approaches, and they eat a lot of mosquitoes. Most are harmless, but the small, round crab spiders can inflict a nasty bite.
Unpredictable weather has become the norm for Hawaii this winter, with the usual tradewind pattern frequently replaced by strong kona weather systems. This translates into hot, dry southwest winds, generally sunny skies and far fewer rain showers, making wintertime gardening more challenging. Still, success is possible, although it requires one to devote more time and care to the garden. I tend to see that as a good thing, as gardens thrive under our personal attention.
Time Your Watering. Water thoroughly each morning during windy periods to keep soil moist all day.
Beautiful Beans. Grow Filipino long beans (ask friends for seeds or purchase some very mature beans with seed pods at the local farmers' markets) for a prolific, hardy and disease resistant source of green beans all year long. Fences can become gardens if you plant Filipino long beans, oregano, cucumbers, moon flowers (don't let these escape into the wild!), snow peas, stephanotis, black-eyed Susans and other climbing flowers and vegetables along them. Dig holes or shallow trenches and amend with compost, then plant seeds or seedlings.
Planting Schedule. Plant cabbage, broccoli, eggplant, cucumber, lettuce, Chinese greens, green onions, cherry tomatoes, turnips, daikon and soybeans.
Arugula and Kale. Sow seeds of arugula and kale for hardy, perennial sources of dark green vegetables suitable for salads or cooking.
Catch Those Caterpillars. Collect caterpillars from the undersides of kale, cabbage and other cole crops to reduce leaf damage caused by cabbage moth, which lays its eggs on the leaves, which are then devoured by the hungry keiki.
Manage Fallen Bananas. Chop fallen banana trees into chunks with a machete and let them decompose right in the banana patch, providing an excellent source of food.
Cut Back Old Plants. Cut ginger and other yellowing or worn tropicals down to the ground, cover with a layer of compost, manure and mulch to keep down weeds and keep watered. Plants will sprout new leaves in spring and flower in summer.
Sustainability and self-sufficiency are two important components of organic farming. They're even more vital for those of us who dwell on islands, where the finite nature of our environment and its resources are so apparent. In Hawaii, where most of the food is imported, very little of our waste is recycled and tons of green waste are dumped in landfills already filled to capacity, it's essential that we do all we can to lighten the load on the earth and sea. As organic gardeners, we can help by growing enough food to feed ourselves and share with others, and by supporting our local composting projects. If it's available on your island, use chipped green waste for mulch or to supplement your own compost pile. Some counties will provide residents with compost bins and instructions on how to use them; check with your local department of public works. And if you want to buy compost, at least purchase Menehune Magic, which is made on Oahu.
Foliar Fertilizer. Mix spirulina powder with water to create a foliar fertilizer suitable for all plants.
Feed Gardenias Now. That way, you'll have flowers for May Day. Bat and seabird guano, mixed with water to create a tea for a foliar feed or applied lightly around flowering shrubs, is effective.
Composting Tip. Apply compost to gingers and other tropicals to support their upcoming flower cycle. It's also good to pile their fallen leaves around the roots, without touching the stems, as they like their own organic matter. Use the same method with bananas.
Mulch, Mulch, Mulch. Accelerate tree growth by applying a thick layer of mulch around young saplings to retain water, discourage weeds and eliminate the need for weed-eating and herbicides. Plant fruit trees in clusters, rather than rows. Mulch trees and shrubs with wood chips, and if you can get them, lychee and monkeypod leaves.
Build Soil Health By Growing Cover Crops. Once them mature, cut them down and till them in before planting. Sun hemp and pigeon peas grow quickly and help loosen clay soil while adding nutrients.
Soap Solution. Spray liquid soap (Dr. Bronners peppermint or eucalyptus work well) on plant leaves to smother aphids. Let soap dry for an hour, then remove by wiping with a soft cloth or spraying with a gentle stream of water. Genetic taro Chinese with rice gene to create hardy ornamental but some Hawaiians concerned about contamination of a food staple that has cultural significance.
Educate Yourself About Orchids. Learn about growing orchids at two free shows planned for Oahu. The first is set for March 18-20 at Del Monte Kunia Gym and the second is March 25-27 at Samuel Wilder King Intermediate School Armory in Kaneohe.
April is the month that truly welcomes Spring and her glorious riot of lush, unrestrained growth. Blossoms bust out everywhere, trees sport tender new leaves, grass gets taller seemingly before our eyes, seeds germinate quickly and weeds pop up overnight. The cloudy, cool, windy days of March are forgotten, replaced by soft breezes, frequent morning showers and lots of sunshine. We gain 33 minutes of daylight over 30 days, making it easy to give your garden the extra time and attention it needs right now. So take a cue from the birds and raise your voice in song—or at least whistle a happy tune—as you're reminded once again of life's eager desire to begin anew.
Cinder and Compost Solution. Apply a thin layer of cinder and compost mixed in equal parts to create a top dressing for the soil around native plants and blooming shrubs.
Get Informed About GMO (genetically modified organisms) In Hawaii. Controversy is mounting over plans to insert a rice gene into Chinese taro to create a hardy ornamental. Some worry it could contaminate edible taro, a staple crop with profound cultural significance for Native Hawaiians.
Sharpen Your Mower Blade. Dull blades cut unevenly, making your lawn more susceptible to disease.
Test Your Soil pH Before You Start Planting. The University of Hawaii cooperative extension service does testing for a small fee, and can offer advice for balancing soil acidity. Or buy a kit and do it yourself.
Extend Spring Cleaning Into The Yard. Collect dead leaves, fallen branches and rotting fruit. Remove wind-damaged leaves, banana, and dried fronds from palms. Check hoses and faucets for leaks. Inspect plants for scale, white fly and other pest infestations and diseases.
Glorious Greens. Add cilantro to kale, collards, spinach, luau (taro) leaf and other greens while steaming to enhance flavor and reduce bitterness.
Soap Solution. Spray a mixture of one part neem oil to four parts liquid soap (use a natural brand like Dr. Bronners) and eight parts water on sago palms and citrus to fight scale.
Seed Sowing. Sow seeds for cucumbers, green beans, lettuce, radishes, daikon, Chinese greens, okra, eggplant, peppers, soybeans, arugula, beets, broccoli and collards directly in the ground.
Plant Edible Ginger. Purchase organic ginger root that has new growth buds. Lay sections horizontally in a sunny, well-worked bed, with buds pointed up. Cover with a thin layer of rich soil and keep evenly moist. It'll be ready to harvest in the fall, when the leaves die back.
If you hadn't already noticed, spring has busted out all over and summer is hot on her heels. May is the month of rapid growth and prolific bloom as the ideal conditions of warmth and moisture merge. Your garden needs you more than ever now in order to do its best. Take the time to give it extra food, water to fill in the gaps between rain, weed, prune and generally clean up. It'll reward your tender loving care with the vibrant health that results in a bountiful harvest and fewer maintenance requirements and disease problems later on.
Feed Fruit And Flower Trees. Spread finished compost or composted chicken manure thinly and evenly over an 18-inch circle around the tree, leaving a 2-inch buffer right around the trunk.
Mulch Bananas After Feeding. Use dry leaves trimmed from producing trees, then replenish with the fresh leaves and trunks (chopped in small pieces) produced each time you cut down a tree to harvest a ripe bunch.
Harvest Time. Harvest banana immediately if any fruit turns yellow, or when the ridges have nearly disappeared from the green fruit.
Watch Those Weeds. Remove weeds now, before they flower and seed, and you'll have less weeding in the future. It's a good rainy day chore as the ground is soft.
Scout For Snails and Slugs. Control the ravenous snails and slugs that gravitate toward seedlings and cabbage crops by spreading lime, wood ashes or sawdust around the borders of each bed.
Water Thoroughly. Soil dries out quickly in wind and the mid-day heat, and even frequent rain showers may not fully soak the soil.
Pest Prevention. Build resistance to insects, fungal diseases and sooty mold by giving plants that produce a lot of fruit or flowers frequent foliar feedings of liquid kelp or seaweed.
Planting Time. Plant lettuce, tatsoi, collards, cucumbers, peppers, soybeans, green beans, radishes, basil, cilantro, cherry tomatoes, by sowing seed in tilled soil. Water as needed to keep soil damp until seedlings are established.
It's been hot and humid for weeks now, mid-summer hot, although the season doesn't officially change until the solstice on June 20. This is a wonderful time of year in the tropics, with long days, warm nights and the fragrance of stephanotis, crown flower, plumeria, night blooming jasmine, pikake and the other fragrant scents drifting by on the breeze. Water in the cool dawn and dusk hours while you listen to birds sing, watch the sky change color and become familiar with the many creatures that frequent your yard. You'll be surprised at how much you can observe in those small sessions that serve as bookmarks to the day, and pleasantly startled to see yourself relaxing, letting go and
Get Organized In The Garden. Trim trees and prune shrubs during the full moon in Capricorn, which hits the day after the solstice.
Gardens That Rock. Start that rock garden you always wanted by collecting unusual pohaku (rocks) from around your own yard during the Capricorn full moon. Build the garden in shade, sun, or any area that needs full coverage. Arrange rocks in an aesthetically pleasing manner, fill in area around them with sand, soil, chipped green waste mulch or a mix of all three, and voila.
Seed Planting. Plant seeds for sun-loving okra, cherry tomatoes, eggplant, great quantities of basil, colorful zinnia, marigolds and loofah, which can be eaten when very small and tender, or dried on the vine to make the natural skin-scrubbers.
Delicious Fruit Harvest. Eat your fill of juicy, sweet, fragrant lychee; this is the height of their too-short season. Mango, papaya and banana are also abundant. Share, freeze or dry any fruit you can't use right away.
Lawn Care. Extend the length of time between mowing sessions and increase the blade height setting to avoid scalping, which causes lawns to lose water rapidly and turn brown.
Mulching Tip. Mulch around plants, shrubs and trees to retain water. Use thick layers of leaves, chipped green waste, cardboard, and grass clippings; when they start to break down, chop them up and add to compost pile.
Everything seems to be blooming or producing its heart out this year. Limbs are sagging under the weight of a bumper crop of lychee, mango and avocados, and ornamental trees are ablaze with vibrant color. Along the coast, flowering beach heliotropes exude their delicate fragrance, as seedlings sprout up beneath them in the sand. On Kauai, even the old-timers can't recall seeing the albezzia trees so dense with flowers they appear to have been dusted with snow. Whether this is in response to last winter's heavy rains after years of drought, or crisis blooming signaling harsh conditions ahead remains to be seen. Perhaps Mother Nature is just trying to get our attention, reminding us to wake up and appreciate the splendor all around us.
Plant A Neem Tree. It fixes nitrogen in the soil, its leaves make excellent mulch that help control nematodes and the seeds can be pressed into bug-repellant oil.
Cut Back Leggy Plants. Cut back bougainvillea, night blooming jasmine, snow bush and other flowering shrubs that tend to get leggy. They'll reward your efforts with even more flowers in a month or two.
Fantastic Dried Fruit. Invest in a small dehydrator to dry excess banana, mango and papaya. Quarter banana and thinly slice other fruit to ensure full, even drying.
Watch Out For West Nile. It may already be on Maui. Prevent other mosquito-borne diseases by diligently cleaning up standing water. Tropical flowers, bananas and bromeliads are favored breeding areas that need plenty of attention.
The Power of Citronella. Dilute citronella essential oil, available in health food stores, with equal parts water in a spray bottle. Apply to skin as needed to safely repel mosquitoes.
Seed Planting. Plant seeds to grow soybeans, okra, peppers, eggplant, bush beans and cucumbers, which do well in the heat.
Tomato Care. Protect tomatoes from fruit flies with mesh row covers, available in garden stores and catalogs that fit neatly over the plants. Remove shortly before harvest.
Educate Yourself About GMOs. Participate in meetings the Hawaii Farm Bureau is planning throughout the state this summer to gather public comments about GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Hawaii is the nation's hub for experimental field trials and grows much of the GMO seed corn sold to Mainland farmers. Every county has a GMO action group where you can learn more and get involved.
August is not this gardener's friend. It's hot, the sun is intense, the trade winds often stall, the rain slackens to faint showers that do little to quench the parched soil. The garden requires extensive care just to survive. But it's all part of the cycle, so the plants and I adjust. In fact, I've come to treasure the time spent watering in the mornings and early evenings as a chance to bond with the plants, inspect them for disease, note their growth, harvest their bounty, trim away dead branches and leaves. There's no rushing the process, each plant takes a certain amount of time to adequately drink, so I slow down and enjoy it for the meditation that it is.
Prepare Beds For Fall Planting. Dig in compost, fertilizer or manure and cover with banana leaf or other broad-leafed trimmed foliage to retain moisture and encourage earthworms. Keep well watered.
Mix It Up. Turn compost piles frequently and water often to take advantage of summer's fast-cooking heat.
Don't Forget To Deadhead. Remove dead flower heads and yellowing leaves from ginger and other tropical flowers; cut spent stalk right down to the earth as they're done till next year.
Foliar Fertilizer. Spray liquid kelp or other foliar fertilizers on container plants and heavy-blooming shrubs to give them the kaukau (food) they need to replenish themselves.
Harvest Time. Harvest banana when ridges disappear, but before they turn yellow, and ripen in screened area to avoid fruit fly stings. Share excess with neighbors and friends, or cut into quarters lengthwise and dry in a food dehydrator.
Pinch Your Plants. Pinch off basil heads to encourage bushy growth, and harvest often for pesto, which can be frozen. Most herbs grow well year-round, so there's no need to dry them unless you want flowers or other parts for medicinal uses.
Celebrate Organic Food. Enter your best organic produce or baked goods in the vegetable and home shows of your island's County Farm Fair to educate others about the good taste and quality of organic food.
Mulch, Mulch, Mulch. Mulch around trees, shrubs and garden beds. Check with your county's solid waste division or private landscape contractors to find local sources of chipped green waste materials.
Although the fall equinox traditionally signals the time when gardens wind down, in Hawaii it means full steam ahead. So long as it's situated to get maximum sunlight each day, your garden will thrive in the cooler temperatures and frequent showers ushered in by autumn. This is also an ideal month to revive and refresh your garden after summer's withering heat and get a jump on those clean up projects that tend to bog down in the winter rains.
Planting Time. Plant lettuce, kale, Chinese greens, beets, onions, broccoli, collards, peas and beans by sowing seeds directly into compost-enriched, well-tilled soil.
Prepare to Prune. Severely prune poinsettia to remove all leafy stems and keep watered. The full regrowth will be the vibrant red associated with the Christmas holidays. Prune avocado, mango, plumeria, shower trees, bougainvillea, night-blooming jasmine, snow bush and other trees and shrubs that flower in the summer to keep them a manageable size.
Combat Pests Properly. Repel insects by planting asters, rosemary, pennyroyal, peppermint, rue, sage, summer savory, thyme, anise, basil, catnip, chervil and lemon balm in strategic clumps around the garden. Tansy is especially repellant to ants.
Protect Seedlings. Protect vegetable seedlings from hungry snails and slugs by removing all leaves around the garden bed and visually inspecting other nearby hiding places, like under pots, paving stones and weed cloth. Pick off the invaders by hand. Sprinkling lime, sawdust and wood ashes around the garden borders dehydrates and repels slugs and snails.
Learn About Orchids. Explore the beautiful world of orchids by attending a class or fair. Orchid societies are active on all islands and members are eager to share their cultivation tips.
Terrific Taro. Apply taro cooking water and peels to hanohano orchids for an extra nutritional boost they'll enjoy. Or let the trimmings dry completely and use as a planting medium for anthurium.
Roses and Geraniums Plant geraniums around rose bushes to help repel Japanese beetles.
While October typically signals the end of gardening on the mainland, in Hawaii it means the start of a whole new season. The cooler temperatures and rainfall provide perfect growing conditions for all sorts of tender plants, and the pest populations are declining. Best of all, it's a lot more pleasant for us humans to be outside in the golden autumn light, without the brutal summer sun blazing on our backs. So make the most of this month and put in some solid gardening time. And when the holidays roll around, nature will reward you with her bountiful gifts.
Tree Planting Tip. Plant trees and shrubs to get them established before winter. Dig holes wide, especially in clay soils, and amend with compost and gravel if needed. Set them in no deeper than their existing soil surface level and keep well watered.
Prepare to Prune. Prune plumeria, mango and avocado trees.
Foliar Feeding. Feed winter-bearing trees like citrus and some avocados. Use a Sea Rich Foliar Plant Food foliar spray made from seaweed, or apply a layer of true compost, but don't place it right next to the trunk.
Seed Sowing. Sow seeds for lettuce, Chinese greens, arugula, cucumbers, broccoli, snow peas and green beans directly in the garden.
Cut 'Em Back. Cut back ginger all the way to the roots when the flowers die. Apply compost, and keep the area weeded and watered. The ginger will return with vigorous growth next summer. Make cuttings from night blooming jasmine, poinsettia, snow beach and hibiscus— take about 6-8 inches off the end of a thin, healthy branch—and plant directly in the ground. Keep watered and they'll soon root.
Luau Leaves. Try using luau leaves from taro instead of spinach. Tightly stuff the body cavity of a free-range chicken with the whole washed leaves and bake until chicken is done. Remove leaves and serve as side dish.
November offers the perfect occasion to show our gratitude to the earth for its amazing abundance, to take the time to count our many blessings. For me, this means giving deep thanks for my year-round access to the land as I pick fresh sage for the stuffing, harvest greens for the salad, collect lemons for the drinking water. Happy Thanksgiving!
Cut Em' Back. Cut back ornamental ginger once it stops blooming; fertilize with manure or compost, mulch and water unless rainfall is frequent.
What To Do With Papaya Seeds. Keep papaya seeds out of the compost pile. Instead, feed the seeds (and skins) to your chickens or make salad dressing: 1/4 c fresh papaya seeds, 1 c. Safflower oil, 1/4 c honey, 1/4 cup lemon juice. Pinch of chopped mint. Run in blender until seeds are ground.
Pruning Time. Prune plumeria, puakenikeni, pikake and other lei flower trees and shrubs that have stopped blooming for the winter.
Kona Coffee. Buy organic Kona coffee to support farmers who are fighting plans to grow genetically modified coffee on the Big Island.
Planting Plan. Plant spinach, endive, kohlrabi, semi-head lettuce, shelling peas and bell peppers.
Find An Apprenticeship. If you dream of gardening in paradise, the Hawaii Organic Farmers Association's (HOFA) Apprenticeship Program can connect you with organic farms/homesteads that give stipend, room and board or both in exchange for labor. Details at www.hawaiiorganicfarmers.org/appren.html.
Water Management. Empty water from outdoor containers and hose out bromeliad cups often to prevent mosquito breeding.
Mother Nature does the holiday decorating in Hawaii, where greens and reds abound in the landscape. The poinsettia plants in my yard began turning crimson even before Thanksgiving, joining the ginger, anthurium, croton, geraniums and hibiscus that flaunt their scarlet finery all through the year. The potted Norfolk pine by the front door is sporting the soft, pale green needles of new growth, and I've placed a few bird nests blown from trees on its broad, flat boughs. As for gifts, my garden is generous, regularly presenting me with vegetables, herbs, flowers, banana, coconuts, papaya, avocado, starfruit, mango, lilikoi, lemons, limes and guava. In return, I offer water in the dry months and compost when I have it, while the birds sing their thanks and praise. It's easy, natural—the way giving and receiving should be. Surely we have enough inspiration and models in nature to guide us in creating a true peace on Earth.
Cover Exposed Yard Areas. Collect chipped materials from county green waste facilities. Apply to areas of exposed soil in the yard to reduce mud during rain and encourage grass growth.
Fertilize Wisely. Dig a narrow hole about 8-12 inches deep in one or two places around the drip line (edge of leaf canopy) of trees. Apply a half-handful of organic fertilizer and refill hole with soil. This gets food right to the roots, and not the surface grass and weeds.
Compost Tip. Ask your county extension agent for some liquid EM, an enzyme formula that feeds the micronutrients hard at work in your compost pile.
Green Gifts. Shop for gifts in your garden rather than the mall. Baskets of citrus, bags of dried banana, jars of herbal salves and vinegars, bottles of coconut cream and packages of frozen fruit are just a few ways to share the bounty.
Mix It Up! Turn your over-mature or insect-damaged veggies into a super healthy homemade dog stew by simmering with locally-raised chicken, pork, meat or eggs and garlic. Add some grain—barley, millet, oats, rice, quinoa or pasta—to thicken.
Soil Savvy. Take advantage of the soil-softening rain and pull weeds, especially stubborn ones like hilahila (sensitive grass), haole koa and amaranth.
Seed Planting. Plant seeds of broccoli, beets, cabbage, cauliflower, Chinese greens, celery, lettuce, turnip, kohlrabi, endive and peas directly in the garden during this cool, moist month.
Beautiful Bulbs. Watch stores for narcissus, amaryllis and gladioli bulbs, which can be potted and grown indoors for colorful or fragrant blooms next month.