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TheGardenTalks: Lissa's kitchen garden transformation

Written by Colleen Carroll on 26 September 2011.

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Lissa in her garden before the transformation.

Lissa is busy. Full time mom, wife, worker and avid community volunteer as well as a Qi Gong teacher. In the midst of all this bustle she’d like to have a garden to come home to filled with arugula, cilantro, tomatoes, lettuce and a few herbs. She already has the boxes in place for the garden and a tall fence to keep out the chickens.

On my first visit we chatted a bit about what she wants, how much time she has to devote the garden and other garden tidbits. As I started to pull weeds from the garden I realized the soil, well the soil was as solid as a brick. At one time they actually made bricks in Hawai‘i and you can still find them here and there — a little crumbly but quite beautiful with the orange and gold color. It is said that on the island of Maui a two-story building was made out of the red soil as early as 1816. While I am a big fan of bricks, not so much when it comes to garden soil. The process is quite similar whether it is an intentional brick building project or a multi-year side effect that can occur in many tropical gardens – here in Kalaheo, on southern Kaua‘i, seems particularly prone. You simply water, bake in the sun, expose the soil repeatedly to this process and you have a hardpan, kaloche, or seemingly impermeable surface.

My friend Paul, of Regenerations Botanical Garden, and I were pondering the same situation in different sites and had a chat about how best to permeate this heavy clay seal.

We both agreed:

  • water the soil to soften it;
  • pull out vicious weeds and do some light tilling;
  • add appropriate amendments — for example, some oyster shell and chicken pellets;
  • fill with compost from a local source;
  • then, cover with cardboard, mulch and more mulch;
  • finally, lots of patience – water regularly and wait about 3 to 4 months to plant.

At the end you will have a soil with worms tilling the soil and waiting for the garden to be planted.

A few hardy herbs survive, but don't thrive in the heavy clay soil.
A few hardy herbs survive, but don't thrive in the heavy clay soil.

So we recommended that plan for Lissa’s kitchen garden. Lissa watered the soil regularly for a couple of weeks after my first visit and that did a lot to soften the ground. On our second visit to her garden we dug the hard soil to a depth of about three to four inches so the water could drain and the worms could do their work. All useful plants like the herbs and pineapple were removed and transplanted. We moved the box frames to a more visually appealing design that added more space to the garden. Then we added a generous amount of oyster shell to soften the clay soil and change the acidity. Other amendments included chicken pellets, a truckload of local compost and lots of sweat. The entire surrounding area was covered with weed-cloth to keep the weeds down and make the maintenance easier.

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The garden is now filled with the promise of food.

As Lissa and I were a bit low on the patience side we satisfied our garden urge with some pretty potted plants–digging up the oregano, spearmint, garlic chives, lemon grass, and green onions and making use of the attractive wooden boxes and containers sitting idly in the garden. We decided to plant the garden with small seedlings of basil, cilantro and arugula and lettuce. A few tougher transplants were included like curly kale, three kinds of tomato, tomatillo, and eggplants, and then added a new row for pole beans along the fence line.

We’ll check back in with Lissa’s kitchen garden in a few months. Summer is a tough time for lots of veggies in Hawai‘i. We gave her a good start and come fall she should reap the bounty of lots of healthy homegrown greens in a little garden that is just the right size to keep planted and maintained.


TheGardenTalks is brought to you by Colleen Carroll, Director and C.E.O. of NatureTalks. Colleen lives on Kaua’i and gives inspirational presentations on gardening. The most popular presentation is The Power of Plants to Transform Community.To see more of NatureTalks stories on gardens and gardeners, see the book, It’s About More than Trees.  Colleen created NatureTalks to connect people with nature. This report is reprinted with kind permission from Colleen’s website NatureTalks.