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Many Ways to Grow: Waimea Garden Tour

 S7B4110-CElevitch2Waimea, known for ranching and farming, is an upland community poised on the saddle between the Kohala Mountains to the north and Mauna Kea to the south. Wind is a constant companion in the Waimea area, but rainfall, elevation and soils are quite varied.On Saturday May 18, Māla'ai: The Culinary Garden of Waimea Middle School hosted "Home Garden Tour of Waimea from the Wet Side to the Dry Side." The aim was to show people good examples of the diverse ways we can grow food in our home gardens in the distinctly different environments around Waimea. Our group met up at the Waimea Middle School garden and got examples of critical factors to look for in any garden. Folks on the tour were encouraged to look for several things besides elevation and annual rainfall, including inherent strengths and challenges at each site, as well as soil fertility strategies and how much care each garden requires on a daily basis. We then visited three gardens, examples of interspecies systems, intensive food growing, and permaculture techniques for gardening on very dry land.

Critical Factors to Look for in a Garden

  • What appeals to you about each garden?
  • What is its purpose or guiding philosophy?
  • What are its strengths?
  • What are its challenges?
  • What resources are being used for soil fertility?
  • What’s growing? What would you like to eat out of this garden?
  • How old, mature, is the garden?
  • How much care does this garden take?
  • What plants thrive and what plants are struggling?
  • Elevation?
  • Average rainfall?

Please note at each location

  • Sun exposure, wind, accessibility to water, tools and tool storage, paths and path materials
  • Methods for building soil such as mulch and compost, and compost teas
  • How dominant forces such as Kikuyu grass, dust and small rocks are managed.
  • How new infrastructure and the impact of time will change conditions in the future, for example windbreaks etc.

We started at Linda Rosehill and her husband Bill Gilardy's delightful garden near Mana Road. It is complete with a chicken coop, a duck house and a fantastic tree house. They have been working on their garden for over 7 years and are growing a large variety of crops. They have an average rainfall of between 60 and 65 inches and are at an altitude of 2940 feet. For soil fertility, they use what is readily available. There are large piles of mulch from local tree trimmers and cured horse manure (from a friend's barn) in the center of their landscape. The piles are covered in uala, which grows vigorously and is easy to harvest in the soft medium, besides being beautiful.

WaimeaGardenTourRosehillGardenLinda Rosehill and Bill Gilardy's veggie garden with green tea hedge in foreground.As weekend residents, Linda and Bill have focused on planting and growing perennials. Their hugely diverse garden has numerous ornamentals (roses, lilies, dahlias etc.) along with fruit trees that include apples, bananas, loquat, peaches, pears, and plums. They have recently also planted a coffee orchard. Between the orchards, the vegetable garden and the ornamentals, they have about ¾ of an acre under cultivation. They also have ducks, chickens, sheep and alpaca (a neighbor cares for the animals when they are away). Their vegetable garden is on a timed sprinkler and is the only area on irrigation. The kitchen garden is bordered on one side by a green tea hedge, where they are also growing, fennel, Kalo, greens, onions, eggplant, and cutting herbs. The rest of the land is not regularly irrigated. Linda said her philosophy is to put things in the ground, feed them well, and let them take care of themselves. Things that can't take care of themselves don't last long. The result is that the garden is full of robust and healthy plants.

Linda said the guiding value for this garden, the motivation, is the idea of being self-sustaining. They like to be able to produce what they need and to be able to share with their family and their neighbors.

One great technique Linda uses that can be could be helpful for many gardeners is using small self contained solar lights at the base of fruit trees to discourage rose beetle damage.

The second stop was Matilda Tompson's intensively planted small yard at her duplex in the middle of Waimea. This garden graces three sides of the building on a mere 5106 square foot lot including the house, garage and driveway. The annual rainfall is between 55 and 60 inches inches and is at 2830 feet above sea level. The small garden is protected by a low fence in front that blocks the wind from the ground, yet encourages you to peek over and see what is growing. Matilda has been cultivating this space for 10 years. She has done most of the work herself, but in the past few years has had occasional help from Nubaui Khentamentuiu, who hosted the tour that day.

WaimeaGardenTourMatildaBackGardenMatilda Thomson's back garden with banana, lemon, avocado, 'uala and onion.There are woodchips in the paths, and macnut hulls are used to mulch bare soil in many of the beds, as well as to top dress around the perennials. They are careful not to work the macnut hulls into the soil in the planting beds, as they would rob nitrogen. There are compost piles in both the front and back of the garden, so there is always a pile accessible. Matilda says she takes advantage of whatever resources she can find. She carries two 5 gallon buckets in her car to collect woodchips, or mac nut or manure, whatever treasure she can find to enhance her soil fertility.

When you do peek in, the welcoming space is bright with annual flowers and vegetables and herbs that have flowered and gone to seed and are inviting for beneficial insects as well as creating future volunteer plants in the garden. There are garden boxes as well as raised beds and plantings of native and herbaceous perennials. There is a hogwire trellis along the fence on the neighbors side with a Pipinola vine creeping up it. She is growing asparagus, onions, kale, chard, parsley, Kalo, uala, a lemon, bananas, avocado, Mamaki, lemongrass, olena, mint, cherry tomatoes, and numerous other herbs. She also has a border with comfrey in it which she uses to keep back the Kikuyu grass and to mulch open soil with.

One of the biggest challenges in this garden is a huge number of snails. Because of the snails, Matilda rarely starts plants in the ground from seeds: instead she plants seedlings. She also doesn't grow lettuce and basil and beans because the snails are too attracted to them. She manages the snails by hand removing them, and with mulch to deter them.

Matilda says that gardening for her is an innate compulsion. Perhaps because her grandfather was a farmer, she loves to grow food to eat and to share. She eats from her garden every day and has learned to grow what she can use. She says that she uses herbs in her cooking most consistently.

One thoughtful innovation in Matilda's small urban (for Hawai'i Island) garden is that this year she has the water from her gutter moved out about 10 feet to the edge of her long narrow side yard via a perforated pipe. The result of this this simple change is that the water is moved away from the house and the herbaceous perennials on the side-yard are flourishing like never before.

The last stop on our tour was on the dry western slopes below Waimea. Matt Slack's 3 acres in Kanehoa is at 1750 feet with an annual rainfall of 10 inches, though Matt says for the past few years it has been under two inches. The elevation and heat allow one to grow mangos and other heat-loving crops that don't flourish in colder, higher climes. Matt's garden, like the others is windy, but it has a whole different set of challenges. The ground is rocky with barely any topsoil and little vegetation. The weekend of the tour was after some unusual rains and the dry grasses were green and lustrous, but beneath them you could see bare soil.

Matt is working his land with his son, Micah, and their friend Tom Hasset. The idea for the work they are doing was planted with Matt several years ago when he took a natural building workshop in which he first learned about Permaculture. As defined by one of its founders, Bill Mollison,

"Permaculture -- permanent agriculture -- is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems..."

There had been some plantings of windbreak and some berms built over the years, but after Matt, Micah and Tom took a Permaculture design class three years ago, work on the land began in earnest. With the help of a dedicated gardener at first, they began work in three distinct spaces around the property. Large teardrop shaped areas that take advantage of some of the existing windbreak and buildings were put into cultivation.

WaimeaGardenTourSlackMicroclimateinside one of Matt Slack's densely planted areas. The microclimate is noticeably cooler and moister than outside.They began by bringing in large amounts of organic materials so that they could start growing plants to grow the soil. They got 45 yards of manure and then covered it with 45 yards of mulch. Once they had this base material, they planted intensely using permaculture techniques of planting in guilds (communities of plants which work together in a succession over time). About half an acre is now planted heavily in guilds to create small microclimates in the otherwise hot windy and arid environment. There is a focus on building biomass to continue to grow the soil. They use permaculture plantings and Natural Farming techniques to inoculate the organic material with Indigenous Microorganisms (IMOs). They also have chickens, aerobic compost piles and a vermiculture system. They are using several techniques to enhance their soil fertility.

In their plantings, they are using a pigeon pea or gunduti as a "chop and drop" crop to protect the soil beneath and protect each other from wind. As the pigeon pea (a nitrogen-fixer) gets big and starts to crowd other plants they then chop it and drop it on the ground to help build the soil over time.

An added benefit of pigeon pea is that it is edible. At this time they're eating mostly the tomatoes, basil, some lettuce and greens that they grow in a small shady spot near the house, plus the bananas, papaya and faster fruits that are already coming on in the garden. While they haven't developed a palate for some of the perennial heartier things that are growing (like perennial spinaches), knowing that the food is available to them and their families and their friends should they need it, is a motivation for them. What they don't eat feeds the soil.

In the long run their goal is to be growing their soil and making all of their own supplements and amendments right on the grounds. They are currently erecting a hoop house to use as a workshop for making their IMOs and other amendments. Matt says his goal is to grow the soil.

There is clearly a vision for the long-term on this site. It is in its early foundations and yet you can see that the land, with this care, has the potential to be very fertile, an oasis.

People who are battling harsh conditions and trying to create microclimates in their own gardens might follow their example of dense, biodiverse plantings with edible nitrogen-fixers as a part of the mix. This technique blocks wind and helps to build soil in harsh conditions over time.

As we saw in all these gardens, there are many ways to grow things around Waimea. Each place offered its own strengths and challenges and there were things to learn from every gardener. I think everyone came away from the day feeling more informed and inspired by people's works and their successes.

This was the final workshop in a series of workshops funded by The Richard Smart Fund. With their generous support, Māla'ai arranged for four workshops focused on the local food movement that would give new and long time residents the chance to meet and learn about important issues facing our community. These workshops included: Cooking From the Garden, Vermiculture, Herb Gardening Basics, and Garden Tours of Waimea.

Amanda Rieux is Program Director for Mala'ai, the Culinary Garden of Waimea Middle School. She was invited in 2005 to start WMS's Mala'ai Garden after working as a garden teacher for several years at chef Alice Waters' Edible School Yard in Berkeley, California – the project that Mala'ai is patterned after. Amanda is also an instructor for Ku 'Aina Pa, a year-long School Learning Garden Teacher Training Program.

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