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Learning to Eat from the Land

Learningtoeat Laderman image003Harvest for a Marketless Monday, left to right in a circle (sort of): cane syrup, jackfruit, eggs, daikon, dried coconut, lilikoi, bananas, lime, yakon, sweet potato, air porato, orange, avocado, blue corn, peanuts, and papaya.

I moved to Hawai'i Island close to three years ago, straight from a desk job in a small city in the northwest U.S., to my lifetime dream of learning to live off the land. My kids were mostly grown, and I was disillusioned with the effectiveness of my job as an environmental health educator. I had a new partner who shared my desire to go "back to the garden." But unlike me, Dan had planned ahead and owned 20 acres off-grid along the Hamakua coast of the Big Island.

While we lived in a small, temporary house and Dan worked steadily on getting us some amenities, I delved into learning how to grow and prepare food. It was not nearly as easy as I thought it would be, with year-round insects, large amounts of rain, and acid soils. Thankfully, friends and family who had grown up in the islands had already planted many edible plants on the land. They told me about seed exchanges and farming workshops that got me started with local lore and plants.

After the first year of living here, with some disasters and some successful gardening behind me, I decided I needed a push to get serious about eating from the land. I set aside Mondays as a day to eat only what we grew. I called this my "Marketless Mondays" and started a blog to track the experience (see Marketless Mondays). It worked extremely well to sharpen my focus about what we need to grow. Many others have more expertise and knowledge of Hawaiian planting than I do; possibly what I have to offer is just being excited about what is obvious! Here are some of the lessons I learned.

1. Plant nutrient-rich, versatile foods that will fill you up

The first Mondays were rough. I spent most of the day either harvesting or preparing food, and still was hungry. It became obvious right away that our strengths were fruits, greens, and herbs. What we lacked was sufficient carbohydrates and proteins.

Carbohydrates are most important for lasting energy. Taro and sweet potato can be prepared numerous ways (as poi, chips, boiled, or as patties, to name a few), have edible leaves, and can be stored.

Beans and peas are one of the mainstays of any food garden because they "give" in so many ways. They provide protein, can be dried, and are good for animals. Plus they fix nitrogen, essential to keeping your garden fertile. I experimented with many types of beans, and found several that are keepers: the insanely prolific lab-lab (Hyacinth bean -- Lablab purpureus), pigeon pea, purple beans, lima beans, cow peas, yard-long beans, and wingbeans. The seeds of the jackfruit are also rich in protein, which is great because there are so many in each fruit and so many fruits on each tree!

The key is to find multiple beneficial foods that you can grow well in your microclimate.

Learningtoeat Laderman image001Staples: taro, coconut, yakon.

2. Store foods: dry, ferment, preserve, and freeze

About one month into the Marketless Monday exercise, on November 1st, 2011, I wrote, "Even here where it seems like you can just pick and eat, food isn't always quite ripe and ready to go. It's like shopping -– good to have food prepared and stored up (just) in case..." Yes, this is obvious, but I had a new appreciation of how important it is to have some foods ready to go.

I used the pilot light of our propane oven to dry blue corn, bananas, jackfruit, and hot peppers. I froze coconut milk, bananas, lilikoi, and berries. I fermented poi and fruit-sugar cane beverages. I preserved poha berries and lilikoi into a thin jam made with cane syrup -- delicious in my morning bowl of blue corn mush!

3. Plant perennial greens for a constant, low-maintenance source of nutritious greens

Again with the obvious: you want things that are easy to grow and give you a lot of continuous food. I had to give up trying to eat and grow what I was used to in the northwest. Suffering over picky salad crops that don't store and don't produce year-round is a luxury. This is where perennial vegetables shine. You plant them once, and just keep them fed and weeded (both of which can be accomplished by keeping them mulched), and they produce for years. Perennial greens are very nutritious, with their extensive roots that reach deep into the soil. Some are high in protein (such as chaya and moringa) and may even have superfood qualities (such as the cancer-fighting properties of Okinawan spinach). Most propagate easily via cuttings.

Other favorite perennial vegetables, planted throughout the landscape, are cranberry hibiscus, Tongan spinach (edible hibiscus), amaranth, and sissoo spinach. These are also great for feeding rabbits and chickens.

4. Plant ahead for a steady supply of staples

On October 3rd, 2011, I wrote, "Salad is great but it's not what gets (me) through the day." Many vegetables I grew made for bursts of excitement (a cucumber! asparagus! cherry tomatoes!), but their contributions were fleeting. The green papaya salad that was lunch most Mondays was delightful, and I'm sure had lots of nutrients, but took a lot of prep work for not a lot of calories.

To make sure something substantial is harvestable throughout the year, try different varieties of heavily bearing fruit trees, such as breadfruit, jackfruit, bananas, coconuts, avocadoes, and citrus. Cassava and chayote (a vine bearing a delicious squash) are also excellent providers.

Keep an eye on the Hawaiian calendar and keep replanting your taro and sweet potatoes, or the other staple crops you have found work well in your zone.

Learningtoeat Laderman image009Breakfast of Okinawan spinach and edible hibiscus greens, fried plantains, eggs.

5. Make friends with your neighbors who farm, hunt, and fish

Our local community has set up "food share" days where we can either trade or buy a huge variety of vegetables, fruits, and animal products from each other. The connection with the community is true food security, as well as truly fun. We can't all grow everything and there's no need to with so many others working at different areas of food production.

As a result of Marketless Mondays, my tastes changed along with what I planted. I turned most of our large vegetable garden into a combination of perennial greens, papayas, and sweet potatoes. I'm pretty sure I would never have tried to make coconut oil or prepared jackfruit five ways (fresh fruit, dried fruit, boiled seeds, seeds mashed into flour, and flesh in stir-fry), unless I had gone through this exercise. So, my final advice is, try to eat off your land for a day, or even just a meal. A little deprivation is a great teacher!

Sample Menu for a Marketless Monday

Breakfast – fruit smoothie, eggs with garlic chives and fried plantains; mamake tea
Lunch – green papaya salad with peanuts, breadfruit chips and guacamole (avocado, hot pepper, lime)
Dinner – curried taro patties OR mashed purple sweet potatoes with lima beans, steamed perennial greens with jack fruit seeds
Desserts/snacks – cacao pod or ice cream bean, dried jackfruit and bananas
Drink -- Mint/lemongrass tea with cane syrup

Learningtoeat Laderman image011Typical Marketless Monday countertop (left to right in circle): hot pepper, stirfry, coconut milk, boiled jackfruit seeds, turmeric, lemongrass.


Native Planters in Old Hawaii, by E.S. Handy, E.G. Handy and M. K. Pukui. 1991. Bishop Museum Press.

Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawaii, by Lynton Dove White,  http://www.canoeplants.com/index.html

Can I Grow a Complete Diet?: Designing a Tropical Subsistence Garden, by Taylor Thomton, April 2009, http://agroforestry.net/pubs/Can_I_Grow_a_Complete_Diet.pdf

Ideas for Tropical Meals, May 20, 2007, http://eveningrainfarm.com/2007/05/ideas-for-tropical-meals/

Monthly Organic Garden Calendar for Hawaii,

Adapting to a Tropical Diet in Six Weeks, by Elin Rosenblad, October 2011,

ECHO (Educational Concerns for Hunger Education) A Guide to Edible Landscaping Your Yard,
http://www.echonet.org/content/fruitInformation/637, and

Underutilized Food Plants, http://www.echonet.org/content/100underutilized

Hawaiian Moon Calendar, http://www.kamehamehapublishing.org/multimedia/apps/mooncalendar/

Rachel Laderman moved to Hawai'i Island three years ago to farm and live off-grid in a small community of friends and family. Before this she worked for 20 years as an Environmental Health Educator in Olympia, Washington. She feels extremely lucky to be able to spend her days planting, foraging, and preparing foods, and looks forward to sharing her experiences.

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