What’s it like to garden in Hawai’i? Here’s a look at life as a gardener in Ahualoa, Hawai’i (United States) with Kris of the homesteading blog, Attainable Sustainable.
For more of my favourite famous gardeners, see these garden influences including Carol Klein and Tasha Tudor.
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Life as a Gardener in Ahualoa, Hawai’i
Kris Bordessa – Attainable Sustainable
- Ahualoa, Hawai‘i (Hawai‘i Island), United States
- USDA: zone 12a
- Last frost | First frost: None! This makes it really hard to figure out when to plant.
- Growing fruits and vegetables, hens, ducks: always adapting to growing conditions.
- Garden methods: A messy, permaculture-ish work-in-progress as we try to grow enough food to sustain us.
First, How’s the Volcano?
Melissa: This is part of a new series featuring garden friends from various parts of the world. Because Kris is in Hawai’i and it’s making news these days with the volcanic activity, I thought it would be good to start with an update from someone living on the Big Island.
We’ve been hearing a lot about the volcanic activity on Hawai’i recently. Can you give us an update on how things are?
Kris: The current lava flow is situated on the southeastern portion of Hawai‘i Island. The residents of the Puna district are dealing with a pretty intense situation: some people are losing their homes due to the fiery lava flow, others have been forced to evacuate to avoid being cut off and isolated as the lava flows over roads. Air quality is an issue, too, but its impact depends a lot on the volcanic activity coupled with wind direction.
The visible lava is awe-inspiring, of course, but it’s not new. And it’s actually impacting a very small part of the island. If not for social media and TV news, I wouldn’t have any idea that this was happening — there’s a lot of land between me and the lava!
The thing that many people don’t realize is that there has been an active flow here on the island for years. This history of volcanoes in Hawai’i illustrates this. It just happens that right now the lava has shifted location and is again flowing in an area that is inhabited. Lava decimated the community of Kalapana back in 1990: you can see it here on YouTube.
The people of Hawai‘i honor the Goddess Pele as the creator of earth, and she is manifested in lava. When Tutu Pele comes knocking, it’s time to clean house and invite her in; this is her home.
1 Tell us where you’re from and how you ended up where you are now.
Kris: I grew up (and spent most of my adult life) in Northern California. My dad farmed apples and we always had a huge vegetable garden every summer. It was more for frugality than for creating a better, cleaner source of food; chemical pesticides and sprays were used on the garden with abandon. If there’s one seasonal thing that I miss about where I grew up, it’s the swaths of apple blossoms that blanketed the area every spring.
More than a dozen years ago, my husband had a job offer that required a move to Hawai‘i. We’d been here on vacation several times, so we were somewhat familiar with the islands. Because we knew we’d always wonder what would happen if we didn’t try it, we packed up our two kids and eight suitcases worth of stuff and committed to giving it a go for a year. And we’re still here. We’ve moved around a fair bit here, shifting from test-driving island life to calling it home. Our landing place is fairly rural, just 10 minutes outside a little town that looks like something right out of the 1950s.
When we moved in, the property was entirely overgrown with 10’ tall grasses. Three years later, we have most of that contained, but the garden and yard are still quite a work in progress!
2 How did you become a gardener?
Kris: I’ve always gardened. I participated in planting and harvesting in my family’s garden when I was little. As a newlywed with a tiny backyard, I planted corn and tomatoes and beans. Later, we had more space and planted larger gardens — it wasn’t unusual for me to plant several dozen tomato plants — and preserved many of our own pantry staples.
3 Tell us about your garden. What are the perks and challenges of gardening where you are?
Kris: Most people think of Hawai‘i as a lush gardener’s paradise. And it is, but…
The things that I’m used to growing in my garden don’t necessarily thrive here. I love tomatoes with a passion. I love growing different kinds of heirloom tomatoes. I love eating tomatoes. But the climate here is just not great for tomatoes. The high humidity and year-round rain means plants succumb to powdery mildew easily. Fruit flies are also a problem, as they sting the fruit and damage it. Zucchini and cucumbers are impacted by powdery mildew as well as a pest called a pickleworm. (That one was new to me!)
That said, the things that grow here, that are suited for this climate, grow really, really well. This means my idea of gardening is changing. I’ve learned that greens do really well here, so kale and Swiss chard and collards are in the rotation a lot now.
I’ve shifted away from a lot of seasonal crops, though, and am incorporating more of the things that thrive here. We have six large garden beds and a fair amount of yard space. I find I’m planting less in the garden beds and more in the fringes, using some permaculture techniques to grow food crops like bananas, papaya, taro, sweet potato, and yacon (read more about Kris growing yacon here). We have lots of fruit trees as well, including a few experimental low-chill apple trees.
One thing that could change some of our frustrations is a greenhouse, but as yet, we’re working without one.
4 How has gardening changed you?
Kris: I think I’ve learned a lot of persistence through gardening, as well as flexibility. Every year, there’s something new to try, things that don’t work well, things that are a surprise success. Learning to run with the successes and to keep trying to adjust to improve the less than stellar results is a good lesson for gardening, but one that I can take to heart in other parts of my life, too.
5 Any fabulous gardening or DIY mistakes to share?
Kris: Well, there was that time when my then four-year-old decided to “help” me prune my fruit trees. Large pruning shears and a small child wreaked havoc on my young fruit trees. Pruned down to sticks. He was SO pleased with himself for helping in the garden. I wept.
6 What are you exploring in gardening these days?
Kris: I’m growing okra for the first time! Believe it or not, I’d never tried it until recently, when I was introduced to okra pickles. Since I can’t grow cucumbers very well here, if the okra is a success, I’ll be able to have an alternative for pickling.
And I’m constantly scheming new ways to grow lettuce that will keep it out of reach of the slugs and snails.
7 What do you hope visitors to your site experience?
Kris: I want them to see that my own efforts are ongoing — I’m no Martha. Gardening is a process, and there’s always something new to learn. More importantly though, I hope that they’ll be inspired to try growing something, even if it’s just a single pepper plant or a few radishes. Small successes in the garden can be the start of a lifelong hobby!
8 Can you share a good tip or advice for new gardeners?
Kris: Don’t be afraid to start small! Whether you’ve got a lot of space or just a small amount, there’s no shame in growing your first garden in containers. It’s a great way to start and there are many benefits to growing in containers, not the least of which is fewer weeds. Kris shares advice on growing vegetables in containers here.
9 Have you got some DIY projects for a rainy afternoon?
This easy garden tower is a way to grow more food in small spaces. Make one (or more) ahead of time and it will be ready to set out when the season turns warm.
Start growing some sweet potato leaves! That’s right, they’re edible, not to mention easy to grow.
Make a worm composter. You can serve your kitchen scraps to the worms all year round and they’ll happily provide you with rich castings for the garden.
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Thank you, Kris for sharing your garden life with us.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛