How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Garden

In my last post I mentioned how important it is to consider food security, especially living in the middle of the ocean. Unfortunately our islands are not self-sustaining – we cannot support the population without importing food. On top of that, the mainland drought is sure to bring even higher food costs, so storing something extra now is something to consider. How much depends on your own concerns and budget, but every family should have enough for at least a couple of weeks. And here in Hawaii, there’s not much excuse for having at least one edible on your lanai. Even if it’s not enough to completely support your family, you will gain the experience and appreciation for growing your own healthy food. And who knows – that knowledge may come in handy one day.

My parents both have green thumbs. I grew up in a house in the suburbs on the East Coast full of happy houseplants of all shapes and sizes, and a summer garden with an abundance of fresh veggies. I remember eating tomatoes off the vine, big beefsteak tomatoes literally bursting with deep red juiciness. But, alas, I didn’t seem to inherit the verdant digit. I wasn’t so interested in digging in the dirt with Dad back then, and any houseplant Mom put in my bedroom ended up sad and dying after a few months. I figured that sort of thing just wasn’t for me and I never gave it another thought, until I bought my first house back in Los Angeles. Suddenly, I wanted my own garden.

I managed to scrape out a few tomatoes, peppers and zucchini from that sad little plot back in the ‘hood. But believe it or not, when we moved to Hawaii it took many years for me to think about doing that again, because we were so busy working. Finally around 2007 I realized time was of the essence. I had to get serious about being prepared and figure out how to replace some of that lawn with something edible.

The first few years saw a lot of failures – I mean a LOT. It was depressing and stressful. One time I had sprouted dozens of seeds in one of those plastic trays with a lid, forgot and left the lid on during a hot day, and when I came home they were all fried. I was horrified; like I had been some sort of mass murderer of tiny children. But I definitely learned how to sprout seeds after that, and it’s one of my favorite parts of gardening now. Even my Dad, who I now know had mostly used starters, has started using more seeds too just to try some different things in his garden, and because, well, there is something satisfying about seeing that tiny speck become such a magnificent and useful entity.

Another mistake was more of a learning curve in terms of soil amendments. We have a local garden supply place here called Farm & Garden, and the guy who works there knows who I am by now because I am constantly pestering him with questions about what to do about this or that. Fortunately he always gives a patient smile along with his advice. Also, I learned that dirt – good dirt anyway – can be expensive, unless you make your own. At least for us on the leeward side, our soil tends to be shallow and rocky. So I can tell you from experience: if you’re starting out and need dirt, don’t be cheap about it, and compost, compost, compost, amend, amend, amend. Seriously – don’t buy a truckload of cheap dead dirt like we did. Good soil looks and feels like chocolate cake, not dusty gravel. Get some chickens too if you’re serious about good soil – which we are, and did. Good eggs too. 😉

Bugs and blight. Always trouble for the hopeful organic gardener. A friend of mine says she is trying diluted Simple Green for those problems on her plants, supposedly that is considered an organic option. I do sometimes use neem oil and Dr. Bronner’s peppermint castile soap, but unless you are seriously dedicated to spraying every leaf top and bottom every few days or if it rains it doesn’t seem to keep them at bay for long. I have been known to use BT and sometimes copper for the mildews and blights. They say those are organic options. I’m taking their word for it because I don’t want to lose another entire crop of cucumbers to worms again, or not continue to fight for those pesky tomatoes to survive their numerous blights. Tomatoes are – and excuse my French – a bitch to grow over on our side for some reason. But I have found a couple of strains that seem to do ok, and you can be sure I learned to save seeds from those varieties and have already grown subsequent generations much more successfully than when I first started. Seed saving is very satisfying. It makes you feel free of the system or something. Funny; I sometimes feel my grandparents, who were small farmers nearly a century ago, are smiling down on me somewhere, especially given the horrors of modern agriculture, Monsanto and all that. I believe the dedicated organic and heirloom farmer will eventually save the planet, one way or another, one plot of land at a time.

Slugs were a big problem when I first dug the garden. I lost a lot of young plants that way. I read somewhere that every piece of land has its share of slugs but that if you physically remove them you won’t have to worry about them again for several years. That has been my experience, to my surprise, at least for the most part. We had those seriously scary ginormous tiger slugs and I would go out after dark with a pair of chopsticks, a flashlight and a jar with a very secure lid – because those guys are strong I can tell you, and fast – and literally pick them out of my garden one by one. It took a few weeks of midnight diligence, and my family still finds the whole thing very humorous, but after that they were just kind of gone and I haven’t seen any since. I now only occasionally see evidence, at which time I scatter some iron phosphate ‘safe’ slug killer (debatable but I haven’t had any problems) and whatever may have been there goes away again. I only do that about once every six months now.

Leeward side gardening has the added issue of drought, so I do collect some rainwater when we get it. We’re high enough elevation to get some moisture but since we seem to get most of our rain in the spring and fall, if at all (used to be summer, but our climate has shifted too as I have heard told by some of the local ranchers) I now plant in January/February, and again in late summer. That way I kind of avoid being reliant on rain when it’s really hot and/or dry. So in the middle of summer when most mainland gardens have to be in full swing, much of my garden has been cleared and composted. That also seems to help with the bugs and blight as well by the way, since they seem to be in fullest swing for me in mid-summer.

The exceptions are the perennials, of which I have only a few, but I’m working on that. Come to find that here in Hawaii, since we never have frost, some things just never die! I have collards and long green eggplant that are like TREES by now – several years old. They just keep branching off and have even grown back after I thought I pulled them up by the roots! At that point I let them live; I figure they really want to grow there so just let them do their thing. So while some things tend to be difficult – like tomatoes and cucumbers – others basically move in permanently. 

Due to our rocky ground, I did try some straw bale gardening. It didn’t work so well for me the first time, but I’m going to try it again, when my husband decides to recycle the bales on his archery targets. I think I didn’t feed them enough first. I did create some above ground potato beds using old wire fencing. I put straw around the sides and filled them with dirt and compost, and successfully grew some potatoes. A couple of them have ginger and turmeric in them now. I have a separate plot for herbs, but I also keep some in pots closer to the house which is more convenient to the kitchen.

I have probably lost more plants than I grew since I started, and for a year or so I didn’t do anything out there at all. I was too cranky about the failures and too busy working, so it went to weed. But I got back on the horse, dug up even more of our lawn, and no longer cry over every failure, so to speak. I have learned to take it in stride, know my enemies and keep plowing forward no matter what. Kind of a good philosophy for a lot of things. And, we’ve learned to appreciate what we can grow. Want zucchini? Too bad – eat your green beans. This fall, I’m trying Brussels Sprouts again, after a spectacular failure a few years ago. Maybe they will do better this time, but if not, c’est la vie and I’ll try something else. And, I’ve been learning to can – nothing like eating homemade butter pickles or preserving that bumper crop of eggplant.

It took awhile, but I now understand why many consider gardening to be a powerfully meditative, positive experience, even with the losses and frustrations. Growing food is also pro-active against the doom and gloom out there. Your family’s food security is a vital topic, but despite the hard work, can be rewarding on so many levels. Dig in!

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