Amid the parched fields and tent-covered sidewalks of Kakaako during a mid-June heat wave, the two dark-green plots and freshly turned topsoil of a new community garden on Ilalo Street made a refreshing and hopeful sight.
Young ulu and banana trees, leafy kalo, herbs and more had transformed what was until recently a sandy, rocky vacant lot filled with weeds and rubbish, said Drew Wilkinson as he poured compost tea, a liquid fertilizer, along a row of plants on Tuesday morning.
“There wasn’t much soil, which is why we have raised beds and one of our main focuses is on building soil,” said Wilkinson, who works at Permablitz Hawaii, which develops permaculture gardens adapted to a locale’s native flora, ecosystem and climate.
The absorptive powers of soft, spongy, well-composted soil and the roots of specially chosen plants were integral to this project, the Kaka‘ako Ocean Friendly Garden, said Doorae Shin, Oahu chapter coordinator of the Surfrider Foundation, which is growing ocean-friendly gardens as part of its nationwide clean-water initiative.
The gardens’ primary purpose is to keep polluted stormwater runoff and trash out of the ocean, Shin said as she pulled weeds and checked drip irrigation lines with Wilkinson and his Permablitz Hawaii garden co-designer, Allen Fanning.
“There are stormwater drains throughout the garden,” Shin said, pointing to a grated hole about 3 feet in diameter, surrounded by absorptive material and the spiky stalks of lemongrass and vetiver. The garden, she added, aims to keep water out of the drains.
“Vetiver provides great filtration,” Fanning said. “Its root system goes down 10-12 feet, making a big underground shower curtain stronger than a sheet of steel that prevents runoff from draining into the ocean.”
While lemongrass doesn’t have as vigorous a root system, it tastes and smells really good, he added. Basil, sunflowers and lantana attracted pollinators like bees and butterflies, and nanea, a native ground cover, and pigeon peas helped fix nitrogen in the garden soil, boosting its fertility.
The project’s other goals are growing community food self-sufficiency and educating the public about preventing runoff, conserving water and growing their own ocean-friendly gardens, Shin said. To that end, she added, the garden hosts regular community workdays, the next one scheduled for the morning of June 30.
When a return visitor observed that the plants had grown visibly taller and thicker than they were only four days before, Shin emphatically agreed. “It’s growing so fast it’s awesome, thanks to our volunteers,” she said. “We put the first plants in the ground March 30, less than three months ago.”
Another positive change: The garden fence along Ilalo Street was clear of the row of tents that on June 7 had partially blocked access to the lockbox with the key to the gates.
On that morning, as Shin squeezed between tents pitched by the homeless and bicycles, an unwelcoming voice had spoken from within one of the tents. “Watch out for the dog.”
Shin paused. “How should I watch out for it?” she asked in a calm, respectful tone.
“That’s OK,” the voice relented. “The dog’s right inside here by me. He likes you.”
AFTER the gates were unlocked Tuesday, they were left open as the nonprofit staffers worked, pausing occasionally to speak with members of the homeless community, some living in the tents that still clustered along the garden fences at Keawe and Coral streets.
A thin man in a wheelchair told Wilkinson he was interested in Chinese medicinal herbs; another man, who had charged Wilkinson’s car battery with his solar panel a few weeks before, stopped in to say hello.
The public education mission encompassed bringing together the Kakaako community, including those with and without homes, Shin said.
“We’re talking about how the garden might provide interested homeless people with some marketable skills,” Fanning said as he worked in the brown, unplanted section of the 10,600-square-foot lot where compost was baking in piles beneath canvas tarps.
But it was a challenge, he said. A big waterproof tarp had been stolen, and the garden was constantly pelted with rubbish flung over the high chain-link fence.
“We found a hypodermic needle this morning,” Fanning said as he and Shin, with long-handled pincers, picked up soiled clothing, towels and fast-food containers.
Bit by bit, all this trash, along with stormwater, was being kept out of the ocean by the garden, said Rafael Bergstrom, executive director of Sustainable Coastlines, known for its beach cleanups and advocacy for replacing single-use plastics with reusable wares.
“We’re partnering with Surfrider and Permablitz Hawaii to have the garden be a community space,” Bergstrom said. He said Impact Hub, a Kakaako co-working and event space, brings kitchen waste in a “bokashi” bucket to compost, and that support has come from Zero Waste Oahu, Castle Foundation and Kamehameha Schools, which donated the lot.
Other partners, Shin said, include neighborhood eateries — such as Bevy, Highway Inn, Moku Kitchen, Morning Brew Cafe and Pioneer Saloon — that participate in Surfrider’s Ocean Friendly Restaurant program to reduce plastic and food waste by forswearing polystyrene and plastic bags.
Most of all, she said, the garden thrives on the energy of hands-on volunteers.
KAKA‘AKO COMMUNITY GARDEN WORK DAY
Free and open to members of the public who want to help with and learn about the ocean-friendly garden.
When: 9 a.m.-noon June 30; lunch will be provided
Where: 600 Ilalo St., between Coral and Keawe streets