As Hawaii residents dealt with the new normal of life during the coronavirus pandemic, it turned out that toilet paper and hand sanitizer were not the only items suddenly in short supply. Shoppers seeking potting soil, flower pots and other gardening supplies were finding bare shelves at the local home-improvement outlets where there were usually ample supplies.
Were idle islanders using their downtime to re-pot treasured plants that had been handed down from one generation to another? Were home farmers expanding their operations? Had people who’d never picked up a trowel decided that the time had come to take at least one small step toward self-sufficiency? Or perhaps spending time tending to plants offered a soothing antidote to the unceasing barrage of bad news?
The answer was “all of the above.” With time to spare and Hawaii’s economic future uncertain, gardening — growing plants for food or for their beauty — has become an important part of many residents’ lives.
Take Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winning recording artist Sandy Essman, who says that for her and her husband the stay-at-home order “rekindled our love of gardening.”
“We have had some old 4-by-6 garden plots that needed some care, and we took it upon our free time to cultivate our vegetables,” Essman explained recently. “We got tomatoes, kabocha, basil, many varieties of kalo, Manoa and romaine lettuce, and Hawaiian chili pepper. I also started a la‘au (medicinal) garden where I have planted olena, wapine, laukahi, popolo berry, maile hohono and mamaki. With the olena, chili pepper and garlic, you can make a power shot to take every day to support and strengthen the immune system during this uncertainty with COVID-19.”
And there’s Celia Chun Wright. Growing up on her parents’ farm in Waimanalo, dance lessons were welcome excuses to skip farm chores. Now she’s “going back to my roots, landscaping around my house, and getting mulch by the buckets from the farm. I have basil and tomato plants growing nicely, and I may grow kale in pots too.”
Gardening in Manoa reminds Marie Takazawa of the farm lot her father’s family had outside their home in Hilo.
“We could eat fresh soybeans, peanuts, poha (berries) and oranges, and there was no better smell than the soil in the early mornings. Our dirt is pretty hard, and I think I’ve spent more on compost and bagged soil, but it does feel good to to touch the earth.”
Since the advent of the stay-at-home order, Katherine Jones’ duties as sustainability and innovation coordinator at Island Pacific Academy in Kapolei have meant teaching gardening from home.
“I spent spring break turning parts of my yard into a home garden for distance learning to demo on my school YouTube account and for growing food,” Jones said. “I used old stage platforms that I turned upside down as makeshift garden beds to save money.”
Other Oahu residents are gardening for the first time.
“We’ve lived in this house eight years and finally put in some greenery,” first-timer Mary Hicks of Mililani explained. “I just ate my first basil from our container garden we started a few weeks ago. It was delicious!”
Home gardening has been a pleasant surprise for Sharon Sanchez Nichols, also in Mililani: “I always thought I had a ‘black thumb’ and could kill a fake plant, but I’ve been doing fairly well.”
Apartment dwellers are making use of their lanais and windowsills. Slack-key master Makana recently set up a “small garden on my balcony” that is already starting to sprout.
“If we can inspire people to start growing food I’m all about that,” he said.
Ruby May, a self-described “basil plant killer ever since 2010,” said that the secret for her successful windowsill garden is growing them hydroponically in a recycled take-out soup container.
“A month-and-a-half of basil bliss.”
Experienced lanai gardener Sandy Ritz applauds the growth of home gardening.
“I’ve had a small organic garden in pots on my 16th-floor condo tiny lanai for years. I’m sharing hints, clippings, seeds and herbs with others who now have their own large gardens in big backyards or on lanais, and I’m still able to enjoy fresh salad and greens and have plenty of fresh herbs for cooking.”
Perks of gardening
Will Smith, president of the Ala Wai Community Garden Association, said that gardening can definitely help out with grocery costs.
“With a mix of patience, skill, luck and time, you can turn a $3 bag of lettuce seeds into 50 or so heads of lettuce,” he said. “As long as you rotate the planting times you can have fresh lettuce every day, and gardening is an incredible stress relief.”
Joem Costes agrees about stress relief, describing gardening as “therapy to keep busy, exercise the mind beyond reality and plan for the future.”
Esme M. Infante gardens “partly for sustenance, but mostly for the way it brings me back to center.”
Infante is one of more than 7,000 members of the 808 Green Thumbs Facebook group founded and administered by island rock music icon Fernando Pacheco. 808GT for short, it is designed to provide “positive content and support” for gardners of all levels of experience. It prohibits posts on non-gardening topics and those that offer to buy or sell something. Visit facebook.com/groups/808greenthumbs.
Whether people are turning back to the earth for sustenance or stress relief, the simple act of planting things anew can offer a glimmer of light during these dark times.
Infante, who recently saw her first flower of the season begin to bloom, said, “Growing things restores my sense of hope.”