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Hawaii Gardens: Quarantined community excited about growing food

                                Clark Leavitt (foreground) and John Drake admire the new vigorous seedlings in the raised bed created by Drake and his wife, Nyna Weiser.


    Clark Leavitt (foreground) and John Drake admire the new vigorous seedlings in the raised bed created by Drake and his wife, Nyna Weiser.

Three generations of my neighbors — Sarah, Avery and Alina Rosier — went shopping together with the aim of bringing home something they could plant, grow and eat.

They visited three stores in search of potting mix, only to find them all sold out, but persevered to find what they needed. In fact, some nice, big potted plants followed them home, and they are now growing uala (sweet potato) in pots in the backyard, and sharing rooted slips with our neighbors.

It’s amazing to see our quarantined community excited about growing food. There’s been so much interest that supplies were scarce for a while, but our local garden shops have restocked.

I worry, though, that many will have limited success and give up on food gardening. Here are some tricks and hacks to help anyone getting started:

>> Vegetables, herbs and most flowering plants grow most productively in full sun.

>> Morning is the best time for gentle daily watering, and now many of us can do that because we’re not rushing off to work or taking kids to school. So get up early, enjoy the sunrise and give your plants a drink.

>> As you water, examine your plants. Turn over leaves and search for incipient pests. Rub them off the undersides, then shoot with water. For a bad infestation, spray with soapy water (1 tablespoon liquid dish soap per gallon of water). This smothers and kills sap-sucking insects like aphids, scale and whiteflies.

>> Go on a slug and snail patrol. Not to be mean, but every one of these pests eliminated and cleanly disposed of benefits our environment. Don’t touch them, though; use tongs, chopsticks or a plastic fork to place them in a bag. Salt will kill them, or use a product such as Sluggo Plus. Remind keiki not to touch slugs or snails with bare hands, as this can spread rat lungworm disease.

WHEN IT COMES to selecting plants, choose those that are adapted to Hawaii and your microclimate. Some suggestions:

>> Chaya: Also called tree spinach, chaya is easy to grow. My friend Ben Kam shared some with me. Stick a big cutting (a half-inch wide by 6- to 12-inches long) into the ground or a big pot; water daily.

The nutritious, leafy green vegetable must be boiled for 20 minutes to remove the toxic hydrocyanic acid contained in the leaves. I made an ulu lasagna, using chaya “spinach” the other day. It was ono and quickly disappeared.

>> Marungay, kalamungay or moringa: This tree of many names is native to India, but has become a super­food for all.

It can be grown from seeds, but is generally propogated from cuttings. Jimmy Lorenzo, my Waianae farmer-mentor, recommends 1-inch-wide cuttings about 2 feet long. Poke them directly into the ground and water daily. Once it is growing well, harvest regularly and keep the plants from growing out of reach.

This green is traditionally eaten in soups and stews. Add some leaves to a soup at the end of cooking, letting them simmer for a minute. They won’t be bitter, and this gentle cooking preserves more nutrients.

Young, tender leaves are often added to juices and smoothies. Ono and nutritious. You can also eat the flowers, young seed pods and the root, which tastes like horseradish.

>> Uala (sweet potato): I grow it mainly for the greens. The leaves cook up easily in soup, such as Okinawan kandaba. The leaves make the healthy, yummy base; add any other veggies or protein. I also saute the leaves with garlic and olive oil for my morning eggs.

You can start a plant from a sprouted tip. Or, if you left a potato on the counter so long that it sprouted, cut it up and plant the pieces. You can also chop a potato, poke toothpicks into the sides of the pieces and set them in a jar of water in a sunny spot (position them so the toothpicks keep the pieces from sinking). Change the water every few days to prevent mosquito wigglers. When shoots and roots emerge, plant the pieces in the garden or a big pot.

The leaves will give you a quick crop. Potatoes take longer to mature, six to nine months.

There are many varieties of sweet potato. If you can find the old Hawaiian varieties, they are wonderful for your garden and health.

Heidi Bornhorst is a sustainable landscape consultant specializing in native, xeric and edible gardens. Reach her at

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