Cover Story

Life changes when you enter the Makiki Community Garden. The blur of the H-1 fades into a buzz of bees sipping nectar and anonymously pollinating the flowers stretching toward the sun from dense 10-by-10-feet fenced sections of earth community members use to fill their plates and escape from the apartment buildings that crowd the neighborhood. A bird on the footpath cocks its head upward and hops toward its human neighbor instead of fluttering away. Leafy greens, tiny lily pad ponds and the aroma of ripening tomatoes pull your gaze downward to the earth we come from and away from everything else that seemed so immediate and important just 15 minutes ago. This hidden parcel of peace and sustenance has been around for more than 40 years but a recent movement to regain local responsibility for food production makes these tiny plots an integral part of a larger discussion on urban land use. With the city growing taller and tighter, a dangerously unhealthy reliance on food imports, and increasing tensions over sacrificing ecological values for economic opportunism, the power of nature to restore us to a point of balance becomes more profound, and it is most apparent in our urban gardens.

Terrestrial beings

Visiting Foster Botanical Gardens on a hot afternoon is downtown Honolulu’s terrestrial equivalent of diving into the ocean after work. Reaching the entrance booth requires a respectful bowing stroll under a low canopy of mock orange branches heavy with fresh blossoms. The flowering limbs graze your shoulders while caressing your head with their fragrance. And anyone with a functional nostril is immediately seduced by the air–thick, sweet and luxurious–it’s an oxygen-filled lungasm of joy. The gardens, on 5.5 acres of land leased from Queen Kalama by the German doctor and botanist William Hillebrand in 1853 and bequeathed to the city in 1930, are defined by their 25 exceptional trees. Rare, majestic, sometimes massive, these trees are the foundation of the gardens and home to a surprising array of birds. Perhaps the most striking exception is marked by a sign warning ‘Watch out for falling cannonballs!’ Covered with ferocious spiky vines the towering cannonball tree is a living artillery range that periodically drops heavy brown volleyball-sized nuts to the ground or on any unsuspecting object in its flight path. And you thought chillin’ under a full coconut tree was risky. Foster Botanical Gardens visitors tend to be tourists, but on this November Sunday the $5 admission fee was waived for a Hawaiian cultural celebration of the book launching of the Epic Tale of Hi’iakapoliopele. As Keali’i Reichel holds the swaying audience in the warm embrace of his voice, cultural practitioners carve hala, prepare poi and teach keiki to pound kapa. Nearby, Matt Kapaliku Schirman discusses growing Native Hawaiian plants and describes how he came to own and operate Hui Ku Maoli Ola, a Native Hawaiian plant nursery. ‘I’m a Hawaiian studies/Hawaiian language graduate. You take all these classes and you hear about the different olis that have the different plants in them. Like this book you have today, there’s all kinds of plants throughout the book and you learn about how the plants were used Ö Then, I really got into the interest of what we should do. If we want to perpetuate these cultural practices, we should take these plants and put them into people’s yards so they can use them.’

Foster Botanical Gardens

Across the H-1 between School Street and North Kuakini is a public garden that features many of the same Native Hawaiian plants Schirman sells. Queen Lili’uokalani Botanical Gardens grow on the banks of Nu’uanu Stream, where the watershed hasn’t been yet been stolen by cement, while impressive palms shoot straight up on a hillside overlooking gentle waterfalls percolating around old stone. It’s easy to see why the grounds were once a favorite picnic spot of the Queen. However, they are nearly empty of visitors most days despite their serenity and convenient location in the heart of the city.

A few miles away in Kalihi Valley 85-year-old Mary Chun shuttles her short, but still strong, frame through the shade made by a halo of pruned branches. Chun smiles, points to a ridiculous array of anthuriums and asks,’ You ever seen pigtail anthuriums? And this, this is a spotted one.’ Then, she waves toward the six-feet-high cinder block and wire mesh fence and bemoans, ‘This here’s no good. Today, I had to climb on the wall and get this here stink vine.’ It’s a typical task in a normal day of weeding, cross-pollinating and making a home for seeds and spores in the most verdant yard on the block. And while the neighborhood’s old wooden houses are gradually giving way to lot-sized AC-pumping cement rectangles, Chun runs her hand along the branch of a passing tree fern and chills in valley mist-catching coolness. ‘I enjoy it,’ she adds, continually moving among the protective layers of ginger, orchids, ferns and ti, ‘because wherever you turn you have flowers. It’s like they’re smiling at you.’

A piece of the city, perhaps?

The value of gardens and looming concerns of food self sufficiency are working their way into city government as well. Councilmembers Ann Kobayashi and Donovan De la Cruz, neither of whom has the reputation of an environmentalist ready to jump in front of the Superferry, both went public in early November asking where’s the fiber in Mayor Hanneman’s urban environmental policy. Asked why she took a stand Kobayashi responds, ‘Anything to make our city look green. We’re getting just run over by all this concrete and having more community gardens not only makes our city look better but it keeps our residents healthier. We also talked about rooftop gardens. You can also grow vegetables up there, nice flowers.’ When it comes to land use Kobayashi is resigned to a reality of high density, but also sees opportunity in city lands not suitable for major building projects. ‘I would like to see the city turn over a lot of the remnant pieces. We should make them available for community gardening.’

Urban chicken

Ramsey Taum is one of O’ahu most recognized speakers on responsible environmental stewardship. Director of External Relations and Community Partnerships at the University of Hawai’i’s School of Travel Industry Management and affiliated with the Hawai’i Nature Center and numerous boards, he has noticed the shift toward local sustainability but reminds us that the deck remains stacked. ‘There is an imbalance in our approach to the whole system. We have a system that is being driven primarily by the commercial-slash-economic lens of a three-legged stool that hasn’t been balanced in a long time. When you look at a sustainable bottom line approach that finds a balance between environment, cultural, social and economic sustainability factors you don’t have this imbalance. Leadership is trying to address these things, but really, again, it’s looking through a lens that is heavily favoring the economic and the market than optimizing the balance of the three.’ Taum adds that getting people off the concrete is part of the solution. ‘Food security and the relation of people to their environment go hand and hand. Unless children and communities have a relation to nature and don’t access nature, whether it’s hiking or going to the beach, it’s a lot easier to cement and overdevelop their natural environments, which ultimately leads to the elimination of food-producing land and increasing dependency on food production imports which at this point in time is about 85 percent.’

How green is my house: Betty Gearen with grandson Kala at The Green House.

Interestingly, this tension between our ecology and our economy belie the words’ origins. Both come from the Greek ‘oikos‘ or household. The ancient Greeks not only wrote good poetry and gathered for great naked sporting events, but they intrinsically understood the interrelationship of studying the land, crops, animals and buildings that made up the household, oikologia, and managing those household relationships, oikonomia.

Breaking a bad concrete habit

The Green House in Pauoa Valley celebrates this relationship. Begun by Betty Gearen in 2004 as a means for channeling her depression over the expanding Iraq War and the reelection of George W. Bush into beneficial community action, Gearen’s home has become both a gathering place for sharing sustainable living ideas and a model of what it can look like. The back fences which once isolated neighbors have been removed and the property lines diffused into a shared space of healthy banana trees and friendly eggplant. With on-site solar panels Gearen says, ‘We don’t use as much energy as we create. And as far as food, I think I supplement maybe one-fourth because I don’t spend full time growing food. In my yard it’s elimination of grass and putting in medicinal foods, papermaking and dye plants, because that’s something I do–and herbs. The idea is to have a useable yard rather than a yard that’s just for looks.’

Good Seeds: Working the land at Ma’o Organic Farms.

On a recent Saturday afternoon the Green House’s little informal outdoor learning center was packed for a class on building your own water catchment system. Leading the class were Jeremai Cann and Hunter Heaivilin. The pair provide an engaging mix of practical knowledge and philosophical exploration. Cann grew up in Jamaica where recycling and renewing resources is a habit of economic survival for most residents. While working a six-year stint for the Environmental Regulatory Agency in Miami, Florida he had an epiphany when he realized all his pollution control efforts were drowned out by the effects of a single rain event flooding the environment with the urban area’s wastes and harmful chemicals. He went to Australia to study sustainability and migrated to Hawai’i where he now filters his considerable knowledge through the lens of an expanding interest in traditional Hawaiian land and water management practices ‘by observing history and how to get a bridge between those two technologies,’ says Cann, nodding. He then adds, ‘Things come full circle, man. So here, urban gardening and agriculture is pretty much reproducing a farm in an urban setting; making soil, having your water, doing the work with your hands and taking the time and learning.’

As Cann drills a hole for a second-hand faucet into an empty 55-gallon soy oil plastic drum bought for seven bucks at the Love’s Bakery factory in Kalihi, Heaivilin talks about his personal journey from growing up on O’ahu to studying permaculture concepts and applications in Hilo and France. He describes permaculture as ‘setting up self sufficient systems, where you got multiple layers, you go in and everything is growing and is interconnected and just feeding off its synergy. One of things that’s really fascinating to me about that, and gardening in general, is that so much of our life is spending energy. How can we make our lives equitable? So we put in what we get out.’ Heaivilin pauses, leans in slightly and professes that what really excites him is ‘the over-unity of gardening and permaculture where I can put in this amount, but just because of the ability of nature to break entropy and become more complex I can put in a little bit but I get all this food. I get goosebumps. That’s amazing.’

Homegrown again

On O’ahu this movement of food production back toward local communities and gardens is gaining momentum. One of the turning points of this change took place in 1990 when Waimanalo-based Nalo Farms made a business-saving transition to growing baby greens for local celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi. The greens were a hit and now Nalo greens are found everywhere from lunch wagons to the Pineapple Room. Sumida Farms in ‘Aiea continues to produce top-notch watercress in the midst of Christmas shopping hordes squeezing into the earth blocking Pearlridge Mall parking lots that are limiting the flow of natural spring water up into Sumida’s fields. The open markets of Chinatown are as vibrant as ever with a large helping of local produce and weekly farmers’ markets have been a hit in communities island-wide.

Whether Wai’anae can be classified as ‘urban’ depends on your definition, but there is no doubt that hometown Ma’o Farms is one of the most important food-producing gardens on O’ahu. Their organic foods are known for freshness and quality, yet their success in developing and applying culturally based educational programs using gardening is transformative. Ma’o runs workshops at Wai’anae intermediate teaching a comparative Pacific Islands social studies curriculum through a focus on community, food and agriculture. As part of the program, students have three-quarters of an acre to plant an organic garden of culturally important staple foods like kalo, mai’a, and ‘uala. At Wai’anae High School Ma’o supports the agriculture class and flourishing on-site garden. But the learning doesn’t stop there. Executive Director Kukui Maunakea-Forth describes their internship program targeting smaller groups of high school students who can ‘have an intensive organic agricultural experience both at our farm and our different sites. And they can take back that knowledge to their school and help mentor the youths in the gardens.’ Over the past year Ma’o has focused on an additional youth leadership-training program with students from Leeward College studying community food systems while working at the farm for a stipend. ‘They do all kinds of leadership activities. They’ll learn cultural protocol. They’ll learn how to communicate with their peers and their instructors. And we also work on managing farm operations,’ says Maunakea-Forth. Overall, she says the education, practices and consumption of their gardens are all connected to a locally based economic liberation. ‘We want to bring it closer to home. We want to bring people closer to the earth. And so if they do that and they can spend their dollars at the local co-ops or they can come to farmers’ markets or they can support a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program. Then, that’s really a great contribution to a movement of a more localized economy.’

These emerging youth leaders may become the greatest legacy of Ma’o. However, plenty of hungry folks in kitchens and restaurants across the island are enjoying the fruits of this honorable labor today. At the popular town restaurant in Wai’alae and its sister restaurant Downtown at the HiSAM the menu features primarily locally produced foods from farms like Ma’o and Nalo. Owner and chef Ed Kenney explains that the restaurant was built on the social enterprise triple bottom-line business model, ‘people, planet, profit, give back to the community, support the planet but at the same time turn a profit because that’s what we need to do, to do the other two things.’ Town not only buys local, they even use the small space between the sidewalk and entrance for a tidy terraced herb garden to supplement their kitchen. In addition, they compost all their green waste in worm bins out back where those stems and stalks are turned into garden replenishing humus by our hard-working slimy friends of the underworld. While town is pricey, it’s never pretentious. A feeling of respect permeates the restaurant and reflects well on the values that ground the business. ‘Our employees have bought into our philosophies. It’s not just a job where they get a paycheck. They feel by working at town, I think, they’re making a difference in a bigger picture,’ explains Kenney. He concludes by stating, ‘I see more than an issue of even feeding people. It’s returning people to even understanding where the food comes from. I’d like to see moving forward people not only buying from local farmers but growing their own food.’

It could change everything

Changing food production methods in the mainland United States or Hawai’i will be difficult but potentially transformative. Our relative wealth allows us to just drive up to a window, throw down a few bucks and be fed. Growing local changes economic relationships and challenges historically grounded labor practices. America was founded on replacing native subsistence gardens with huge single crop farms. These farms depended on displaced laborers to keep costs low and profits high. From enslaving Africans to work tobacco, rice and cotton fields, to the harsh contract labor plantation work which created much of Hawai’i’s ethnic mix, or the current dependence on often undocumented Latin American laborers to work the fields of California where most of our Safeway and Costco produce originates, America has always depended on exploiting farmers who came from somewhere else. Meanwhile, we depend on petroleum products to grow, harvest, package and distribute most of our food. While the relationship of oil to war, pollution and atmospheric decline is well known, few realize how much we can release ourselves from this unhealthy dependency by getting our hands dirty and growing our food or supporting our neighbors who do.

Fortunately, on O’ahu these numbers are increasing. Farmers’ markets are bustling, science teachers are signing up for the next school-based garden opportunity, and local ingredients have become trendy in our restaurants. The development of government plans such Sustainability 2050 and the 21st Century Ahupua’a show a renewed concern for the land and water in state and city politics even if the process isn’t quite willing to really wrestle with the systemic contradictions between sustainability and a resource depleting consumption dependent economic model of profit maximization.

In the meantime, Mary Chun will get up tomorrow head out the squeaky side screen door and create an anthurium unlike any other. A cannonball will crash to the ground of Foster Botanical Gardens and scare the crap out of a tourist taking a picture of a palm tree. And someone in Makiki will smile as the first tomato on the vine turns red.

Culture a green thumb

• The Kokua Foundation runs the nutrition and agriculture based ‘AINA IS program with elementary schools. The program involves creating school-based gardens and is one of many resources the foundation provides to students, teachers and families. For more information, or to get involved, visit
• The City’s learning center has links to a slew of educational opportunities for teachers and students to tap into.
• The Green House has regular classes on site. Call 524-8427 or e-mail
• For more information on Ma’o Farms, visit