Cover Story

Image: Martha Cheng


Cover image for Feb 3, 2010

While we may not all be master gardeners trained in plant science and horticulture, many home gardeners find growing food to be an addictive hobby that’s sort of a cross between arts and crafts and sports. The fringe benefits are nice–maybe a pretty landscape, some exercise in the form of digging and weed control–but nothing beats the tangible edibles. These days, growing your groceries can mean more than throwing a couple of seeds in a pocket of dirt. From sowing in the ground to growing in pots to relatively new soil-free methods of gardening, there are as many ways to plant as there are things to grow. Here’s a look at some local options.

Quick and dirty

Container gardening is the easiest way to start growing, especially if you have no dirt to work with. It starts simply with a pot and some potting soil, both of which are readily available at neighborhood hardware stores.

For newbies, master gardeners at the Oahu Urban Garden Center in Pearl City recommend herbs such basil, mint and even garlic (just purchase supermarket garlic–preferably U.S.-grown, which is likely to be fresher than garlic from China–and plant the cloves individually) or vegetables and fruits like radishes, cherry tomatoes and eggplant. Lettuces such as arugula are particularly easy to grow, as are edible flowers like nasturtiums, which are pretty to look at and add a peppery flavor to salads.

For those of us with a penchant for short-term leases, it’s even possible to grow fruit trees in movable containers. Lynn Tsuruda of Frankie’s Nursery rattles off a few of the varieties that are suitable for containers: “Limes, lemons, kumquats, figs will grow in pots,” she says. “Also dragonfruit…and mulberry, which everyone thinks grows on a bush because of the song, but they actually grow on trees.” The planting of mulberries, which taste similar to blackberries, speaks to another advantage of planting our own– the chance to grow fruit and vegetable varieties that are uncommon in grocery-store produce aisles.

Planter boxes at hardware stores are easy to come by, but getting creative with containers is half the fun. Thrift stores are great resources for a seemingly endless number of funky plant receptacles–buckets, galvanized-steel containers, kiddie pools. Just punch or drill holes in the bottoms for drainage. Bulky items left curbside yield an array of possible containers–drawers, boxes, sinks. The dream container? Abandoned shopping carts (lined with window screen to retain soil)–because they raise your garden to waist-level and you can wheel them around the yard to chase the sun.

Another option for those short on time or space but interested in growing food is the Wiki Garden, a relatively new local product that’s essentially a garden in a bag. It’s three feet long with a mesh casing that allows for drainage and is filled with an organic soil mix that contains compost, peat moss, worm castings and bat guano–all the ingredients that help your plants grow. Attach a garden hose to one end of the bag, punch holes on top to sow your seeds, and you’re set. The Wiki Garden can be used for two years before nutrients in the soil mix are depleted and the bag needs to be replaced. Each Wiki Garden is $37.95 at [].


Master gardeners recommend mixing compost into soil mixtures because that provides many of the nutrients your plants need as they grow. You can either buy compost, or make your own with yard waste (i.e. grass clippings, leaves, branches). It takes a little practice to maintain a compost pile. The Green House in Pauoa Valley offers classes on composting, in addition to other backyard gardening classes.

For those who don’t have the space for a compost heap, composting with worms is a good option. “You can do it inside, in a compact place,” says Mindy Jaffe, owner of Waikiki Worm Company. She outlines the worm-composting process and benefits: “It’s a recycling strategy. The idea is there’s a whole lot of nutrients in your food waste. They’re valuable nutrients. Plants want them. We’re spending a ton of money on bringing in synthetic fertilizers from the mainland when really, all of the nutrients we need for our…yards and gardens is locked up in our food waste. The worms….break down decaying organic matter [to] concentrate and repackage those nutrients in a form that can be absorbed by plants.”

If you prefer not to deal with a mass of wriggling worms (though Jaffe insists they’re “cute”), the Waikiki Worm Company also sells vermicast, the by-product of worm composting that some gardeners call “black gold.” Jaffe recommends mixing a volume of 5 percent to 20 percent vermicast to potting soil for leafy greens and 20 percent to 50 percent for fruits. “It’s a good general fertilizer,” she says.


Major cities and impoverished areas around the world are turning to aquaponic systems–a mixture of aquariums and vegetable gardens–as a model of urban farming. But the method is a great fit for those who merely want to grow some greens–and enjoy the Zen-like sound of trickling water–in the concrete jungle.

How it works: Aquaponics combines aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (soil-less farming in nutrient-rich water). Whereas hydroponics traditionally uses petroleum-based fertilizers in the water, aquaponic systems rely on fish waste and water to provide the nutrients for the fruits and vegetables.

Fish do their thing in their tank, but it just so happens that their, ahem, poop–with the help of some naturally occurring bacteria–makes for great plant food. The water and fish waste pass through a few floats of plants, the plants absorb the nutrients and clean the water, and the water returns to the fish tank. It’s an ecosystem that relies on very few inputs–like chemical fertilizer or water–because its organically fertilized water is constantly recycled.

Glenn Martinez, founder of Waimanalo’s Olomana Gardens, is a proponent of aquaponics. He lists the benefits: “There’s no weeding. It’s waist-level high–there’s no bending over. You feed the fish in the morning, you feed the fish at night. You plant seeds once a week, and you harvest. You eat your fish, eat your plant, you got a meal.”

Martinez, who had been dirt-farming with various species for a few years, got into aquaponics about a year ago, when he discovered his stream water was contaminated. He built an aquaponics system filled with clean water, and after some experimentation and self-devised improvements on the setup, he now teaches aquaponics to locals and visitors alike.

“This morning, we had people from Ethiopia–they’re going back to Ethiopia and they want to bring back aquaponics,” Martinez says. “We just came back from Molokai…teaching 12 schoolteachers how to teach aquaponics to their kids.” On Saturdays, he holds aquaponics classes at Olomana Gardens for $50 a person, during which students have the opportunity to study his 300-gallon tank. It’s filled with 100 tilapia and growbeds with an assortment of fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, onions, tapioca and chard.

Martinez also builds home systems–fish and all–for clients. Prices range from $700 to $3,000 depending on size. The true do-it-yourselfers should check out a manual on barrel-ponics, a small-scale hobby version of aquaponics, created by Travis W. Hughey. It’s available for free online.

Guerrilla gardening

For some, a dearth of garden space is not a problem–they opt to grow food on public property or empty lots. In plots from Kaimuki to Kailua, amid other landscaping on state property, guerrilla gardeners are practicing random acts of greening. In some of the guerrilla gardens we explored, we found papayas, chili peppers, parsley, mint, sweet potato, Jamaica (a type of hibiscus often made into drinks at Mexican restaurants) and even a garden supporting a motley array of geese and ducks.

For some, the goal of guerrilla gardening is to make sure arable land doesn’t go to waste. For others, planting food in open spaces falls under the scope of art and activism.

“Guerrilla gardens is just one part of our work,” says artist and academic Gaye Chan. “What we try to do is develop systems where anyone can participate and through this participation, we develop a way of living with each other that’s outside the state system and the capitalist system [in a way] that’s more egalitarian.”

To that end, Nandita Sharma, Chan’s partner-in-crime says planting food “works to reclaim land as something that is for people who use it and use it for their own self-sufficiency. One of our goals is to reclaim the commons…so planting food on land is one way to make the claim that it’s yours–that it belongs to those whose own labor is used to create it.”

Though Chan and Sharma’s goals may seem abstract, they’re adamant that all of their projects ultimately be practical.

“It’s not just messing around with public or private property,” Sharma says. “The goal is not symbolic. The goal is to grow food and feed ourselves and allow other people have access to it and feed themselves. Then it actually needs to work. It actually needs to grow that food.”

Some things to consider when planting a pirate plot: access to water, be it freshwater streams or existing water lines and sprinklers; distance from pollution; accessibility for those who maintain it and those who use it.

To find out more about Chan and Sharma’s projects, visit [], where they write: “Join us…or better yet, don’t join us. Just take the ideas and run as far as you can with them.”