Growing Food–and Healthy Appetites
“Does this mean we don’t have to eat processed foods anymore?” asked a fourth grader as she busily dug in the soil and planted carrot seeds in the school garden.
“Great question,” I said. While it’s hard to avoid processed foods filled with GMOs, preservatives and added sugars and fats, growing our own whole foods helps enormously. And while there are many other good reasons to grow your own organic food (food security, environmental benefits, saving money, reducing waste), getting fresh, tasty foods out of our own hard work is what my students, my family and I enjoy most.
Sure, gardening is a natural fit for kids–they love being outdoors. But what I wasn’t prepared for when I became a gardening teacher at Waikiki Elementary School was children’s intense, innate desire for fresh fruits and vegetables–especially those they grew and harvested themselves. As I’ve seen in my unscientific observations and in real published research, kids that grow their own food are more likely to eat fresh fruits and vegetables and are more likely to try new ones–even if they are not grown in their own garden.
Ask any 10-year-old if he or she likes tomatoes. Chances are, the answer will be no. But let that 10-year-old grow tomatoes in the backyard (or at school) and you’ll find he or she can’t stop eating them.
Getting started: the soil
There’s almost nothing in gardening as important as the soil. Sure, plants can’t live without water and sunlight (6–8 hours minimum in the sun for most edible plants), but think of the soil as the plants’ refrigerator–they receive all of their food (i.e., nutrients) and water from it. So build the healthiest soil you can.
How can you tell if your soil is healthy for plants? Use your senses.
Touch: Healthy soil should feel damp but not too wet. Gently queeze a golf-ball sized clump of garden soil. If it holds its shape, then crumbles slightly, you probably have the right amount of water. If it stays in a clump, or doesn’t clump at all, you either have too much water or clay in your soil, or not enough.
Sight: What does the soil look like? It should be dark brown or black. The darker the color, the richer in nutrients the soil.
Sound: Can you hear (or see) life? The presence of worms, bugs and bacteria means there is organic matter that they are breaking down, making the nutrients available to your plants. Healthy soil contains millions of living, working microbes in a single handful. Put garden soil in a foil baking pan, and if you hear a gentle rustling, you’ve got live dirt.
Smell: Healthy soil should have a good, earthy smell. If it doesn’t smell like anything, chances are your plants aren’t going to like it.
Taste: Okay, so I don’t advocate tasting your soil, but in Dirt! The Movie, winemaker Gary Vaynerchuk says tasting the soil makes all the difference in determining whether it will make great wine grapes.
Think of synthetic chemical fertilizers as candy bars: They burn out fast. Most of the high levels of macronutrients, such as nitrogen, found in synthetic fertilizers are drained from the soil before plants have a chance to use them. And too much nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium (the main components of commercial synthetic fertilizers) can actually harm plants.
Instead, compost encourages the growth of microorganisms and other living things in soil that sustain nutrient levels and supply food 24/7 to your plants. You can choose from two general types of store-bought compost: those made from wood and other plant materials and those containing animal manure. Both are beneficial. For homemade composting, try one of these three methods:
Vermicomposting. This method uses composting worms (cousins to earthworms) in an enclosed system. Feed worms kitchen fruit and vegetable scraps and they will provide you with vermicast (or worm poop). Add vermicast directly to your garden soil or aerate it in a bucket of water for 24 hours first to encourage the growth of microorganisms. The resulting “vermicast tea” can be added directly to soil near the roots of plants.
Compost pile or tumbler. Just about any food waste can be treated by composting in a heap, where microbial breakdown produces heat. But if you only have a small space (less than 5 square feet), include only fruit and vegetable scraps. That’s because your pile is not likely to reach the required 140–160 degrees F needed to kill pathogens. Layer your pile with green waste (lawn clippings or garden trimmings), brown waste (leaves or mulch) and food waste (kitchen scraps). Water regularly, and aerate (adding oxygen for the microorganisms) by turning your pile once a week.
Bokashi. This is a mix of effective microorganisms, or EM (mainly bacteria and yeast), wheat mill run (a byproduct of making white flour), molasses and water. When sprinkled over food waste, it ferments the food, breaking it down fast to prevent it from rotting. In two weeks, your bokashi-treated compost (which should smell like kim chee or vinegar) is ready for burial in your garden.
Garden ways and means
The family that gardens together, stays together. I’ve never actually heard that said, but people generally feel better after working in a garden, and happy people are easier to get along with. So how do you involve the whole family? Try a theme garden–create a simple circular plot in the shape of a pizza and grow tomatoes, peppers, basil, zucchini and wheat (growing wheat is actually quite easy, the harvesting and chaffing process doable, and with a flour mill you can turn your wheat grains into flour).
To encourage children to garden, allow them to feel the soil and get dirty; dress them in worn or stained clothes or even beachwear, and simply hose them off when done. For older children, you may allow them to tend their own plots (or use containers), choose what to grow and be responsible for watering and nurturing their gardens. When it comes time to harvest, be sure to have children wash their hands well with soap and water (see food safety tips in sidebar).
Organic and biodynamic
One of the advantages of growing your own food is knowing what goes into it. So skip the pesticides in favor of organic gardening: Grow in season, grow varieties that are adapted to your climate, choose disease-resistant varieties, add compost and mulch to prevent weeds and encourage beneficial insects and microorganisms. Also, keep in mind that strong, healthy plants (grown in rich, healthy soil) are less susceptible to pests and diseases.
In addition to and within organic gardening are systems such as permaculture design, biodynamic farming and small-scale gardening. Kahumana Farms in Waianae has used organic and biodynamic farming techniques for more than 30 years. “Biodynamic farming really comes from the small farm tradition,” says Tom McDonald, director of social ventures at Kahumana Community Center (which supports a farm and cafe). “Biodynamic farming has a rich tradition rooted in a heightened mindfulness of how living things on a farm are connected. While we aren’t biodynamic fundamentalists, we do employ techniques such as creating all inputs on site and aligning planting cycles with the cycles of the moon and stars,” McDonald says.
Asked about advice for home gardeners, McDonald continues, “The most important thing you can do in your home garden is to start composting. Try to see your home garden as a single ‘organism’ and how everything is connected. Then, raise two chickens, compost grass trimmings and grow glyricidia (a chop-and-mulch, fast-growing tree of the legume family).” His home remedies for pests and diseases include neem, garlic and hot peppers.
“Permaculture is a science that mimics the design of natural systems,” says Hunter Heaivilin, permaculture design expert and co-founder of Pono Permaculture, a consulting firm. For those ready to start a home garden, Hunter has this advice: “Any element in the wrong place can create an increase in work. Estimate how many hours you want to put into your garden, cut it in half, and plan around that.” Be willing to grow plants that grow well in your garden, rather than growing only what you think you want. “If you’ve planted corn five times in the same place and it doesn’t grow, try planting something else,” continues Heaivilin. “Permaculture design is a scenario of what your garden can be, based on your own needs and your garden’s resources.”
Not sure what your garden can be? “Walk around and meet your neighbors and see what they are growing. Chances are they will have good insight and will probably even give you something to grow.” To learn more, join a Permablitz–an informal gathering of people to help create or add to an edible garden. Check [permablitzhawaii.com] to find out when and where the next Permablitz is taking place.
Efficient small spaces
If you have a small space that gets only a few hours of light a day, consider a mobile garden. “Our family garden is on wheels, so I can easily pull it out into the sunny part of the driveway once I leave for work in the morning,” says Dave Caldiero, an avid gardener and chef at Town Restaurant in Kaimuki. “We grow greens, lettuce, spinach, things we eat almost every day.” Caldiero says he and his wife learned about square-foot gardening, which is simply a strategy to grow food efficiently by sectioning a raised bed into 1-square-foot plots. “The trick is mixing one-third part each of compost, soil and black cinder,” he explains.
What are the advantages? No weeds, junky soil or pests, and plant roots tend to grow more vertically, making the square-foot garden more space-efficient than a traditional plot.
Cost: about $140 to build a 4-square-foot garden bed holding 8–10 inches of soil (less if you use recycled materials). With lettuce heads alone, harvestable every six weeks, the investment’s paid off pretty quickly.
The symbiotic relationship of fish, bacteria and plants is happening right now in nature, all over the world, naturally. So what’s all the fuss? Aquaponics brings that relationship to your urban backyard, your condo lanai or even your front porch. All you need is electricity (to run the pump), a nearby water source and a desire for fresh fish (tilapia, baby!) and fresh vegetables. At Waikiki School, we recently enjoyed a lunch with all foods, including golden tilapia, grown in the aquaponics system only a few feet from the classroom. Now that’s local.
While water is one of our most valuable natural resources, it is estimated that 50 percent of water used in a single-family home is outdoors. While you probably can’t skimp on watering your edible plants, you can conserve water elsewhere in your landscape by planting native and drought-tolerant varieties. Xeriscaping is a strategy for conserving water in your landscape. To learn more about methods and plants, visit the Board of Water Supply’s Halawa Xeriscape Garden.