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Growing an Abundant Perennial Food Garden Workshop

Written by Sonia Martinez on 27 October 2010.

Perennial vegetables and fruits growing in diverse plantings at Mohala Lehua Farm.
Perennial vegetables and fruits growing in diverse plantings at Mohala Lehua Farm.
On the morning of Sunday, September 26, 2010, a group of interested people attended a workshop called “Growing an Abundant Perennial Food Garden,” which focused on establishing a low-input garden of perennial food plants that can feed a family healthy food year-round for years.

The workshop was sponsored by the Hawai’i Homegrown Food Network and held at Mohala Lehua Farm near Hawi, North Kohala as part of the the North Kohala Eat Locally Grown Campaign. The workshop presenters were Craig Elevitch, Neil Logan and Sophia Bowart.

Craig Elevitch began the workshop with a photo presentation about perennial edible gardens and food forests in several Polynesian and Micronesian island nations, where the environmental conditions and cultural contexts are quite similar to the Hawaiian Islands. Sustainable cultivation in the Pacific started at least 9,000 years ago in Papua New Guinea and 1,500 years ago in the Hawaiian Islands. In native Pacific cultures, children are taught from an early age the how to grow food and manage their resources sustainably. Open space and ornamental plantings are kept to a minimum. Food producing plants such as coconut, breadfruit, banana, plantain, moringa and other larger trees and plants form a canopy with smaller plants such as sweetpotato, taro, cassava, and yam growing underneath.

Neil Logan leads a tour of Mohala Lehua Farm's agroforestry plantings.
Neil Logan leads a tour of Mohala Lehua Farm's agroforestry plantings.
Elevitch showed that the advantages of perennial gardens compared with annual plantings are many, including that perennial gardens can ‘store’ our food in our landscape and they are much easier to maintain than annual gardens. Perennial leafy vegetables include sissoo, edible hibiscus, Okinawan spinach, moringa, chaya, katuk, and tea. Others that have edible greens and also produce edible roots or fruit include cassava, taro, chayote, sweetpotato, and chili peppers. Some food producing plants are also nitrogen fixers, including winged bean, pigeon pea, lima bean, and sesbania. Almost all parts of the moringa are edible the leaves and flowers and the root can be ground and used as a substitute for horseradish. See Craig Elevitch’s Leaves to Live By for more information about perennial leafy vegetables.

Fast fruit producing plants (within 18 months of planting and some sooner) bananas, papayas, pineapples, pepino, naranjilla, tomatillo, poha, liliko’i, mulberry and star fruit. Some plants store water in their trunks such as the Abyssinian banana, which has an edible stalk.

During a walking tour of the extensive agroforests at Mohala Lehua Farm, I learned that for best results, establish ‘clump or island plantings’: a tall center plant, tree or bamboo is surrounded with lower growing perennial and annual edibles.

West Hawaii Today and Hilo Herald-Tribune gave front page coverage to the workshop on Sept. 27, 2010.
West Hawaii Today and Hilo Herald-Tribune gave front page coverage to the workshop on Sept. 27, 2010.
The main take-home lesson for me is that open space and ornamental plantings are important and desirable but not at the expense of abundant useful plants. Home gardens can have both ornamental and edible plants incorporated into their landscape and that diversity in planting creates stability in your food supply.

For food security in Hawai’i, Elevitch reminded attendees that we need to start on the personal level. The advantages of home or community gardens are clear: no mileage to transport food far and wide and burning fossil fuel; safer, since we know how they are grown; stable and sustainable, since each plant helps the others, creating a much more efficient use of the land that surrounds us.

By choosing carefully what we plant in our own landscape, we can provide our own food, fuel, medicine and fiber while preserving our watershed, promoting biodiversity and minimizing the damage to our land by using sustainable methods.