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Backyard Kalo Farming

Written by Pedro Tama on 25 September 2009.

Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden, Captain Cook, South Kona

If you've never grown kalo (taro) before, or only made fledgling attempts, this workshop is for you: in 2-1/2 hours you get all the basics you need to successfully start, maintain and harvest a kalo garden, plus cook and prepare the most popular types of kalo food products.

Sponsored every year by the Bishop Museum's Amy Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden, Foreman Manuel Rego and assistant Sumao Kadooka this year took 18 avid workshop participants step by step through the preparation, propagation, maintenance, harvesting and cooking phases of family homestead kalo farming.

But more than just teaching technical growing methods, Rego emphasized the sacred central role that kalo played in Hawaiian/Polynesian culture, referring, for example, to the benefits of planting according to the Hawaiian lunar calendar, and ending the workshop with an authentic demonstration of poi making.

The workshop began with the basics of kalo botanical knowledge and nutritional values. There are more than 80 known varieties of kalo (most of which are growing at the garden). The fundamentals of upland (dry) versus lowland (wetland/flooded) kalo farming were covered. Many kalo varieties are suitable for both. Although most commercial kalo in Hawai'i is wetland-grown, dryland kalo has become increasingly popular and was the subject for this workshop. Another important distinction is between the three classes of kalo varieties: those preferred for their edible leaves; those preferred for making poi; and those preferred for "table" kalo (sliced, roasted, fried, chips, etc.). And did you know that kalo has zero cholesterol and more potassium than bananas!

Before the actual hands-on practice of propagating kalo, Rego explained the micro-environment requirements for successful kalo growing. Soil fertility and amendments, rainfall or irrigation, depth of beds, spacing, and weed control were covered.

One could say that growing kalo is all about the "huli." The huli is the upper 1/4 to 1/2 inch of the "corm" (tuber), plus the first 8 to 10 inches of the stems growing out of the corm, of a just-harvested, mature kalo plant. The huli is cut very carefully from the top of the corm (and from the upper leaves). The corm is cleaned and made ready for cooking, and the newly cut huli is then planted to become the next generation kalo plant. Since a single straight cut through the corm makes the huli vulnerable to disease, Manuel and Sunao gave each workshop participant two or three freshly harvested kalo plants and instructed us in the special cutting technique required to optimize kalo plant health. This was the learning highlight of the workshop as we practiced cutting huli that would be resistant to disease, and grow into vigorous and productive plants.

Manuel ended the workshop by demonstrating the old Hawaiian technique of making poi and presenting us each with a delicious taste of this meticulously crafted kalo staple. Then we got to take our huli home to plant our own kalo garden.