Story by Emily Bott
When I was a youngster, my father paid me a nickel a hundred to pull dandelions. They’re still weeds, but now they’re considered an elegant addition to salads. You can buy edible flowers at the grocery (I’ve seen small containers of jasmine and nasturtium petals at Whole Foods), or grow them on your lānai, an arm’s length from your recliner. Mother Nature even throws in free aromatherapy.
Urban living doesn’t slam the door on mini-gardening, but you’d better check the rules of your condo association. Where I live, nothing is allowed to show above the railing. Don’t even think about watering hoses or hanging baskets.
For the would-be condo gardener, the bigger question is what will grow when your “north forty” is a few square feet of concrete floor with walls on several sides and a ceiling that’s your upstairs neighbor’s lānai. And does it matter whether that lānai is in breezy Mā‘alaea, sunbaked Kīhei, or on a narrow side street in Wailuku, with northern exposure and limited sun?
Here’s a simple rule of thumb for us novices: “Big leaves like shade; small leaves like sun”—this from an expert with a long job title. Lorraine Brooks is Maui County horticultural extension agent for the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Cooperative Extension Service. “Taro, lettuce, greens do well in partial shade,” she says. “Herbs need more sun.” She warns against overfertilizing, “which opens the plants to pests. Read all of the labels for everything you buy,” she stresses. “Most plants have information with them. If they don’t, that’s why you shop where the staff is knowledgeable. You want to bring home something that is healthy and well-watered. And be sure to check for pests.”
Part of the university’s College of Tropical Agriculture & Human Resources, the Cooperative Extension Service offers free downloadable publications, including “Edible Plants for Hawai‘i Landscapes.
Jennifer Chirico, executive director of the Sustainable Living Institute at UH Maui College, has other tips, from the well-known advice that “marigolds help keep bugs away,” to the more esoteric “edible hibiscus leaf can serve as a wrap for rice or veggies.” Chirico gave me a tour recently of the college’s community garden. Reminiscent of World War II’s victory gardens, the plot nurtures, among other things, the beds that produce herbs for the highly regarded Maui Culinary Academy. Sunflowers and dandelions are on Chirico’s “good” list, as is eggplant (“one in a pot”). If you like your plants decorative as well as nutritious, she suggests geraniums, roses, pansies (at higher elevations) and nasturtiums. “Cherry tomatoes are super easy,” she adds, but “only plant one—they grow out of control.”
All the experts I talked to stressed the importance of good potting soil and fertilizer. Containers and garden implements? They’re available everywhere. Plastic is lighter and less expensive, but clay breathes better—important, since roots need oxygen, as well as nutrients and space. Dark colors absorb more sun and heat, which can be bad for roots. And small pots dry out faster than big ones.
Wind can be a problem. Justice Carlson, community-relations coordinator for Mālama Maui Nui (formerly Community Work Day), recommends putting plants against the wall for a wind break. If space is tight, he suggests a long, skinny planting bed for root crops such as carrots and beets.
If you want to stay with strictly Hawaiian plants and herbs, Tamara Sherrill, garden manager of Maui Nui Botanical Gardens, is the one to see. “Canoe plants,” those vital vegetable provisions brought to the Islands by early voyagers, can be grown on your lānai, she notes. “Kalo [taro] does well in pots no smaller than twenty inches in diameter at the opening.” The one thing she doesn’t have is poholo fern, said to grow wild near Hāna. Give her a call if you know a source.
No matter where they live on Maui, “everybody wants tomatoes, peppers, cucumber and eggplant,” says Peggy Schifone, nursery specialist at Lowe’s. “Lavender doesn’t do well in Kīhei, but most other plants have a way of acclimating to their environment.” So, if you want to grow it on your lānai, you can probably buy it on Maui.
Does anybody sell dandelions? Schifone laughs. “Not that I know of.”
EDIBLE FLOWER RESOURCES
Lowe’s Home Improvement
270 Dairy Rd., Kahului
Maui Nui Botanical Gardens
150 Kanaloa Ave., Kahului
(808) 249-2798 • www.mnbg.org
University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa
Cooperative Extension Service
UH Maui Campus
310 Kaʻahumanu Ave., Bldg. 214, Kahului
Master Gardener: 244-3242, ext. 228