Volunteers grow food for all in downtown lots

By TOM CALLIS

By TOM CALLIS

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Tribune-Herald staff writer

They came with spades, mulch and an altruistic spirit.

On Sunday, a group of about 20 veggy-loving volunteers gathered in downtown Hilo to give new life to land once sacrificed to development.

The volunteers, part of Let’s Grow Hilo, have turned several small unpaved areas into productive gardens, growing taro, tomatoes, potatoes, pineapples and more in the city’s commercial center.

They meet the last weekend of each month to tend to these islands of Eden, which anyone can harvest.

“It brings people together,” volunteer Nathan Clark said of the project.

“It would be grass or nothing” otherwise, he added.

Let’s Grow Hilo started about two years ago when self-described guerrilla gardener, Sam Robinson, started planting vegetables downtown.

The idea, she said, was to make unkempt land useful again.

“I wanted to show how easy it really is,” said Robinson, 27.

“Now there is food we can feed tons of people with,” she added.

The plantings, Robinson admits, were done without permission from Hawaii County, which owns the small strips for public right-of-way. But the idea has since caught on, with more gardeners joining the cause.

Robinson said regular work parties started in January, with up to 50 people participating.

In March, she said she got formal permission from the Public Works Department.

That same month, the group held its first “Let’s Grow Hilo Festival,” where produce was given away to several hundred people.

Food harvested by the group is also distributed to The Food Basket.

“I’m hoping it spreads,” Robinson said, noting the gardens can be started essentially anywhere.

Volunteer Drake Weinert said the project to him is about “turning another page” and getting back to the roots of gardening.

“We are growing food where we live,” he said. “That’s very important.”

Weinert, 26, calls himself a natural gardener and lends his skills a triangular plot at the intersection of Kilauea Avenue and Mamo Street.

The garden is covered with coconut shells, which he explained, helps put nutrients back into the soil.

“It may look like mold and fungus to you,” Weinert said, while holding a decaying piece of coconut.

“But it’s an essential part of the farming system. It’s mimicking nature.”

Nearby merchants interviewed Sunday said they welcome the gardens, and applauded the volunteers for their work.

“There was nothing there at all. Nothing at all,” said Susie Yong, manager at Abundant Life Natural Foods.

David Hubbard, an artist and volunteer at One Gallery, said he hopes it “spreads all over town.”

“It’s good to see a city that’s not all concrete and pavement.”

Robinson said volunteers and supplies are always welcome.

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For contact information and a garden map, visit letsgrowhilo.com.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.