Tropical Gardening: Plant edible landscapes

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Looking for a way to save on food bills? Last week we explored fruit trees, so this week let’s consider vegetables, herbs and spices.


Looking for a way to save on food bills? Last week we explored fruit trees, so this week let’s consider vegetables, herbs and spices.

For many mainland folks, June is full on gardening. However, this is Hawaii and edible gardening activities can be carried out all year.

Plantings of southern peas, Lima beans, pole beans, okra, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and eggplants are keeping many gardeners in fresh homegrown abundance. Seed of varieties suited to Hawaiian conditions are the most successful. These can be found at some garden centers and also obtained through the UHCTAHR Agricultural Extension Service offices in Kona and Hilo.

Now also is a good time to plant papayas and bananas. These plants do well near a vegetable garden since they require the rich soil and moisture for best production. They also help as a windbreak on the windy side of the vegetable patch.

Fresh herbs and spices also are natural for vegetable garden areas.

Homegrown flavor plants will add interest and piquant taste to the ordinary round of vegetables.

Most herb plants and seeds are readily available at local garden shops. They will do well provided the soil is well-drained and has sufficient nutrients. Many areas of the island have adequate soil, but organic materials such as compost help make conditions even better. In rocky areas such as Kona, garden beds will require more effort. Some folks rely on growing in containers, where soil is limited.

Warm weather types you can plant are basil, chives, oregano, summer savory, catnip, borage, lemon verbena, tarragon, mints, pot marjoram, lemongrass, vanilla orchid and edible ginger.

Basil is considered one of the finest herbs for use in pickling. It is usually of two types. These are sweet green basil and the dwarf form.

A very few plants are sufficient for the needs of the average family. Sometimes one or two plants of basil can be grown in the flower border. The leaves and flowers have a clove-like, spicy flavor and are prized for use in spiced vinegar, for pickles, in gravies, for soups, stews, salads, meats and fish. Basil is an especially choice flavor for tomato dishes.

Sweet green basil is just the right herb for flavoring soups.

When dried and powdered, basil is used for flavoring meat, fish, sausage, liver paste and similar products. The flowers with the tender tips of the stems and foliage are cut, tied in very small bunches and dried.

The chive plant is the smallest member of the onion family. Its tiny bulbs grow in thick bunches, but the young tender leaves, which can be cut freely, are of delicate and pleasing flavor similar to that of a very mild onion. They add a delicate snap to salads and dressings, dry bean dishes, jellied chicken, hot vegetables, omelets and other mixtures.

The plant grows to a height of 6 or 8 inches with dark green, grass-like foliage and bears pretty, violet clusters of bloom. Hence, chives can be used as ornamental border plants. Chive plants are propagated by dividing the clumps and resetting in good soil.

Edible ginger, often confused with the common ornamental ginger, grows well in Hawaii and produces choice roots if given rich soil, sufficient moisture and a little shade. Ginger will long remain as one of the world’s most popular spices and should be grown in every home garden.

It is an erect herb, 2 to 3 feet high. It grows from thickened rhizomes that branch finger-like and send up new shoots from the tips near the surface of the soil. If desired for preserving or candying, the roots should be dug while tender and succulent, rather than old, tough and fibrous. Fresh green ginger is an indispensable part of chutneys, giving them much of their spiciness and pungent flavor.

Vanilla extract is produced by the Vanilla planifolia vine. The plant originated in tropical Central America and was revered by the indigenous people of the region along with cacao. The plant is fairly easy to grow in Hawaii, but the flowers must be hand-pollinated to produce the vanilla bean pods. The process for curing and preserving is complicated and takes considerable time, but it is a fun project if you are willing to take on the challenge.

There are several commercial vanilla farms on our island. One of the newest is found at the Kona Agricultural Park near the airport.

Guy Cellier and his wife, Jean, have worked on production, harvesting and processing for several years to develop an interesting array of vanilla products, from fragrances and skin moisturizers to different edible uses.

Edible gardening does not end with vegetables, spices and herbs. Many beautiful trees and shrubs also can supply edible bonanzas.

This year, bumper crops of lychee and mango have encouraged new homeowners to plant fruit trees. There are many other fruits and nuts to consider as well.

You can grow cloves, cinnamon, allspice, rambutan, longan and other interesting and useful fruit trees in the home garden. A good source of information can be found at the Kona UH Extension Service office in Kainaliu and at the UH Komohana ag complex in Hilo.


A handy book written for local conditions is “The Hawaiian Organic Growing Guide” by Shunyam Nirav. Local garden shops and nurseries also are a great source of information and plant materials.

Remember that we have many different climate zones. Above 5,000 feet we can even get a frost in the winter, so it is important to study your particular location to learn which edibles are best suited. You will find that in these cooler locations you can even grow some low chill apples, peaches and plums.

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