KAILUA-KONA — I met Leona Kassel in early 2005. She was applying to Kona Outdoor Circle for a grant to expand a school gardening program at Kahakai Elementary school where she was teaching. Her enthusiasm for teaching gardening skills to kids was apparent as was her knowledge of gardening techniques. Her grant proposal was accepted and her program was funded.
She found that the school gardening program offered a great place for the community to come together and support what she felt was a dynamic learning opportunity for the children.
The program she helped run at Kahakai was one of the early school gardens in Kona. Today, almost every school in West Hawaii has a gardening program of some kind.
With two young children of her own, Leona is applying her teaching skills at home and gardening is definitely part of her home-school curriculum. Her 6-year-old daughter, Kaia, was eager to show and tell me about all the things she has learned to grow and likes to eat.
The Kassel-Pascual family were all out stacking worm compost into small pyramids when I arrived at their house. They are avid vermicomposters and were using this technique to separate the worms from the compost so that they could use the compost on some of their new plants. Though Leona’s husband, Chris Pascual, teaches art full time at Konawaena High School, he often joins Leona, Kaia and young Jamal in the garden on weekends.
Leona credits vermicompost as the key to their gardening success.
“The health of your soil makes all the difference and adding worm compost makes it incredibly healthy,” she said.
She adheres to the oft quoted adage that your personal health is comparable to the health of the soil your food is grown in: “Healthy soil produces healthy plants to feed a healthy family.”
Both Leona and her husband Chris had gardening mothers. Chris grew up in Waikiki in one of the few residential areas in this hotel-crowded tourist mecca. He remembers the mango tree in their backyard and all the herbs and vegetables his mother grew in containers to feed the family.
Leona also was encouraged to join her parents in the garden at an early age in southern Oregon. Though her family moved several times when she was young, she reports they always had a garden. She has fond memories of picking strawberries in the garden soon after she learned to walk. She continued enjoying gardening as she grew up. When in high school, she helped start a garden at school to supply lettuce to the school cafeteria. Today, her parents live on an extensively planted acre in Holualoa and they are still gardening.
Leona and Chris’ family home sits on a small lot, just a few blocks above Alii Drive in Kailua-Kona. The family has put their very limited growing space to very good use and they all participate. They have maximized the space with several raised beds and by using a bookcase to stack container plants.
They grow a variety of herbs. Kaia delighted in showing me their sprawling papalo plant. This is a leafy, ancient Mexican herb that is a heat-loving alternative to cilantro with a bit stronger and more complex flavor.
“We grow lots of herbs because they are easy to grow and they enhance everything we cook. We save a lot on our food budget by using what we grow to create truly delicious and nutritious meals,” Leona reported.
Chris took the opportunity to wax eloquent on basil.
“It’s the best herb,” he said. “It’s so flavorful that it enhances everything you make with it, including pesto. That’s my go to meal when I do the cooking. I make it with mac nuts and it’s delicious!”
Over the years, Leona and Chris have learned what grows well in their garden and zeroed in on their favorites. Since their gardening space is somewhat shaded, they have found that greens like kale do far better than standard lettuces. They like steaming Malabar spinach and amaranth leaves or adding them to stews for flavor, bulk and nutrition. This is a family of fruit lovers and they have several citrus trees, a mat of bananas and lots of different papayas growing. They all love kumquats and were anxious to have me taste the fruit, which was delicious.
The whole family delighted in telling me about their moringa tree. From a few seeds that Chris planted several years ago they have a highly productive tree growing in a sunny corner of their lot. The tree is well suited to Kona’s climate and is known for its nutritious leaves and pods. It was a staple in the Philippine dishes that Chris enjoyed as a kid. Today, he incorporates it in lots of the cooking he does with Leona and the kids.
Many of the other plants they grow are included in their weekly menus. Eggplant and cherry tomatoes are often used. Herbs and spices like lemon grass, rosemary and turmeric also grow well in their garden and are popular additions to their meals. They all participate in deciding on ways to use what they grow.
“We love getting creative in the kitchen, using our homegrown ingredients to concoct new dishes like ulu mash, moringa pod stew and mountain apple juice,” Chris said.
When asked about the gardeners’ dual dilemmas of insects and diseases, Leona and Chris were surprisingly nonchalant. They seem not to have many serious problems in their garden. They do grow flowers as well as food which helps attract beneficial insect predators to their property.
“Our lack of problems is probably because our soil is healthy so our plants are healthy,” Chris said. “We also rotate our crops and plant lots of different plants together. Having diversity in our garden beds rather than rows of the same crop means insects and diseases have a hard time getting a foothold.”
Also, the family makes it a priority to consistently spend time in the garden. Problems that do occur are spotted early and dealt with immediately. They find that most insect invasions can usually be halted with a mix of neem oil and soap.
Though Leona and Chris report that they grow most of their plants from seed, they do use cuttings to propagate things like sweet potatoes and lemon grass. Chris will often propagate a tree they like by air layering to produce a clone for their garden or to share with friends.
They buy most of their seeds from Johnny’s Seed Company and were happy to learn that many of the seeds offered at the Community Seed Library in the Kailua-Kona Public Library were from Johnny’s. They do have some crops growing from CSL seeds and are delighted that the community service exists.
When asked to share what gardening in Kona has taught them, both Leona and Chris agreed that resiliency was important to gardening success here. They additionally advised that gardeners need not to give up when problems occur but might want to continually adapt and try new plants and new techniques. It may take a while, but through trial and error they report that you can eventually figure out what grows best for you.
“In these challenging times, growing your own food can be a revolutionary act,” Leona said. “In doing so, we are establishing a sustainable food system where we can continue to feed our families nutritious food grown in our own yards.”
Their quiet revolutionary act is one we could all learn from. The joys of gardening and of growing our own delicious food are their own reward but also a wonderful way to improve our health and to set a healthy example for our community.
Diana Duff is a plant adviser, educator and consultant living in a dryland forest north of Kailua-Kona.
Monday: “Banana Macropropagation Workshop, Part 1” from 3-5 p.m. at Komohana UH Extension Center, 875 Komohana Street in Hilo. Learn to detect banana bunchy top virus and ways to propagate disease free banana plants. Free to the community. For more information and to register go to www.eventbrite.com/e/hilo-banana-macropropagation-workshop-part-1-tickets-49382386046.
Friday: “West Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers” (Part of the 28th International Fruit Growers Conference) meeting at 9:30 a.m. at the Tropical Fruit Growers office at 81-6393 Mamalahoa Highway. Carpooling to Gerry Walsh’s new orchard for talk and tour. Back to the office by 1 p.m. for guests Peter Salleras and Steve Murray speaking on successful fruit packaging and marketing as well as post-harvest care of tropical fruit. $10 for members. Non-members can join at the event. Bring fruit for sharing. For more information, contact: Brian Lievens at 895-8753 or email@example.com or Ken Love at 323-2417 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saturday: “Taste of Hawaiian Range” starting at 9 a.m. at YMCA Minuke Ole Park in Waimea with an Agricultural Festival until 3 p.m. including agricultural activities and family fun with educational exhibits, livestock displays and pony rides, local product sampling and sales, food and beverage vendors and indoor talks covering a wide range of topics. Free and open to the public especially geared to farmers, ranchers and culinarians.
Evening Taste Gala from 5:30-7:30 p.m. featuring 20 culinary stations serving pasture-raised meats and local produce. The Mana Christian Ohana Hall (Old Kahilu Town Hall) is open to 500 attendees. $50 in advance, $60 (if available) at the door. More information or tickets at www.tasteofthehawaiianrange.com Tickets also at Parker Ranch Store.
“Work Day at Amy Greenwell Garden” from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Meet at the Garden Visitor Center across from the Manago Hotel in Captain Cook. Volunteers will be able to help with garden maintenance and are invited to bring a brown bag lunch. Water and snacks provided. Call Peter at 323-3318 for more information.
Farmer Direct Markets
Wednesday: “Hooulu Farmers Market” 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Sheraton Kona Resort &Spa at Keauhou Bay
Saturday: “Keauhou Farmers Market” 8 a.m. to noon at Keauhou Shopping Center
“Kamuela Farmer’s Market” from 7 a.m. to noon at Pukalani Stables
“Waimea Town Market” from 7:30 a.m. to noon at the Parker School in central Waimea
“Waimea Homestead Farmers Market” from 7 a.m. to noon at the Waimea Middle and Elementary School Playground
Sunday: “Pure Kona Green Market” 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Amy Greenwell Garden in Captain Cook
“Hamakua Harvest” 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Highway 19 and Mamane Street in Honokaa
Plant Advice Lines
Tuesdays and Thursdays: 9 a.m. to noon at UH-CES in Kainaliu – 322-4893
Mondays and Fridays: 9 a.m. to noon at UH CES at Komohana in Hilo 981-5199 or email@example.com