CAPTAIN COOK — In 2012, Emmerich Grosch of Captain Cook Trading Company bought a few acres in South Kona that had once been a Buddhist meditation center.
He’d decided to expand his business of selling coffee, macnuts and small farm equipment and open a nursery. He hired me to manage Tropical Edibles Nursery, featuring edible plants. We quickly hired several women well-versed in horticulture and experienced in farming to help run the place. Though I left after a few years, I recently returned to see how things were going.
Though the nursery is still filled with lovely small herb plants, a lot of fruit trees, medicinal plants, natives and some edible and ornamental flowers, the driveway is daunting. Some customers brave the potholes to get to the hilltop location while others park at the bottom and take a short walk up the drive. Some people have told me they are intimidated by the obstacle course and choose to drive away. That is a shame.
Those who leave without venturing are missing a unique opportunity to experience a hoop house full of green and fragrant herbs, pallets of native Hawaiian plants, an outside table of ornamentals, a rock terrace lined with fruit trees and a lovely outdoor herb garden with a gorgeous view of the coast. The nursery offers lots of plants for sale at reasonable prices accompanied by good growing advice from a knowledgeable staff.
The day I was there, Maggie McDermott was on site. I’ve known Maggie for many years and was delighted to see how she has grown and matured into her responsible position at the nursery. She was among those who started there eight years ago and is now the property manager. Momi Subiono and Raylene Sopkin round out the team of nursery workers and sales women employed there.
In my interview with Maggie, I got a clear picture of the current day-to-day operations at the nursery. Maggie estimated that the staff spends at least half their working hours propagating new plants as well as ordering fruit trees. All staff members are well-versed in growing from seeds, cuttings or by air layering. They are hoping to soon be able to do some of their own grafting as well. The staff also spends hours maintaining the nursery stock, potting, weeding, fertilizing and treating any pest issues that occur.
Equally important is the staff’s job as on-site consultants and sales women for plants as well as for products from their small store. The store generally sells macnuts and coffee and stocks some of Emmerich’s processing equipment for demonstration and for sale. Several local coffee farmers rent the on-site pulper to process their smaller batches.
Maggie is a self-described plant lover. Between her contacts with nursery customers during my visit, she walked me through the outdoor herb garden. It is open to curious tourists as well as farmers and gardeners who want to see mature plants like cacao producing pods or want to pick a few sprigs of parsley or leaves of interesting salad greens.
A true tree hugger, Maggie wanted to be photographed next to her favorite jaboticaba tree. The tree is just starting to put out fruit all up and down its trunk. When the fruit ripens, Maggie is looking forward to juicing it and experimenting with jaboticaba wine-making for her own consumption.
Maggie lives close to the nursery operation with her two young sons and her dog, Juice. This makes it possible for her to spend part of nearly every day doing maintenance of the grounds, propagating new plants or weeding the gardens that surround the nursery building. Through her years of work on farms in Kona, Maggie has earned a lot of hard-knock education that she expands on daily. She is well-versed in organic agricultural practices and her friendly demeanor makes her an excellent educator for Edibles clients.
Although she occasionally encounters customers who start by declaring they have not had previous gardening success, Maggie is quick to counter with optimism.
“There are no ‘brown thumbs,’ persistence is the key to gardening success,” she said.
Her advice to gardeners is a guiding principle to which she has doggedly adhered. She also encourages gardeners to persevere.
“Don’t give up or get discouraged,” she offered. “Growing plants requires patience but has wonderful rewards.”
Momi was another early hire at the nursery. She was known to me for her work with native plants at Amy Greenwell Garden and her ongoing learning and teaching schedule focusing on medicinal plants, especially natives.
Momi has a background in ethnobotany, which is a study of the relationship between people, their cultures and plants. She offers customers and visitors to the nursery important information that can help them select the right plant for their needs and site. She currently lives on her self-created homestead in Milolii where she grows natives, medicinal and many of the edible plants that Tropical Edibles Nursery carries.
“I want to inspire people to garden rather than intimidate them,” she said. “I want to share ways to grow edible plants organically and help our island toward the goal of self-reliance.”
These are lofty goals, but ones to which Momi is dedicated.
Raylene was hired three years ago and brings her education in environmental studies to the job. She is dedicated to sustainability and is happy to share her manao. She works part time helping Emmerich in his shop but still enjoys spending some time working at the nursery.
“I like to encourage what I believe are the guiding principles for the nursery: encouraging sustainability and malama aina,” she said of her role at the nursery.
Caring for the land has always been important to Ray and she delights in the opportunity to inspire gardeners to grow edibles as well as attractive ornamentals.
Ray loves flowers and she opined, “When I plant or sell beautiful flowering plants, I see myself providing food for the soul and that feels good.”
All three of the team members seem to agree that the nursery’s goal is to encourage gardeners and farmers to grow more edible plants and participate in island sustainability. To participate in these goals yourself, make a trip to Captain Cook and check out Tropical Edibles Nursery.
Diana Duff is a plant adviser, educator and consultant living in a dryland forest north of Kailua-Kona.
Monday: Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers Monthly Meeting from 7-9 p.m. at West Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers office 81-6393 Mamalahoa Highway in Kealakekua. The topic for this meeting will be cacao growing and processing. White wooden building on makai side across from the Department of Transportation yard. Park in front or on the north side. Non-members are welcome to attend. Members and guests are encouraged to bring fruit to share. For more information contact Brian Lievens President West Hawaii Chapter at 895-8753 or email@example.com.
“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.
Saturday, March 30: “12th Annual Kona Coffee &Small Farm Expo” from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Old Kona Airport Pavilion at 75-5560 Kuakini Highway. Free event with breakout sessions and displays showcasing equipment, produces and services relating to Kona coffee. Food concession and music as well. For more information go to konaexpo.com.
Saturday, April 6: “Soil Fertility Workshop” from 10-11:30 a.m. at the Kailua-Kona Public Library at 75-138 Hualalai Road with Melanie Bondera. A free presentation as part of the Community Seed Library monthly series. Learn about soil, the relationship between soil fertility and plant health and ways to increase your soils fertility to help your plants thrive. Come with questions and you’ll get answers. For more information call the library at 327-4327.
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 non 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 amd 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