Bezona column: Take a peek inside big city gardens

  • Harlem youth volunteer Kadi Ba proudly showing the fruits of community garden efforts to teach gardening to young and old. (Photo courtesy of Voltaire Moise)

On the way to Colombia, we are staying for a while in Harlem to get a sense of life away from home. Folks in New York City are a lot like us in Hawaii. High food costs are a headache these days no matter where you live.

People in the city are using rooftops, small garden plots and even windowsills to cut food bills. It’s amazing to see folks in a city like New York planting trees and gardening. We are blessed in Hawaii where we have many natural resources so we can do it much more easily. Start by taking an inventory of potential locations. Then you can do it by planting vegetables and flowers. If you’re going to a have a topnotch garden, plan the planting layout.


By designing a combination, you can have an attractive spot that will produce cut flowers as well as fresh vegetables. Both require regular fertilization, insect and disease control, so they are a natural together. In selecting the plot, remember that most annuals and vegetables must have a full six to eight hours of sun per day.

Next comes the vexing problem of what to plant. Choosing plants by height is one problem-solving approach. Some taller growing annuals for the back areas of the garden are cleome and sunflower. Some taller vegetables to try are Hawaiian super sweet corn, trellis UH tomatoes and Manoa wonder beans.

In the center rows and toward the front, consider the medium height plants. Tuberose, blue salvia, tall ageratum, giant dahlias, red salvia, and gypsophilla are examples. Vegetables include peppers, squash and Waimanalo long eggplant.

For low edging, you might use allysum, petunias, verbena, dwarf phlox or some of the dwarf nasturtiums. Waianae strain kai choi, won bok, Manoa lettuce and parsley are good varieties of vegetables.

With up to 100 annuals and vegetables from which to choose, it shouldn’t be a problem to fill the garden with many kinds of colorful and useful plants. You can try your hand at success by using the organic approach or the conventional approach or a combination.

Organic gardening differs from conventional gardening mainly in areas of fertilization and pest control. The organic gardener uses organic materials and methods, whereas the conventional gardener will utilize a combination of all materials and methods shown to be safe, effective and not detrimental to himself or his environment.

Here are some steps to aid you in supplying your vegetable needs.

Select a plot of well drained soil near a water supply. It should be close to the home for convenience but should not be shaded by tall buildings or trees. Enclosing the garden spot with a fence is usually profitable. Many gardeners find it helpful to draw out on paper the location of each row and the crop or succession of crops to be planted.

Contact the University of Hawaii Master Gardener Hotline in Kona or Hilo for information on vegetables suited to Hawaiian gardens, leading varieties, seed or plants needed, planting distances and depths, and best time for planting.

Since organic fertilizer and soil conditioning materials are slow working in general, they should be mixed into the soil at least three weeks ahead of planting and the soil thoroughly prepared for the seed or transplants. Natural and organic materials that yield plant nutrients upon decomposition are often available for purchase either separately or in combination.

These materials may be applied to the garden separately or combined, used in the compost pile, or mixed with manure. An advantage for using organic materials as fertilizers is that they contain many of the elements also needed by the plants in addition to nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

Besides the general amounts of micro nutrients found in most organic materials, certain ones are concentrated into such naturally occurring materials as gypsum (calcium and sulfur) and dolomite (calcium and magnesium). Reducing the acidity of the soil is the primary purpose for using lime in the garden. However, liming materials also provide nutrients for plant use.

Calcium and magnesium are the two most elements most commonly provided by lime. Lime to sweeten the soil should be applied only when the needs have been established by a reliable soil test. Apply lime well in advance of the planting date, preferably two to three months before the garden is planted.

Mix well with the soil and keep moist for best reaction. In irrigating the garden, it is advisable to thoroughly wet the soil once a week unless sufficient rain falls. Thus, the soil will be moistened throughout the root zone. Light sprinklings everyday merely tend to wet the surface and encourage shallow root growth. Use of organic materials as soil conditioners and fertilizers tends to improve the ability of the soil to retain moisture. Also, a garden mulch will conserve soil moisture. During periods when infestations of various garden pests are high, control by natural means becomes very difficult. However, the following practices will help to reduce losses.


Plant resistant varieties. Select peat free transplants. For cutworms, place a cardboard collar around plant stems at ground level. Spade garden early so vegetation has time to rot before planting. Clean crop refuse early. Keep out weeds that harbor insects and diseases. Hand pick insects like caterpillars when inspecting your garden where possible. Water in morning so that plants are not wet at night. Dispose of severely diseased plants before they contaminate others.

Many organic gardeners approve of and use sprays and other preparations containing naturally occurring materials. Pyrethrin, rotenone, neem and nicotine are examples of natural poisons from plant parts. These give some control to some insects under certain conditions. Natural predators like lizards, birds, ladybugs and praying mantis should be encouraged wherever possible.

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