A Northwest Gardener’s Move to Maui

by Eric Shalit | June 8th, 2010

Looks like some kind of Praying Mantis to me.

I asked my friend Tracy Mills to write a short piece about her move from Seattle to Maui. Her husband Big Neil provided the photos.


I stood in our new yard, filled with hesitation and intrigue. Trowel in hand I stared at the small garden plot surrounded by Banana and Heliconia plants, and it seemed, a million others unknown to me. I didn’t know which were weeds and which might be growing with a purpose. I knew that I knew nothing.

My husband and I had just moved to Maui and I was eager to get back into gardening but I felt a bit “at sea”.  Don’t get me wrong — I have been weeding and working in my own gardens for most of my life in the Pacific Northwest with some success. There, I knew what the weeds were and what I wanted — it was as easy as breathing.  Now, I live in Hawaii — Zone 11, the place where you can garden year-round.

The author, Tracy Mills in her new Maui vegetable garden.

The earthworms are one of the first differences I noticed once I stuck my shovel into the garden plot. They come out of the ground flipping, wriggling, and looking terrified. I have named them “Screamers” and I try to put them under an inch of soil as quickly as I can to ease their apparent suffering. I did a little work in that garden but we were soon to move, so it was more exploration than production.  As quickly as possible, I signed up for a worm composting seminar. Maybe I needed to learn the worms, first? Worm School was interesting and I was very glad to have attended. Turns out it’s a whole different ball of worms on in Zone 11.

I also discovered the Native Hawaiian Plant Society and began communicating and then working with them. I met a few of their members at a local flower fair and we’ve now been taken through their native plant roster at their own homes. My husband and I learned a lot as we walked through their gardens but much of what we saw and heard was put on video for review and retention. I’ve decided it’s a great way to get to know the plants as well as getting to know the people who care about what they’re putting in the ground.

Yellow Hibiscus: the Hawaii State Flower

The island gardeners are challenged by the hundreds of microclimates. One mile in one direction will have your Ohia Lehua fraught with mold problems, while one mile the other way your Banana plant leaves will be shredded by the beautiful but sometimes strong tradewinds.  We live in Haiku on the North Shore, the windward and wet side of Maui. I will find Ohia babies (keikis) fom the same area and our Banana plants will be planted where they’ll have as much protection from the wind as possible. I believe it’s true everywhere that if you plug the right plant into the right place, there’s little need for watering or for fertilization.  Good mulching means little weeding — just enough weeds left for us weed-aholics.

Koa tree: in 20 years it can grow to be around 80 ft. tall.

In one or two months, we’ll be moving to a newly-built home on 1 acre. The owners are installing basic landscaping and have welcomed our additions, so we’re going to put in our food garden from which we’ll be able to eat year-round.  We’re going to surround ourselves with food trees and plants (Banana, Avocado, Breadfruit, Citrus, etc.) as well as native Hawaiian plants.

Red flower is Lehua - it's the bloom of the Ohia tree. The bees make a most delicious honey from this flower!

Pictured, is the Ohia Lehua, Metrosideros polymorpha, this is the official flower of the island of Hawaii, which was apparently the first plant to grow on the islands from the seeds “carefully distributed” by overflying birds.  Lehua honey is already a favorite of ours and the shrub or tree encourages more of the native (mostly endangered) birds and it’s a natural for use as a windbreak. A grouping of Ohia Lehua (red) and Ohia Moa (yellow) will be our first planting after the food gardens are in.

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