Everyone knows that Hawaii is a plant paradise, but few know the real secrets before you get here. Hawaii is filled with a variety of microclimates, from dry deserts to lush rain forests. What may grow well in one area may not grow in another.
There are a few vegetables that grow well in a variety of Hawaii’s microclimates. For anyone starting a new garden I would begin by planting the following vegetables to ensure success. These are all plants that can pretty much be grown on autopilot. As your skills increase, experiment with vegetables that may need a little more effort to grow.
|ROOTS||LEAFY GREENS||GARDEN FRUITS||NITROGEN FIXER|
|Kalo||Katuk||Cherry Tomatoes||Wing Beans|
|‘uala (sweet Potato)||Collards||Eggplant||Long Beans|
|‘Awa||Kale||Kabocha Squash||Pigeon Peas|
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Root Crops To Grow In Hawai’i
When the ancient Hawaiians first settled the islands, they brought a few edible plants with them, among them were Kalo, Sweet Potato (uala) and Awa (Kava). These plants are proven to do well in most of Hawaii’s microclimates as long as ample water is supplemented in the drier areas.
- Kalo – the main food crop of the Hawaiian people and should be adopted to become one of your own as well. It is similar to a potato where you can turn it into hash browns, chips, fries, etc. You can also eat the greens! It has a little bit of a gooey texture when cooked, which is necessary to get rid of oxalic acids present in uncooked kalo. Kalo takes 9 months to harvest.
- Sweet potato – another easy crop to grow that was brought by the ancient Hawaiians. It is easy to grow by cutting and is very prolific. You can cook the greens as well as eat the roots. The purple variety is one of the easiest to grow. This also takes 9 months to harvest.
- Awa – more of a medicinal than a food crop. It really likes moist environments with partial shade. The root is harvested to make a relaxant or even a mild sedative. You can get drunk on Awa if you drink it in large amounts.
- In addition to these original root crops, Cassava, Daikon and Radish are all very easy to grow as long as you have some soil to work with. I made some veggie beds with lots of soil and compost mixed in right on top of lava rock. Cassava, Daikon and Radishes not only grew, they thrived.
Growing Leafy Greens in Hawai’i
Leafy greens do pretty well in Hawaii, especially if they are grown from Fall to Spring. Collards, Kale and Bok Choi are especially good producers. Pretty much any leafy brassica grows well. I really like to grow and eat these crops.
When choosing leafy greens such as lettuce that are eaten raw, you should be aware of Rat Lung Worm Disease (RLWD). It is a nasty disease that you don’t want to get.
You contract it by eating slugs, which are very good at hiding in your lettuce. The nematode cannot live if cooked, that’s why I stick with greens that you cook to ensure I do not contract the disease.
- Collards – This is one of my favorite greens to grow. Collards are easy to plant from seed, get very few pests and thrive in the moist east Hawai’i climates. Plus, they can live for 3 to 5 years!
- Kale – You’ve seen that bumper sticker “Eat More Kale.” You can do just that in your own Hawaiian garden.
I have found the Lacinato Kale to grow very well in my garden, but the folds have me worried about slugs. Red Russian Kale, which is pretty smooth has been doing pretty well for me, but both attract pests.
- Katuk – An Awesome Perennial green that can be grown as a hedge plant. The leaves can be cooked into a delicious green with a nutty flavor. Very easy to grow and pest resistant.
- Lettuce – If you do choose to eat lettuce, because RLWD is not yet everywhere, make sure you choose local seed that is bolt resistant.
Cooler, upland climates work better for lettuce. Growing lettuce in the winter months helps for those warmer areas.
- Bok Choi – This a great annual green that thrives in our hot climates, along with other Asian Greens such as Pac Choi, Tat Choi and more. They do get the visit from cabbage moths and aphids, but they are easy to control
Fruits In The Hawaiian Vegetable Garden
This is where things get a little trickier and where variety plays a key role in successful growing. The prevalence of pests and excessive humidity make it hard to grow fruiting crops. Adaptation is crucial.
- Cherry Tomatoes – grow like a weed in some places, but larger sized tomatoes only work inside a controlled environment such as a greenhouse.
- Kabocha Squash – grows like a weed in many locations, but don’t try growing butternut squash or pumpkins unless you are in the right microclimate.
- Eggplant, Peppers, Papaya and Pineapple are all pretty easy to grow as long as you choose the right variety for your area. These plants do better in the warmer lowlands on the islands. They especially love well drained rocky soil like we have in Puna.
- If you have enough room, you can try growing corn just as long as you choose a tropical variety. The great thing about growing corn in Hawai’i, you get 4 growing seasons.
The bad thing about growing corn in Hawaii is that most of it are seed crop for GMO crop production which will cross pollinate with your corn.
Related: I love using the right tool for the right job. It just so happens that this next tool seems to be right for so many jobs in a tropical garden. You may as well pick one up, or 4, like we did!
Best Nitrogen Fixers For Tropical Vegetable Gardens
Every good garden needs to cycle some nitrogen fixers into the mix. Sweat Peas and green beans tend to struggle out here, but that’s OK, we have Pigeon Peas and Long Beans to save the day.
- Pigeon Peas – a perennial shrub that produces peas that are a great substitute for Sweat Peas. They are fast growers that take well from cuttings. Mixing them into your vegetable garden will only be beneficial as they help add nitrogen into the soil, a nutrient every plant needs to survive.
- Long Beans – may as well by a longer version of Green Beans. They are prepared the same way in the kitchen and taste pretty much the same. They are a perennial plant, which I love. The beans themselves can grow from 12”-24”.
- Wing Beans – Native to tropical climates, this bean thrives in our Hawaiian gardens. Really easy to grow from seed. Possible to get multiple harvests in one season!
All of these beans are a great addition to any tropical garden in Hawai’i. They take up vertical space and pack in tons of nutrition. Not only for you but the plants as well.
When You Plant In Hawai’i Is Just As Important As Where
People like to think of Hawai’i as having only one season. Hawai’i definitely has seasons, just not the same as on the mainland.
The summers tend to be hotter and drier, winters cooler and wetter. Planting leafy greens during the winter is best for those vegetables while planting root, fruit or nitrogen-fixing plants love later spring, through the summer and into fall.
The winter season traditional was the Makahiki season. I time when the people would harvest their crops and take a break from war and toil. In the spring was Ku season, a time for action.
These traditional seasons in Hawaii can tell us a lot about growing food in the islands. If we adhere to the times set aside for planting and resting as they did in the days of old, the Hawaiian gardener will have much more success.
Newly introduced crops such as brassicas and lettuce make it possible to grow during Makahiki season, but do we really want to?
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