Tiny gardens yield big rewards

Under the shadow of high-rises in Makiki, Nalani Boon plucks tomatoes from the vine and raises beets from seedlings to be canned for later months. Hearty corn stalks and pole beans populate a corner of her tiny garden patch.

On a recent mid-morning, wearing a broad raffia hat and a casual black muumuu, Boon unlocks the gate to her community garden plot and welcomes me in with a flourish – this is, after all, practically her second home.

garden5 editBoon, 66, is the president of the Makiki Community Garden Association, a position she has held for 20 years.

And she’s an ambassador of sorts for Oahu’s publicly-funded community gardens, which are a product of the Fasi administration and the national community garden boom of the 1970s.

Though they’ve been around for nearly 40 years, many people don’t know about the island’s community gardens, Boon says.

People often come upon the plots at Makiki District Park by accident, she says, and marvel at the variety of plants there: Everything from sunflowers to orchids, radishes to lantana. Some plots are for ornamentals. Some are for edibles. Some have a little of both.

The people who garden, too, are diverse.

“We have everything from doctors to someone who’s not employed to retirees,” she says. “We have people from different ethnic backgrounds.”

And, she notes, the number of families gardening has gone up. She attributes that to the rocky economic period of the last few years.

Mayor Frank Fasi – the man who brought Oahu TheBus and Honolulu City Lights and Summer Fun – launched the community garden program in 1975.

Wayne Sasaki, city community garden coordinator, said the gardens were originally meant to give people cooped up in Honolulu’s growing number of apartment buildings a little piece of their own green space.

But the program expanded to the suburbs and the country, too – to Kaneohe, to Hawaii Kai to Wahiawa and Manoa.

Today, Oahu has 10 community gardens, with some 1,200 plots.

In Makiki alone, there are 160 10-by-10-foot plots.

Dues for the plots are kept low: Community gardeners in Manoa pay just $30 a year for a 10-by-20-foot plot. At the Diamond Head garden, users pay $13.50 a year for a 5-by-17-foot plot.

Some gardens have long waiting lists to get in (the average waiting period to get a plot in Makiki is 14 months). Others have shorter waits – and there’s no waiting list for the garden in Kaneohe.

Once you have a garden, you have it for life – or longer. The plot can switch hands between family members.

Over the last 21 years, Boon has turned her tiny garden plot, at the rear of Makiki District Park, into a mini-oasis. Garden statues dot the postage stamp-sized piece of land, and water lilies float atop a tiny artificial pond.

She has a small garden bench, where she watches butterflies alight on her flowers.

Boon says she started gardening after a bad back injury. Her husband was worried about her, and tired of seeing her spend her days in front of the television.

At first, Boon could barely hold the garden hose, she says. But day by day, she re-gained her range of motion. She worked through her pain, she says, because it was worth it.

Gardening had become her passion.

And, she adds, “It certainly got me off the couch.”

Oahu Community Gardens

Interested in trying to grab a community garden plot? It’s harder in some areas than in others. Here’s how to do it:

- Figure out which community garden you’d like to apply to. You can put your name on several waiting lists.

- Attend the monthly community garden meeting for the garden(s) of your choice. You can’t get a plot unless you’re present.

- Pay your dues – they’re low – and stay on top of the rules. A new set of rules for community gardens will be issued soon.

For more information, head to the city’s community gardens page: http://bit.ly/WBPsmr

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