Hawai‘i has an array of soils and climates, with no one-size-fits-all answer for selecting a garden site. In many parts of our islands, what you see is what you’ve got to work with. You might live on a lava field or dry plain—but it’s all good. In fact, some areas with thin lava soil are the richest areas. Drier areas are usually richer than wetter areas, though you’ll need more water.
The first consideration, in fact, is access to water, especially in a fairly dry area. It should also be free from large rocks and tree stumps, with good sun exposure, not be shaded by large trees or structures.
Each side of your house has different wind, sun, temperature, and growing hours. The southern side will have the most intense sun, the north and east will be the windiest, and the north will be the coldest, with the least amount of sun. The west will have the most wind protection, but may have fewer growing hours due to shading from your house. The southwest is often the best area to locate a garden; good southern exposure takes advantage of the spring sun.
Protection from the wind can be a luxury in Hawai‘i. But rather than reject a windy site, you could plant a windbreak: sorghum-sudan grass, pearl millet, or vetiver grass. Sorghum-sudan is the fastest growing—it can provide a six-foot-high wind barrier only 40 days from seed. When the grasses get too long, you just trim them back and cut into mulch.
Planting in pots allows you to move them around until you find the ideal spot. Pots are good for growing micro-greens; mature leafy vegetables like kale, collards, or bok choy; and compact or dwarf fruiting vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and eggplant. Cut-and-come-again crops like lettuce, arugula, mizuna, and many herbs are also great because you don’t have to plant each time, just maintain and eat again over a long period, even months.
Now Is the Time
The Spring Equinox was March 21, and days are getting longer, up to 13½ hours on June 21, the Summer Solstice. This is the ideal season for gardening in Hawai‘i, when plants will respond positively to day length and spring rains. Seeds will spring forth or even burst out. Some crops will adapt to your location and thrive, while others may struggle. This comes with experience as you grow more gardens.
So stake your claim to a good piece of earth and start with something small you can manage. The more time you spend growing your own food, feeling renewed by our beautiful surroundings, and spending time with your family, the more you’ll appreciate your new garden.
Good luck, and stay safe out there!
Glenn I. Teves, Cooperative Extension Service, UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resource