Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Greener Air Cleaner

Now that vog has started to blanket the major metro area of the Hawaiian Islands, state lawmakers are suddenly making noise about the health risks of their constituents and talking about providing care for those with respiratory difficulties. Of course, we on Hawai'i island have been telling our friends and relatives on O'ahu about how bad the vog is for years, but on the Big Island our wheels don’t squeak as loud as they do in Honolulu. I saw what the worst day of vog looked like in Honolulu recently, and all I can say about you city folks is…you guys are amateurs. Sorry, but try going for a morning run around Lili'uokalani Park when the vog is so thick you can’t even see the Hamakua side of Hilo Bay. Guarantee you’ll turn pro, or reach for some meds, or skedaddle to an air-conditioned mall.

So what really can be done to improve air quality that’s been compromised by vog? Not much it seems, except reduce human activity. On bad air days especially, you can cut down on driving, don’t mow the lawn or use other small gas powered engines to manicure your yard, don’t barbecue. But what about indoors? Health officials advise us to keep our windows and doors closed on high vog days. If you work in an air-conditioned building with windows that don’t open, that choice has already been made for you. However, such tightly enclosed spaces may also harbor high levels of air pollutants from the off-gassing of synthetic materials used in furniture, carpets, building materials, electronic equipment and more.

Luckily, there is a cheap, naturally green solution to clean air indoors: Houseplants. Sure, you think I’m just saying this because I’m a container gardening freak. Nope – there is indeed solid scientific research that was done in NASA's International Space Station that shows the benefits of houseplants on indoor air quality. Plants actually absorb volatile compounds from the air through their leaves and break them down in their roots, thus purifying the air. Amazing!

University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture professor and landscape architect Dr. Andrew Kaufman recently co-authored a helpful and informative extension publication on using houseplants to clean indoor air that you can download here.

The bulletin includes a list of houseplants with ratings of effectiveness from 1 to 10, 10 being excellent. Nothing listed scores a 10, but those plants receiving a rating of 9 include:

Bamboo palm
Boston fern
Dwarf date palm
English ivy
Florist’s mum
Gerbera daisy
Kimberley queen fern
Rubber plant
More important than ratings, however, is to choose something low maintenance if you lead a busy life, and if it appeals to you aesthetically you’re more likely to pay attention to it and keep it alive. Although there haven’t been any studies done on them yet, native Hawaiian houseplants such as papala kepau, ‘ala ‘ala wainui, and palapalai probably help clear the air, too. A Sharper Image ionizer might be more effective, but my greener air cleaners are hundreds of dollars cheaper. And, as my 80-year-old gardening guru says, “Plants are very forgiving.” Though I think if my neglected but still thriving Ficus benjimina and the peace lily in my living room could talk, I'm sure they'd have me arrested for houseplant abuse.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Holy Grail of Water Bottles

The quest: A water bottle that isn’t toxic, doesn’t break, doesn’t spill, is easy to carry, is easy to find in a grassy lawn, amongst shrubs, against a log.

In the hotter, drier weather of summer it’s even more important to stay hydrated while working out in the garden. Faced with this challenge year after year, I’ve somehow acquired too many less-than-perfect water bottles. There’s one that got too old and now smells too scary and plasticky, one that has toxic BPAs, one made of taste-free but breakable glass, one that I have to tip awkwardly whenever I take a swig. These now all sit idle in my kitchen cupboard because I’ve reached the impossible dream: The Camelback Better Bottle.

This gardener gets nothing in return for this full endorsement, not a single penny, not even an empty bladder – sorry to disappoint, Camelback fans. I’m just so much in love with its quiddity, its sippy-cup-ness that I just have to spout praise for its clever design: the no-spill, taste-free Big Bite valve that neatly snaps back into the cap, the long internal straw that allows you to suck up practically every last drop, the loop that lets you clip it with a carabiner to a belt loop or backback, the eyeball-searing colors like Barbie doll pink that make it easy to find when it’s time to quit playing in the dirt and pack up. Plus it handily fits in a cup holder in the car/truck. It's a thing of beauty for the gardener, hiker, or toddler at heart.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Local Mo' Bettah

Does the cost of food seem out of this world lately? Oil prices are sending imported produce prices to the moon, while locally grown fruits and veggies seem to be still down to earth these days. Locally grown produce is generally fresher, better tasting, and more environmentally friendly, and many folks who are frequenting farmers markets are discovering that it’s the cheapest way to feed themselves, too. Every time I visit Hawaii farmers markets I’m reminded of how lucky we are here on the Big Island, the bread basket – or should I say poi calabash – of the Islands.

The downtown Hilo farmers markets and the Maku’u farmers market in Puna had some excellent buys this weekend: a full basket of honey-sweet, luscious Waimea strawberries for $3; buttery avocados – Hawaii Organic Farmers Association-certified – for $1.50 each; big bags of hydroponic Manoa lettuce for $2.50. Kumu 'Aina Farm was also at Maku’u, offering local vanilla beans and chemical-free macadamia nuts for sale along with their organic tropical fruits. Yum!

Of course, the absolute freshest, cheapest produce you can get is that which you grow yourself, and farmers markets are great places to look for healthy starts for your garden. At Maku’u market small nurseries offered herbs, vegetables, fruit trees, bamboo and other tropical ornamentals at reasonable prices. Small-time growers sometimes offer plants that you might never see in a bricks and mortar garden store, such as the many unusual varieties of ‘awa being offered by Poki Fruits. And don’t forget that you can try propagating some of the fruits and veggies that you buy to eat too, by saving some seeds of fruit, or vegetatively by replanting a piece of ginger or sweet potato, for example.

As we hit the summer months it’s a good time to get some tomato starts in the ground, or even in a container on the lanai – think of those cool, refreshing salads! Remember that the most fruit-fly resistant varieties are ones with thicker skins, such as cherry tomatoes and Roma types. Short on space and time? Perhaps the easiest culinary delights to grow, provided your area gets full sun, are herbs. Try basil, oregano, and cilantro in window boxes to add to savory sauces. Don’t forget to keep a separate pot of mint for iced drinks, too. Ahh….

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Learning to Grow Together

What works in gardens on the continent doesn’t always make sense in Hawaii, of course, but sometimes there are some inspiring ideas that deserve a second look. This past week I was in the San Francisco Bay area and my friend Allyson Gordon invited me to a special open house at a school garden.

Allyson is a second grade teacher at Bay Farm School in Alameda, a man-made “island” in San Francisco Bay. That was an unusually bone-chilling day – couldn’t wait to get back to real island weather! Still, I had a great time partaking in all the joy represented through the work of these creative students. Their fundraiser featured handmade goods from the garden, such as yummy lavender lemonade, handmade soaps scented with botanicals, plus...

a soothing “Itchy Salve” made from beeswax, olive oil, plantain, calendula, mint, rosemary….

“Seed Balls” formed with terra cotta clay, compost and native wildflower seeds -- perfect for throwing over the fence of a vacant city lot to do some urban guerilla greening-up. Imagine tossing some seed balls of native Hawaiian plants and veggies on some bare Honolulu lots!

The school’s butterfly habitat is part of the school’s outdoor learning center, which also includes for each classroom generous plots and container gardens to grow veggies and fruits.

The program relies heavily on parent and teacher participation, and it has a part time garden coordinator on staff. Where does the money come from? Most of it is from the PTA, in addition to modest fundraisers like the one I attended.

In Hawaii, school gardens are inextricably tied to place and Hawaiian culture, which make them all the more important in our communities. Planting a butterfly garden to attract native Hawaiian butterflies is really a lesson in how many butterflies in Hawaii are not native, unless the school is already located near a native rainforest. This is because there are only two native butterflies: the Kamehameha butterfly and Blackburn’s butterfly, and both live only in native forests.

Unfortunately, even if you plant the host plants of native Hawaiian butterflies they won’t be attracted to your garden unless your locale is already near a native forest. Certainly that’s another reason why field trips in outdoor education programs are an important component when teaching concepts about native ecosystems in Hawaii.

One supporter of Hawaii school gardens is Jack Johnson’s Kokua Hawaii Foundation, a local grassroots organization offering an ‘Aina in the Schools program and mini-grants.

I’m always on the lookout for interesting community garden happenings – send me an email if you have something delightful to share!