By Paul Massey
Standing in the shade of 15-foot-tall nitrogen-fixing trees, it’s hard to believe that it was just over a year ago, on Dec. 1, 2012, that the two-acre food forest was planted. In that time this volunteer community project has gone through dramatic transformations.
What began as a mowed field of grass on the site of the former Guava Kai Plantation, has become one of the most innovative food production systems in the Hawaiian Islands. And it’s only just getting started.
Over the next several years, the food forest – a project hosted by the nonprofits Regenerations Botanical Garden, Malama Kauai and LUBOF – will mature into a diverse ecosystem featuring hundreds of varieties of common and rare fruit from around the world.
The vision of this Garden of Eden is being tended and developed by a growing circle of food forest stewards who are looking to increase their numbers to rise to the challenge of managing the project.
Improving soil fertility is one of our biggest challenges. More than 100 years of conventional agriculture – which extracts and largely does not replace nutrients and organic matter from the soil – has left this site in serious need of remediation. We are trying to get as much of the inputs we need from island sources, including growing much of the organic matter that fuels fertility in natural systems right in the forest itself.
This is why the food forest team planted hundreds of nitrogen-fixing trees alongside fruit trees. After startling growth in the summer, these NFTs are now being given a dramatic pruning, which allows leaves and branches to decompose on the soil surface, making topsoil and releasing stored nitrogen from their roots to feed the fruit trees.
All this pruning makes a shady forest sunny, and that’s why the forest stewards are sowing edible ground cover – primarily beans of many varieties – to take advantage of the situation and crowd out weeds.
This change in the forest’s composition is called succession, in one year the system went through many successive changes. These changes are exciting to witness, and provide opportunities for tremendous food production.
Even though our fruit trees won’t be bearing for a few years, we’ve already planted and harvested a cornucopia of short-term crops, including kale, pumpkins, sweet potato, papaya and cassava. Sharing the produce with family and friends is a great benefit of being part of the stewardship circle.
Some of the most valuable components of the food forest are the many banana varieties – more than 40.
I was fortunate to visit a number of farms and botanical gardens on Kauai, Maui, and the Big Island over the past year, and thanks to their generosity, the food forest has been able to assemble one of the largest collections of banana varieties in the entire state, including many rare Hawaiian varieties.
It’s our intention to make sure these native and world varieties get into the gardens and farms of growers all over Kauai, which will help to ensure the plants’ availability and survival.
All this is good news, but building a forest from scratch takes a lot of effort, and we are looking to increase the number of stewards involved in the project.
Though we already have an amazing and capable team, there is a lot more we can achieve with more hands and heads involved. The best way to get started is to come to one of our community work days and get a feel of what takes to get the project going. We always have a good time, eat food out of the forest, make music – it’s the kind of community that gives you hope.
The Kalihiwai Food Forest has a community work day every third Saturday of the month, but a smaller crew usually works there Tuesday and Saturday.
Visit www.kauaifoodforest.org or their Facebook page or call 652-4118 for more information.
- Paul Massey is the director of Regenerations Botanical Garden, and can be reached at email@example.com.