Ruby Pap and her raised garden bed. Photo by Léo Azambuja

By Léo Azambuja

It seems like everyone has flipped the switched on their gardening genes since COVID-19 prompted authorities to implement lockdowns. There is a lot of garden talk back and forth on social media. So we decided to hear from someone who’s not an expert, but has been gardening most of her life.

“I’ve always grown up with gardens,” Ruby Pap said. “Whenever I lived in a place that had a yard, I’ve always wanted a garden.”

But for a decade, she lived in the city, with no place to garden. When she moved to Kaua‘i for a new job years ago, one of the first things in her mind was starting a garden. “I was really excited with the all-year growing season and getting back to the land.”

It has been eight years, and Ruby’s garden — a raised bed measuring 12 feet by 4 feet — has faithfully provided her with a good amount of kale, chard, arugula, basil, rosemary, tomatoes, peppers, kabocha, peas, lettuce, and the list goes on.

So here’s what she did.

She lives near the beach, and the soil in her whole neighborhood is pretty much sand, so she decided to build a raised bed. To begin with, she picked a spot in her backyard shielded from the wind.

She bought the materials at Home Depot, and paid a friend to build the bed, since she’s not inclined in carpentry. Rather than using wood, she used a composite material called Trex that resembles wood. Looking at the raised bed, you wouldn’t know it’s not wood. It was pricier than wood, but it paid off; after all these years, the bed looks as good as new.

After the structure was built, Ruby borrowed a friend’s truck, drove to Kaua‘i Nursery & Landscaping in Puhi, and shoveled soil in the truck’s bed. It was cheaper than buying bags of soil. Each year, she adds a little more soil and compost to her garden. Heart & Soul Organics in Moloa‘a has a 50/50 mixture of soil and compost, which she says is good for new gardens.

When she first started her garden, she planted seeds in rows directly in the garden rather than using starts.

“It’s a harder way to do it, but that’s how I learned growing up with my mom on the East Coast,” Ruby said. “That was always how we did it.”

Over the years, she has switched to planting starts already established. One of the places she usually buys her starts is at Hoku Natural Foods in Kapa‘a. If you use starts, she said, you could be eating your lettuce within a few weeks. With seeds, it’ll take a little bit longer.

You also have to be consistent about weeding, watering, and protecting your garden against bugs and chickens. Yes, chickens. It’s not that the chickens will eat your veggies, it’s that they will get in the garden and destroy everything while scratching the soil in search of bugs. Or at least that’s what happened in Ruby’s garden.

“I had to battle the chickens,” she said, adding she solved the problem by installing a chicken-wire fence around the garden.

Lately, with the stay-at-home guidelines, she has been working from home, and finding herself putting a little more love into her garden.

“I have more time. A lot of us have more time,” she said, laughing.

Gone are the daily commutes to Lihu‘e and the occasional parties, freeing up more gardening time. And it’s not just Ruby; a lot of her friends are dedicating more time to gardening. They have been trading experiences and knowledge, and it’s only a matter of time when they’ll start trading food.

“I think a lot of people have the urge to garden since this crisis started,” she said.

In Ruby’s garden, she had better luck with leafy vegetables, herbs and tomatoes. Her Hawaiian chili peppers are quite a hit too. Beets and eggplant didn’t perform too well. There are a lot of local organizations that can help you to pick your vegetables. It’s also good to talk to your neighbors to find out what they have been successful in growing. Another advice Ruby has is to plant what you want to eat, for obvious reasons.

“In the beginning, you’re going to feel like you’re spending a lot of money, and you’re going to wonder if it’s really worth it. I went through that,” she said. “At the end of the day, if you’re starting a garden just to save money, maybe you shouldn’t be starting a garden.”

A garden could save you money, depending on the space you have and the variety of food you grow, but there’s a lot more that goes into it. Gardening, she said, is a labor of love, a commitment to eat local foods and to watch your food grow.