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Tropical Gardening: Using gardens to create peace on Earth …

It is the time to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. In Hawaii, many Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu folks celebrate as well. The uniting elements of our multi-ethnic, multi-faith community are a bit complicated to explain in detail, but simply put, it is about faith, hope and most of all, love.

There are many similarities among the major religions. For example, most people might not know the Muslim Quran teaches that God, or Allah, sent Christ Jesus and He was born of the Virgin Mary. The message in the Quran is similar to that of the Christian Gospels.

Love and peace are binding elements of each faith and that unites us all. Gardens play an important part in finding peace and harmony, thus allowing us to experience a sense of love. Adam and Eve were to have lived in a perfect garden. Most faiths find the garden a place of meditation, contemplation and prayer.

So, let’s focus on how we can each contribute to creating a peaceful island garden community.

How do beautiful gardens affect our state of mind?

Gardens have played an important role throughout human history. There is the spiritual aspect. Practically speaking, we also should remember that a healthy green landscape helps minimize the extremes of hot and cold. Vegetation helps reduce noise, pollution and produces oxygen that makes us feel better. Also, the color green is a very restful color.

This season, we have had plenty of rain, but some years even the rainiest locations suffered drought.

With water rates on the increase, some people might consider concrete or plastic lawns. But don’t be hasty. You can have a beautiful garden even if you live in a drier area. It’s just a matter of planning and proper planting.

A garden planted with no thought given to dry spells will do well throughout rainy periods but deteriorate without irrigation during dry periods. Even in East Hawaii, we need to use plants that will tolerate extremes of wet to dry conditions. Fortunately, many garden plants in Hawaii are fairly hardy when it comes to short water supply, so we have a long list from which to draw.

It’s important to vegetate these areas so that our islands don’t look like Devil’s Hole, N.M., in years to come. A good reference to help you select the right plants is “Sunset National Garden Book.”

There are two factors that make plants able to survive moisture stress.

First, some plants are notably resistant to drought. This quality is centered largely in the cellular structure and has a bearing on the economy with which the plant functions. Some plants have the ability to carry through extended dry periods because of a happy faculty of closing the pores of the leaf against transpiration, or turning the leaf back or edge-on to the sun. Others root deeply to tap, and have available for day periods, any accumulated moisture in subsoil.

The garden environment is the other critical factor.

Water use is a process controlled by energy. The source of that energy is the sun. To move water out of the soil directly or through the plant and away into the atmosphere requires energy. The amount of energy available and the nature of the conducting medium that is the soil-plant-atmosphere complex determine how much water will be used in a given time.

Consider the amount of energy available on a piece of the landscape. The total available is the solar radiation that reaches the Earth’s surface. Air that is heated in another and drier part of the landscape and moves across the area of land in which we have our plants growing also adds heat. The result is a larger amount of water evaporated than we would predict purely on the basis of solar radiation.

This is why the more shade and wind protection from trees we have in the garden the less water is required to keep moisture levels up. And conversely, the more asphalt and concrete to heat up, the more rapidly our planted area dries up, even in normally high rainfall areas such as Hilo.

Our lava lands are unusually prone to moisture loss, so when we develop these areas and plant trees, shrubs and grass, we actually create a cooler more comfortable environment. We actually might increase the rainfall in places such as Hualalai, Kukio and Mauna Kea Beach when we change lava flows to develop “urban forests,” parks and gardens

Besides the soil moisture, the nature of the plant itself has considerable effect on the amount of water lost into the air. The height of the plant and roughness of the surface have an effect on the wind movement and mixing of air across the surface of the vegetation. A rough surface will cause more water loss than a smooth surface.

Plants that are tolerant of salty beach conditions often use less water than many soft, luxuriant jungle plants because they are streamlined for water conservation. Beach naupaka is a great salt resistant shrub but also is used in the inland landscape. Plants such as the bird of paradise, dracaena, monstera and many philodendrons give a luxuriant look and are still drought resistant.

Many palms also have this quality. Heritage plants such as noni, hala and kukui are very drought tolerant but also will grow in our wet humid lowlands.

Relatively new plant introductions such as tropical Vireya rhododendrons have an amazing capacity for adjusting to environmental extremes. In wet areas, they can grow as epiphytes. Under drier conditions, they will grow as terrestrials. To learn more about this amazing family, connect with the Hawaii Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society. For details, call Sherla Bertelmann at 966-9225.

Proper fertilization will help accomplish healthy roots. Also, poor soils should be improved with the necessary amendments to help the plants develop good root systems. Addition of well rotted organic matter or compost often helps increase moisture and nutrient-holding capacity. In many Hawaiian soils, available phosphorus is lacking. This is essential to root growth, so addition of this element is particularly important.

The use of mulches also will help conserve soil moisture.

Proper planning and maintenance of your garden will help in the short term, but we must do something about the overall future of the islands as well.

A series of past dry years and increased pressure on water supplies have made us aware that water is an exhaustible resource. Limits on our water resource mean we can sustain only a certain level of population. Too many people can seriously threaten our water supply. This includes keeping our parks, gardens and perhaps even houseplants alive if the shortage became critical. Limited water could mean a definite reduction in the quality of life in Hawaii.

Will the time come when we are islands teaming with too many people? Will we be so limited for water that we no longer can have gardens or parks or landscaped highways?

Reforestation and greening of our urban areas and lava lands will help, but the trend toward global warming and continued extremes of drought and flood require creative planning, planting and maintenance. For our mental, spiritual and physical health, we can focus on our own gardens and at the same time work with our local politicians and planners to keep Hawaii the green and peaceful Paradise it is meant to be.

This information is supplied by the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. For more information about gardening and landscaping, contact one of our Master Gardeners at 981-5199 in Hilo or 322-4892 in Kona.

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