Birendra Huja, a 75-year-old retired doctor, has been a lot busier since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but not in the way you’d expect.

He’s been sending people seeds through the mail, dropping eggplants off in mailboxes and coordinating contact-free pick-ups of lily plants.

Huja and his wife have grown all their own fruits and vegetables at their home in Aina Haina for years. They regularly found themselves with more than they could eat, so he was used to giving away excess to friends, family and even strangers.

Birendra Huja portrait.
“My wife is an excellent cook but sometimes even I grow tired of the same vegetables, so we give a lot away,” said retired doctor and avid gardener Birendra Huja. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Huja realized home gardeners might not be able to get the supplies they need. So Huja decided to send out a mass email to a local gardening group offering to help.

“I can’t do a lot to help right now, but this is something that I can help with and share my joy,” he said.

The response was overwhelming and Huja has connected with dozens of backyard gardeners.

“Everyone has been so kind and it’s so nice to see faces and say hello from a safe distance,” he said.

Beyond Your Backyard

Growing your own food is not only good for personal health and the local economy, but Hawaii’s environment.

Almost 90% of the state’s food arrives via cargo plane or container ship, with a subsequently large carbon impact. Every year just one container ship can emit as much cancer and asthma-causing pollution as 50 million cars.

According to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency if the state were suddenly cut off from supply lines, grocery stores would only be able to keep food on the shelves for five to seven days.

Readers who are worried about the supply chain, or looking to connect with nature, have asked how to start their own gardens, and the latest episode of our podcast, “Are We Doomed? And Other Burning Environmental Questions,” has essential tips on how to start growing your own food.

Getting Started

Hardware stores are closed and many grocery stores are sold out of seed packets, but you don’t need to buy anything special to start growing your own food, said Melani Spielman.

Spielman has loved growing food since elementary school, and her expansive home garden in Wahiawa is almost entirely grown from seeds and cuttings from her kitchen.

Food from the grocery store, like tomatoes, red peppers, squash and eggplants have seeds in them, and grow fairly reliably in Hawaii’s climate.

“All you have to do is take the seeds out … and you want to dry them for like a day or so,” Spielman said.

Vegetables with roots — like onions, celery, garlic and ginger — can be propagated from the cuttings you might otherwise throw away.

“I get them really really clean and put them in a cup of water by my kitchen window,” Speilman said. “Change the water daily and make sure that you’re using really clean water.”

We’re not sure how long we’re going to be under the state’s stay-at-home order, so focus on plants that produce food quickly such as lentils, chickpeas and dry beans, said Joe Wat, of the Kokua Hawaii Foundation.

Pre-pandemic, he helped schools start their own gardens, and always recommended that parents and teachers focus on fast-producing foods to keep kids interested.

“Fresh herbs are my go-to because you can use them every day and you don’t need to be outside to grow them,” Wat said.

Avoiding Root Rot

Both Speilman and Wat warn of rotting roots, which vexes many beginner gardeners.

“Plants like their drainage. If their roots are sitting in watery soil, a lot of time you’ll end up with the roots rotting and the whole plant dies,” Speilman said.

But you don’t need to buy a special pot for your plant. Drilling a few holes in an old tupperware container or bucket should do the trick, she said.

“You could take an old milk carton, cut off the top and there you go! You’ve got a little pot right there,” she said.

Spielman said her back patio proves that you don’t need fancy equipment to grow food and medicinal plants. Courtesy: Melani Spielman

Nurture More Than Food

If you run up against a problem, online gardening communities have a wealth of resources. There are forums on Reddit and groups on Facebook dedicated to home gardening in Hawaii. But don’t discount the impact of a phone call.

Recommended Reading

“It’s also really powerful to go through your own connections and see like, like your auntie that grows stuff or … your friend from college that was always doing gardening things,” Wat said. “This is an opportunity to build relationships within your community.”

While you won’t be able to grow all the fruits and vegetables your family needs on a windowsill or patio — you’d need about 2 acres of farmland per person per year — reducing the number of trips to the grocery store is great for social distancing and our climate.

And, like Huja, you might form new friendships.

“I’ve had the opportunity to speak with many people, who I don’t know that I would have met otherwise,” he said. “These are trying times and it’s truly a wonderful experience to be able to share.”

“Are We Doomed? And Other Burning Environmental Questions” is funded in part by grants from the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

Want to hear more? Check out Civil Beat's other podcasts.

Are We Doomed?! And Other Burning Environmental Questions
Are We Doomed?! And Other Burning Environmental Questions

What the heck is reef-safe sunscreen? Where does all the trash go? Why is it so hot? Join Civil Beat as we tackle your questions about Hawaii's environment. Smart. Irreverent. Never boring. This is not your grandma's science podcast.

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