Using the shade of a cactus, Peter Le methodically uproots invasive plants from a terrace, where recent rainfall caused the plot to become overrun by weeds. He has been a groundskeeper at the Cactus Garden at Kapiolani Community College for nearly eight years now.

University of Hawaii Student Stories project badgeLe is one of just two student employees that tend to the garden. It has traditionally relied on volunteers for its upkeep, but many are no longer around or active. Administrators have instructed gardeners to scale the cactus garden back, while some members of the community argue it should not have had a place on the campus in the first place.

Sam Camp — a retired Department of Agriculture employee who has volunteered at the garden since mid-2006 — has become the garden’s main volunteer and mentor. He said he is looking for a successor.

“I’m going to be 80 this year,” he said. “My time is going to start running out.”

Groundskeepers are looking for help for a decades-old cactus garden at Kapiolani Community College. Alyssa Rodello/Civil Beat/2022

A ‘Perfect Place’ For Cactus And Succulents

After a 38-year career in the military, Moriso Teraoka enrolled in culinary courses at KCC in 1985. Three years later, in the summer of 1988, he pitched the idea of a campus garden with cacti and succulents to former KCC Provost John Morton and his assistant Patricia Snyder.

The administrators agreed, initially suggesting a 10-by-10-foot plot. But Teraoka, with the help of botany students and volunteers, carved out an area in the campus’s lower edge that would eventually extend 850 feet by 100 feet. He supplied some of the original plants, donating cacti he ordered from catalogs.

“What a perfect place to plant my cactus and succulents,” he recalled telling himself, in his will.

According to the garden’s current overseer, Camp, the site is now home to more than 150 varieties of flora. It won lawn maintenance awards in 1990 and 1998 and was featured as a “hidden secret” in a well-circulated BuzzFeed travel blog.

Teraoka tended the garden for decades, mentoring students and volunteers and sharing his knowledge of succulents and cacti with anyone that may have been interested.

By the summer of 2006, two years after retiring from the state’s Agriculture department, Camp approached Teraoka to ask if he needed a volunteer. Teraoka agreed and assigned him a 100-square-foot area, assuming Camp would only be around for a couple of weekends.

Moriso Teraoka started the cactus garden in the late 1980s. Alyssa Rodello/Civil Beat/2022

Camp has been volunteering full-time to maintain the garden every year since, with the exception of a 2-year service project when he helped restore Hawea heiau in Hawaii Kai in 2013. The duo — along with another employee and three to four student workers — tended the garden regularly. As a team, they were able to keep the garden spotless, Camp said.

Teraoka died on April 25, 2021. He was 96.

“He had a great aloha for the garden,” said Camp, who has been managing the garden since. “I hate to see it being reduced in size, but I’m trying to keep it in as good a shape as possible. And also keeping it presentable.”

With dwindling resources and staff, that task is proving difficult.

There are currently seven total groundskeepers at KCC. There were originally eight, but the legislature slashed one vacant position in 2020, according to Brian Furuto, vice chancellor of administrative services. He added that the campus never actually had any positions that were dedicated specifically to the Cactus Garden.

“It was all done through volunteers,” he said.

He added that he would like to potentially grow the student ranks to one or even two additional students.

“But the fact of the matter is a lot of students don’t want to do that job,” he said.

Help From The Students

In 2014, Le took a job opening as a student groundskeeper for the cactus garden. Over the years, he has come to view the job as therapeutic and rewarding.

“I’m just used to the work around here,” he said. “I’m used to Sam and the labor and just trying to pull weeds. And I appreciate the work.”

Le has one more year remaining before he graduates from UH West Oahu, while Satomi Yonaga, the other cactus garden groundskeeper, says she has plans to graduate in May.

Peter Le, groundskeeper, uses the shade of a cactus while he uproots invasive plants from a terrace. Alyssa Rodello/Civil Beat/2022

The two student employees that tend the garden are employed by KCC’s Auxiliary Services, and are currently being paid with Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds. That funding will end in June, and Camp is concerned that these positions will no longer be paid for by the college.

“I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that, after the end of this current semester, they’ll find money for [Le],” Camp said. “Otherwise it’s going to be only me, and I can’t do it by myself.” 

Furuto says the student worker positions will be supported by the college in the “foreseeable future.” 

“After HEERF funding ends, we will support those positions like we always supported it previously, with campus funding,” he said. “Keep in mind these positions have been approved for years and were supported for years by the campus.”

Scaling Down

Furuto also made the administrative decision to reduce the size of the garden.

“We asked [Camp] and his students to scale it down,” he said. “We’ve been working on a transition plan, and the biggest reason is the cactus garden grew to a point where we didn’t have enough people to maintain it.”

The area from the stairway that goes up from parking Lot C to Ilima has already been eliminated, Camp said. The administrators did not have any specific plans for the plots, he added, so he took everything out except for the big specimen plants.

Furuto says that some community members argue the garden should not have existed in the first place.

Satomi Yonaga is one of just two student groundskeepers that helps care for the cactus garden. She graduates in May. Alyssa Rodello/Civil Beat/2022

In the past, KCC administrators have been approached by various individuals and groups on whether the cactus garden is appropriately placed at the front entrance of the educational institution, Furuto said. They question whether the cacti and succulent plants support Native Hawaiian activities, he added.

“KCC has made it a landscaping principle moving forward that only plants indigenous to Hawaii are planted,” he said.

Last year, the school changed the name of the garden to Mala Panini, which is Hawaiian for “cactus garden.” However, cacti and succulents, which have already been planted, and other plants in the culinary garden have been “grandfathered in,” Camp said.

Meanwhile, Camp is searching for his successor. He has reached out to everybody he was in contact with while working on the heiau restoration. He sent notices to the Cactus and Succulent Society, which used to have monthly meetings, Camp said, but has not met for two years. And, to help assist Camp in finding a suitable candidate, The Garden Club of Honolulu plans to put out an inquiry.

“I’m not giving up right now,” Camp said. “But you got to plan for the future.”

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