Denby Fawcett: A Mecca For Urban Gardeners Struggles To Recover From The Pandemic - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Opinion article badgeThe University of Hawaii’s Urban Garden Center opened 33 years ago. Since then, it has gradually become a go-to place for home gardeners to learn from experts how to better grow garden plants and food.

Urban Garden Center’s stated mission is “To continuously and consistently provide innovative and diverse horticultural information to the gardening public.”

But because of staffing and volunteer shortages, that’s become a challenge. The public can no longer visit the Pearl City facility the way it once did for informal self-guided tours.

The 30-acre garden used to be open every weekday for self-guided tours at no cost.  But now visitors can come only after making an appointment on Eventbrite and paying an admission fee for tours guided by staff members. Tours can be held only when staffing is available and then only to certain parts of the garden.

The Honolulu Rose Society, which has maintained a demonstration rose garden at the Urban Garden Center for 13 years, says it misses the frequent and often spontaneous visitors of the past. “We no longer have visitors coming to our Rose Garden. We used to have elementary school kids, tourists, photographers and kamaaina frequently visit our garden,” Myrna Cariaga said in an email. She is president of the 93-member society.

Also, Second Saturday open houses at the garden once were offered almost every month and were true open houses. But they are now available only by reservation for organized workshops conducted for a fee. The fee is used to offset the cost of instruction materials.

With current employee and volunteer shortages, Tina Lau, the extension agent in charge of volunteer programs, thinks Second Saturdays will probably now be held every other month.

And one of the most popular teaching tools at the center, the live bee apiary, was informed this week it will be eliminated because the faculty member who oversaw it moved to the mainland during the pandemic to take another job. UH has not found a replacement and it will not allow the bee program to continue without faculty oversight.

Bees at the Urban Garden Center
Volunteers say they have been given until November to relocate bees in ten hives. Courtesy: Urban Garden Center

Volunteers in the bee hui say they have been given until November to find new homes for thousands of bees living in 10 hives they cared for at the center. Visitors once flocked to pollination workshops the bee hui conducted to explain the importance of bees in food and flower production.

“It took a lot of energy to build up the bee program. It is very disheartening to see it shut down,” says Laurie Carlson, a bee keeper who volunteers at the garden. The bee facility has been there since 2014.

Restrictions on visitors entering the Urban Garden Center come at a time when interest in backyard food gardening has soared during the pandemic with many Hawaii residents hungry for more information about how to increase and diversify their plantings.

Interestingly, the pandemic that sparked the interest in gardening has also been a key cause of the Urban Garden Center’s staffing woes.

Jari Sugano, who runs the facility, says three paid staffers who oversaw the self-guided tours left during the pandemic. The center has not found replacements yet. Also, many volunteers who initially stayed away from the Pearl City facility because of concerns about catching Covid-19 have not come back.

“We are having a difficult time recruiting employees. We need to build up our volunteer base,” says Sugano.

Sugano is Oahu administrator for the University of Hawaii’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. She is responsible for four Oahu-based, off-campus research and education facilities for CTAHR, including the Urban Garden Center.

She wrote in an email: “We may not be able to provide the same level of services pre-pandemic (such as the self- tours, school tours, etc.) but we are focused on collaborating with our valuable ag partners to provide quality, relevant and impactful programs that will lead to improvements in the lives of our stakeholders. This is what Cooperative Extension is known for, across Hawaii and beyond.”

Efforts are underway to hire six new full-time employees, but Sugano says even when staffing is beefed up, she is unsure if the facility will ever be open to the public again for informal self-guided tours.

“Self-tour visitors would walk through the garden and then leave. We weren’t able to obtain a good sense of any changes to their knowledge, skill, competencies, actions,” she said.

Longtime volunteer at the garden, Amy Teves, said the self-guided tours were a relaxing way for community members to acquaint themselves with the facility’s programs. She said people also liked to visit the garden to enjoy the peacefulness of the greenery in the middle of hot and noisy Pearl City. “Some people enjoyed coming here to sit in the garden to have picnic lunches in the quiet,” she said.

Programs available now include school tours when staffing supervision is available, as well as “Extension in the Garden” programs on selected weekdays by on-line reservations in which extension agents teach gardening skills at no cost.

Also, the center is set to resume its master gardener classes, with applications accepted in December. Those chosen will get 42 hours of training in tropical horticulture from gardening experts from UH and other places in return for offering 50 hours of volunteer time to the Urban Garden Center.

The apiary at the Urban Garden Center in Pearl City
The apiary at the Urban Garden Center will be closed because the faculty member in charge of it moved to the mainland. Courtesy: Urban Garden Center

One example of the new home gardening craze in Hawaii is the record number of residents who have applied for $5,000 microloans the U.S. Department of Agriculture is offering this year to individuals and organizations in the islands doing backyard food farming.

The deadline to apply was Monday. Sharon Hurd, of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, said in a phone interview she estimates 6,000 applied for the USDA’s 600 microloans.

To provide more opportunities for gardening education, the Urban Garden Center is forming new partnerships with community groups, including students at Leeward Community College and the Hawaii National Guard’s Youth Challenge Program.

Lau, the employee who coordinates volunteer programs at the center, says the community partnerships have created more diverse audiences for the offerings at the garden and brought a new energy to the facility.

Sugano wrote in an email: “Pre-COVID, UGC was known as one of the best gardens in the state. It showcased many themed gardens targeted at advancing urban horticulture and gardening. More than 7,000 people came through UGC a year then on self-tours and local school outreach programs. Our mission today remains the same.”

She says now the garden’s focus has expanded to include activities that focus on plant-growing as a way of advancing native Hawaiian learning, community health, food security, ecosystem health and workforce development.

She says, “In time we will return the garden to what it was. But it is not going to happen immediately. It is going to take time to build a new workforce.”


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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

Thank you Denby for shedding light on such a valuable community resource. As usual, you get to the heart of the matter and bring attention to an area in need and deserving of support. Your columns are stellar and your work is appreciated.

Janice · 4 days ago

The community Garden concept is not only a way to produce sustainable products, but also a way to help the Needy, Houseless and Kupuna. In Mililani, we have a wonderful community garden at Christ Lutheran Church which is open to membership from the community. It is also a place to learn more about gardening by interacting with other gardeners. My plots include crown flower and Lilikoi bushes which encourage pollinators to thrive. Community gardens should be supported and protected. They are a trend for the future.

marilynlee · 4 days ago

It actually is transitioning rather quickly with aquaponics, container gardening, raised beds, composting, etc. Been there for an FFA tour. It is not a hazard-free area, so letting a parent walk around looking at their cell while jr. is climbing on everything is a liability nightmare. More funding needed. What I think people remember more than anything is the annual plant sale, big one, that the pollinator event piggybacked on.The article would be better if it was the first part of the whole story.

Matthew · 4 days ago

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