Perhaps I’m being partial, but I feel that our island is truly the best place for my particular lifestyle. I love the diversity of the island’s landscape and climate and year-round growing seasons. It seems like we are always planting something in our yard and continue to improve upon what we keep in our vegetable gardens. Growing tropical food at the 4000 foot elevation has it’s challenges since things can get a bit chilly up here in the winter. For example, I would love to grow papayas or star fruit, but they thrive where it’s warmer and won’t produce fruit at this elevation. We can, and do, grow bananas up here, but they will take twice as long to fruit and generally put out much smaller racks than if grown at 2000′ or lower. Coconut, breadfruit (or ulu), mango, and lychee are all off the list of things to grow up here in Volcano.
Most lettuces and common kitchen herbs do very well, especially rosemary, sage, thyme, mint, oregano, green onion and chives. In our arsenal of herbs and spices, we also grow a sizeable amount of turmeric, and have several varieties of hot peppers for making various hot sauces. Unfortunately, the peppers we grow are a lot smaller than you could grow at a lower elevation. The Hawaiian chili pepper seems to do the best here and the size is not affected since they are already on the small side. Any tomatoes we grow at this elevation are also they same way, size wise, as the peppers. We have had plenty of success with the smaller varieties, like yellow and red cherry tomatoes, as opposed to bigger beefsteak tomatoes.
One of the most hardy plants we grow is the chayote squash, or as Filipinos call it, pipinola. It grows on sturdy vines that give us a huge crop in the winter season starting in early November. We keep the vines contained in a small garden area by training several vines to climb up an ohia tree that was already there. When the vines begin to put out fruit, I pinch off the small leaves and tips of the shoots of the vines to make a delicious pipinola shoot salad tossed with tomatoes, onion and seaweed. The pinching of the vine tips also encourages new shoots to sprout, and thus, encouraging more squash. It’s a win-win situation and it makes a great salad that I can prepare multiple times during the growing season.
The squash is mild and somewhat watery and takes on the flavor of the dish being prepared in. It can be used in all sorts of ways, from sweet to savory, and also eaten cooked or raw. (During the holidays, I typically prepare a mock “apple crisp” with the squash pieces, cinnamon, and butter.) If not eaten within a week or two of being picked, the seed inside the squash will start creating a whole new vine, and this will sprout from the crease at the bottom of the fruit. Near the end of the squash growing season, we save about 8-10 sprouted chayote fruits to bury into the dirt at the base of the ohia tree to continue the cycle for next season. Some of the planted ones live, and many of them don’t, but the ones that do live are quite prolific. The chayote squash is an extremely versatile vine and could easily be considered a ‘survival’ type food.
The most successful items in our yard are usually the cooler weather fruits and vegetables. Things like Jerusalem artichokes, squashes, Russian red kale, blueberries, mulberries, umeboshi plums and Okinawan purple sweet potatoes do quite well. We also have yacon, Hawaiian purple taro (or Kalo) and Japanese taro, which require frequent watering and loose soil, but worth the effort. We currently have three citrus trees: blood orange, Meyer lemon, and ruby grapefruit, and two of them seem to give us pretty good yields. Our pathetic, wind-whipped banana tree looks like it’s been through a tsunami, so I don’t expect to get any bananas any time soon, and the Pettingill apple tree we planted four years ago barely has any leaves on it. I don’t even know if the poor thing is still living. One thing I have learned, is that you have to find what works best for your particular microclimate and do it well. Just go with the flow and enjoy the process of trial and error.