ko’oko’olau (Bidens spp.)


ko’oko’olau (Bidens spp.) is a medicinal native Hawaiian plant. The two species I will describe are Bidens menziseii subsp. filiformis, and Bidens hawaiensis, both endemic to Hawaii Island. There are over 200 species of Bidens worldwide, with many of them being highly medicinal. Medicinal properties include: promotion of good health, cleanse the body, prevents: strokes, diabetes, constipation, stomach, and liver problems. Basically good for everything, do some more research to identify more medicinal properties. This plant is also highly ornamental!


Bidens hawaiensis


Bidens menziseii subsp. filiformis




ko’oko’olau grows well from seed or cuttings. I prefer to grow them from seed so they have a stronger root system, as they tend to fall over when they get large.

Surface sow seeds and they should germinate within two weeks.


sprouted seed


keiki awaiting transplant


It would be safe to call ko’oko’olau a weed, as it propagates readily and grows quickly. Needing no care at all. I have noticed ants love farming on menziseii but it doesn’t seem to affect them.

They prefer full sun but will grow in part shade. These two varieties grow from the coastline to about 8000’. And need good drainage, meaning add lots of cinder into the soil mix. Or grow them on straight cinder or straight lava like they grow in the wild!

Did I mention they are frost, drought, heavy rain, scorching sun, and high winds tolerant? Yeah, grow ko’oko’olau anywhere and everywhere!!

Bidens menziseii subsp. filiformis grows to about 15’ with the largest trunk diameter I’ve seen is over 5 inches!

Bidens hawaiensis grows to about 6’ in a more shrub like habit.



Grab a few leaves and throw them in boiling water. You could also dry the leaves first, 3 cups water to 1 tablespoon of dried leaves.

Where to obtain planting materials

I highly recommend sourcing seeds or cuttings from your local species as the islands of Hawaii contain 19 endemic species. Please grow the correct species, as keeping genetics pure will allow these species to continue to thrive in their endemic habitat. As some of these species are rare, it would be wonderful to promote and propagate them in the correct environment and hopefully seeds will spread and become more naturalized and hopefully spread from cultivated specimens and retake their landscapes.

If you live in puna contact me for a seed source. I will share when they are in season.

My Garden

I first learned of Bidens menziesii while working on Mauna Kea replanting the high elevation forest. Working closely with this plant gave me an appreciation of this species. On the mountain this seems to be the fastest growing species, making it the pioneer plant the mountain needs to become reforested once again. This is a keystone species that we plant with Sandalwood, as the host plant. This plant also goes to seed within half a year and sets seed vigorously. Perfect for a restoration plant. In the forest at home this plant grows well, but has not flowered yet. Possibly due to the amount of shade it receives.

I’ve only been growing Bidens hawaiensis for a little while now and do not have quite as much experience with it. Although it has already flowered, I was not able to catch seeds because the rain knocked them off.


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ko’oko’olau growing under mamane tree on mauna kea


ko’oko’olau growing in the forest at home with hō’awa

Happy Gardening!


Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus)


Lemongrass, Cymbopogon citratus, is a wonderful aromatic perennial multipurpose clumping grass. Lemongrass is an essential flavor in Southeast Asian cooking, but also a great mulch plant, being high in carbon makes it an excellent addition for your carbon ratio in your compost pile. It also works great as mulch around your plants; cutting the plant back to 6-12 inches tall it will regrow vigorously. The roots go deep and help prevent soil erosion as well. This plant is closely related to citronella grass, (Cymbopogon nardus), meaning that lemongrass also contains insect repellent properties (great next to your tomatoes or bell peppers). And finally lemongrass is a great barrier plant; most weeds will be stopped in their tracks trying to cross a lemongrass hedge.



Although lemongrass does grow from seed, it is better to get a non/low-seeding variety as it will be less likely to spread. The only way to know for sure if it is a non-seeding variety is to divide shoots, or grow cuttings, from a superior variety and grow a clone.

To take cuttings from an existent clump: pull off 2-3 shoots; trim the tops and stick into the ground 2-3 at a time. To create a hedge, plant them (2-3 shoots) 2 feet apart. They can also be rooted in water, but I’ve found they root just fine in the wet soil environment I live in.

Propagation by division: Find a mature clump (12 inch diameter) and pull the whole clump out of the ground. Divide the clump with a spade fork into 3-4 stocks each, and remove the top of the plant. Replant and water heavily.

They do take their time to establish with both methods. I regularly propagate by cuttings so I can continue harvesting for food while propagated plants establish.


find center of clump


push stock down – to pull off a few stocks


trim top leaves


stick into ground


Lemongrass is a carefree plant once established. Water new propagations heavily until new growth appears. Full sun is preferred, however, they can be grown in light shade but do not grow at their full sun vigor and become spindly. Mature plants are about 3 feet tall and wide and can tolerate fairly poor soils.


Prepare stocks by cutting off long ends of tops and trimming the base. Then ‘beat up’ the fleshy shoots before cooking. Add the shoots whole into your dishes and remove before eating.

Tender hearts of stocks can also be eaten as a vegetable in rice dishes.

Upper leaves may be used as flavoring as well, but should be tied in a bunch during cooking for easy removal before serving.

Where to obtain planting materials

Ask a friend for a couple of shoots and replant them. Or look at the farmers markets, as fresh shoots will still be fine for planting, or plant sales.

My Garden

I started off buying a single lemongrass plant. Once it became large enough I started propagating it. I had some space to fill in a newly created section of the yard; it was at the very front of the lot along the road. I had a few trees growing there taking up canopy space but needed something to fill in the ground and mid level so the house wasn’t visible by the road. So I decided to try out the lemongrass hedge. I stuck them in the ground every few feet and waited. Now that those plants are nice and mature it created an amazing barrier. The grass on the lawn doesn’t try to jump into the space and the desmodium inside of the space doesn’t try to jump out over the lemongrass. As the trees grow and fill in even more canopy space I’m surprised that the lemongrass is growing really well in the shade. I also layered this hedge with patchouli in case the shade becomes too heavy and the lemongrass doesn’t succeeded, the patchouli can grow in complete shade.

I’ve followed this same method in a section I just created that has more sun than the previous. However, this time I planted a row of Surinam cherries too. So I should have the lemongrass and patchouli fill in along the boundary quickly, and the Surinam cherries taking their time to fill in the rest of the hedge creating another barrier between my neighbors lot and mine.

The key is to garden in layers and succession, filling in newly cleared areas so all niches are filled, therefore, weeds will not take over.


barrier hedge


barrier hedge (lemongrass, strawberry guava, hapuu, avocado, kou, pigeon pea, papaya, soursop)


newly planted barrier hedge (lemongrass, patchouli, surinam cherry, naupaka, akala, aweoweo, kolomona, apple banana, edible hibiscus)

Happy Gardening!

Pigeon Pea (Cajanus cajan)


Pigeon Pea, Cajanus cajan, is a gardeners dream. This 10 foot tall perennial bush produces beautiful clusters of bee buzzing blossoms, followed by pea pods with up to eight seeds. These seeds can be eaten immature, shelled like peas, or eaten at various stages of ripeness dependent on desires. Not only does this plant produce an abundance of pea pods, the tender leaves and shoots can be eaten as well! Pigeon Pea is also nitrogen fixing, gathering nitrogen from the atmosphere and ‘fixing’ it into the soil. Once they are cut back they release this nitrogen and make it available for other plants. This means they can be grown as a cover crop (cut back completely just as they start to flower) or used for coppicing (cut back periodically once woody between 1-6 feet to regrow later).



Pigeon Pea is propagated by seed. Harvest seedpods when completely dry on plant to save seed.

Check out seed propagation for tips


Dried Pods


Pigeon Pea tolerates shade but really thrives in full sun. They grow slowly at first, but once they become established they reach for the sky. Pigeon Pea is a pioneer species, meaning; it is the hardiest of plants growing in any climate or soils.


Young seeds are shelled and eaten like peas

Mature green seeds are eaten cooked, boiled.

Mature dried seeds are eaten split, cooked as a pulse, in soups, curries, sprouted, fermented, or ground for flour.

Tender under ripe pods can be cooked

Leaves and tender shoots are eaten as cooked greens (steamed, boiled)


Seed at various stages

Where to obtain planting materials

Get seeds from someone you know or buy them

My Garden

I’ve been growing pigeon pea for a while now, trying it in various places to find its perfect preference. All of my plants start out slow taking at least 6 months before they reach 4 feet. At this stage they seem to start to bush out. The more sun they get the faster they grow. The varieties I have only flower in the shorter days of fall so this plant is not producing year round. I stick it around wherever I can and let it grow. I come by and trim the branches in the path and add them to the bases of my trees feeding them the biomass and the nitrogen in the soil. What a great food plant to have around!


Pigeon Pea with: cacao, cranberry hibiscus, snake fruit, lilikoi, kalo, roselle, pepino dulce and comfrey


Pigeon Pea with: papaya, banana, koaia, poha, cocona, cranberry hibiscus, okinawan spinach, dragon fruit, mamaki

Happy Gardening!

Air-Potato (Dioscorea bulbifera)


The air-potato, Dioscorea bulbifera, is an incredible perennial plant. The edible tuber of the crop grows in the leaf axils of the vine, meaning the tubers hang in the air! Although this is called air-potato, it is truly a yam. There are toxic varieties that are highly invasive in some parts of the world; however, this variety is delicious and completely edible. The vine can grow 40’ or more in a season, and produces an abundance of tubers.

This is a fast growing vine that has the potential to become invasive. Please do not plant in, or near the native forest, as that ecosystem is too fragile to have another invasive species.




Take a small aerial tuber, or cut off a section of a large one, and stick it in the ground. I’ve noticed they will not sprout until spring, but once they sprout they don’t stop growing until they die back in the fall/winter.

Any aerial tuber that falls to the ground and is not picked up will sprout, creating the potential for invasiveness.


Stick into the ground. Wait for it to sprout. Guide onto a trellis. Consume tubers.

This is actually the easiest growing plant in my garden. If you are trying to keep it on a low trellis, you have to guide the vine daily or it will go crazy and jump anyway to get higher. I grow mine on a teepee trellis and just wrap the vine around the entire teepee.

The plant dies back after production of tubers in the fall/winter. The plant will regrow at the beginning of spring. No need to dig or touch the underground root.



May be cooked just like any potato; baked, mashed, boiled. I’ve found removing the skin on the more mature tubers is beneficial.

Where to obtain planting materials

Ask someone you know who grows it for an aerial tuber. Make sure the person has eaten it and you are getting an edible variety.

My Garden

I’ve been growing air potato for two years now and I’m always surprised at the shapes and the angles of the aerial tubers! This plant is so fun to grow and show off to anyone that stops by! Air-potato is so easy to grow, easy to prepare and delicious. Everyone should be growing and eating this plant!


Happy Gardening!

Poha Berry (Physalis peruviana)


Poha, Physalis peruviana, Ground Cherry or Goldenberry, is a perennial garden berry that thrives with little attention or care. I have seen this plant thriving at 7000’ elevation and where I live at 800’, meaning this plant grows well all over Hawaii! This plant typically reaches 3-4 feet in height and spread, creating a nice mat of leaves and edible fruits. Poha is closely related to tomatillo and has the same papery husks, but the fruit itself is tart, sweet and delicious.


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Poha grows easily from seed or cuttings (Check out seed propagation for tips on seed).

Not all cuttings will root, seems about 1/3 of the cuttings will. So make sure to try multiple cuttings ensuring some will root. Or grab some cuttings with rootlets already established (look at the nodes).


Rootlets at node


Rootlets at node


Poha grows well in full sun or partial shade.

Weed around Poha while it is getting established. Once it is large enough, it will take care of itself. Trellising would make harvest easier, but this could also make it more noticeable to the birds that love it, as well as preventing it from becoming a nice edible ground cover.

Poha thrives in poor soils, if you give them some nutrients they will grow even more crazily!! This plant is pretty weedy, which makes for a great food source. Seedlings may appear around your yard, decide which plants are in a good spot and encourage them.


The only edible part of this plant is the fruit. Harvest when papery sacks begin to brown and become slightly translucent. Their calyx acts as a protective layer, so they may be eaten even if picked off of the ground. I like to harvest them from the plant and let them ripen a few days until they’ve turned a green/golden color and become sweeter. You can make them into jams or juices or eat them raw. Berries kept in their papery calyx will store for a few weeks at room temperature.


Ripe berries

Where to obtain planting materials

Grab some cuttings from a friend who is growing them in a similar climate to yours. Or keep an eye out at farmers markets and plant sales. They are a really common plant around here.

My Garden

I’ve been growing a single Poha for about two years. Originally, I had it planted in one of my garden beds. It would spread too much that I would constantly be pruning it have having to cut off flowers and undeveloped fruits just to keep it in its space. Making the harvest smaller and smaller. This plant wants space! Once I finally figured out a good place to grow them, I took some seed from my fruits and planted them. I ended up with four young healthy plants. I took these four plants and planted them about 2 feet apart around a lava feature. After about three months of being in the ground they started flowering and fruiting. I harvest about 50 berries weekly. As these plants get older they only produce more. I guess it’s about time to start making jelly!


4 Poha planted 2 feet apart around rock feature. Also around: Heatless habanero, mamaki, papaya, dragon fruit, cocona, edible hibiscus, okinawan spinach, crotolaria, all filling in space until the ulu tree is large enough to produce


also within this guild is banana, koaia, kului, cranberry hibiscus, and popolo


Happy Gardening!

Seed Propagation


This month I will be talking about seed propagation, an important skill to develop to maintain food security, particularly starting annual plants and fruit trees.

Seeds are amazing. They are little packets of life awaiting the correct environmental conditions to spark life. Seeds create genetic diversity within specie. This allows plants to develop environmental preferences, creating specific varieties and in turn, potentially creating new species and evolving into new plants.

With human help, we would call this process selective/genetic breeding. This is where a human collects seeds from a particular plant with favorable traits and continues to select seed until the desired traits have become normalized. This is how beets and chard have become ‘different’ plants, when in reality they are the same plant grown for specific qualities. That being the roots in beets and the leaves for chard. This process should be done in your garden to establish plants that are adapt to your environmental conditions.

Planting by the Moon

This may sound a bit faithful or superstitious, but in my experience, planting with the moon truly makes a difference. Today I noticed 90% of the seeds I planted 5 days ago sprouted. How else could you get this high of a percentage of germination without the moon? Beans and amaranth literally sprout within two days, its incredible!

Tip: If you don’t believe me, go ahead and plant seeds randomly, but make sure you write down the date, and then, look at the moon phase. Plant seeds throughout the month and notice that most all of the seeds will sprout around the new and full moon, regardless of when they were planted into the ground.

Phases of the moon

Check out the chart below to get some hints. I’ve read and tried other methods for moon planting, but I find this to be most useful. Starting seeds two days before the new moon allows the seeds to awaken with water and humidity. By the time the new moon comes around, the seeds have so much moon gravity pulling on them that they cannot stay within the cozy little womb and they jump out, showing beginning stages of germination. The chart below also describes how moon phases directly affect plants growth.

Moon Phase Chart

Seed Planting

Yes, you can just follow what a seed packet says. But a lot of the time I get seeds from friends, save my own seed, or when I buy delicious fruits and decide to plant those seeds, no seed pack instructions come along.

It all depends on the size of the seed, larger seeds tend to take longer to germinate and needs to be planted deeper than tiny seeds. Think about brassica seeds vs. bean or squash seeds. Here is my general rule for planting seeds: plant the seeds twice as deep as the width/thickness of the seed. So a seed that is a quarter inch thick will be planted a half-inch deep. Most times I stick my seeds in horizontally to the depth desired. Don’t worry too much, it doesn’t need to be an exact science, just stick em in and wait for them to sprout. However, seeds smaller than a pepper, Capsicum spp., I surface sow, or lightly dust potting mix on. Literally just add the seeds to the top of your potting trays.


Peanut seed planted to correct depth


Seeds smaller than Capsicum spp are surface sown

Preferences for seed starting

I prefer to start almost all my seeds in my ‘sunhouse’, rather than planting directly into the ground. For whatever reason, most things I put directly into beds disappear and don’t sprout, I don’t know if its ants, birds, rats, too much rain or whatever factor I’m not considering, so I just play it safe and plant it somewhere safe and sheltered.

My ‘sunhouse’ consists of a clear plastic roof to allow sunlight in, but keep rains out. Also the space should be rat and bird proof, for me, I just threw netting around my table. This space should be near a water source, whether that be a small catchment system coming off your roof to allow a hose to be attached. Or simply close enough to your home structure so that you can water with a hose. The place should be raised off the ground, so grasses and other weedy plants don’t drop seeds into your trays. This system could be as simple or elaborate as needed. I know people who just grow their seeds under the eve of the house on the sunny side. So just keep these factors in your mind when creating a place to start seeds.


My Sunhouse

I typically use three types of trays or pots to start seed: the typical 4-pack, a smaller 6-pack tray, and a larger ¼ gallon pot (for fruit trees). These can all be purchased for under a dollar each. You could cut toilet paper or paper towel rolls to size, or really use anything you can think of, you just want to make sure you can take out the plant safely without damaging roots or soils.


My prefered tray sizes


Use larger pots for larger seeds

Plant Variety or Crop

One of the main problems starting seed and growing vegetables in the tropics is variety. Think about it; ‘typical’ vegetables in the grocery stores are temperate or Mediterranean climatic plants, because well, that’s where mega farms are located. The ‘western’ diets consist of those plants because those are the plants that developed in the regions where those people lived.

The tropics are another story. We simply cannot grow onion, broccoli or other ‘staple’ vegetables (unless you live in higher elevations or have a completely controlled environment). However, there are relatives of these common plants that do thrive in hot, humid, wet environments. So these are the seeds to look for. When I buy heirloom seeds online, I look for Thai or Southern varieties because I know the climate is similar. Another option is University of Hawaii seeds because they too have been selected to thrive in our environment. The best way to ensure optimal results is to change your diet to include things that grow in your climate.

Final Considerations

  • Label all seed trays, you may think you’ll remember dates and varieties, but after a month I cant remember anything of that matter!
  • Use quality seedling soil mix. I used regular potting soil for a while, and once I switched to seedling mixes the difference was night and day. I also add biochar to my seedling mixes to add soil structure and drainage.
  • Once you fill your trays with soil, water them multiple times before adding seeds, it will fill in air pockets and make the medium moist and ready to start germination.
  • Add multiple seeds into trays in case some of them don’t germinate. It’s easier to thin out plants than it is to start new trays if you have spotty germination. One plant per tray is ideal. Multiple sprouts in a single tray create too much competition.
  • Flats may be used if you plan to transplant them into their own trays when they are ready.
  • Once seeds are planted, water them daily; in the morning or the evening, and keep a steady routine, plants rely upon consistent conditions.
  • Seeds do not need nutrients before they sprout. Long-term germinating plants, like fruit trees, I simply throw in cinder or cinder soil. Once they sprout, place them into their own pot with nice soil and allow them to grow.
  • Starting from seed saves money rather than buying starts at a market. You could buy a single plant for $3 or you could buy a seed packet with 300 seeds for $3. Hmm.
  • The only downside to buying seed packets, are that they come with too many seeds for a small scale, and our environment is not conducive to store seed regularly. So there are a few options: you can share seeds with friends, or plant all the seeds in a pack and share the excess product. Plant all the seeds and eat most of them as sprouts or micro-greens, saving the largest and most vigorous for the garden to become mature plants. The final option is to save them temporarily for yourself. My method for storing seed: get small zip lock bags; add unused seed. Make sure it’s labeled well, air free (as much as possible), then take all your baggies and put them in a mason jar, then store in the fridge. Seeds will last a few months and retain their viability. If you leave your seeds in their original packets they will deteriorate pretty quickly.
  • Hybrid seeds do not set viable seed, buy non-hybrids if you plan to save seed. I typically buy heirloom seeds because they are open pollinated and have specific qualities that I desire. Also, who wouldn’t want purple beans, orange tomatoes and red carrots?



Store seed in air-free baggies in a mason jar in the fridge

Happy Gardening!

Okinawan Spinach (Gynura bicolor)


Okinawan Spinach, Gynura bicolor, is another leafy green that everyone should grow. This plant is a highly ornamental, low-growing perennial, which produces an abundance of leaves and tender shoots. The yellow/orange flowers attract butterflies and the leaves are high in protein and have cholesterol-lowering properties. Plants are shrubby sprawlers that attain heights of about four feet. Perfect for an edible landscape or as a weed suppressing ground cover. There are two different varieties, a fully green one and a green and purple one. The purple variety seems to thrive in deeper shade.

I will also include Longevity Spinach, Gynura procumbens, in this post because they are extremely similar plants, grown and eaten the same way with a slightly different taste and nutrition content.


Green variety


Purple variety


Longevity Spinach (larger leaves)


Okinawan Spinach is grown from cuttings.

Stick into the ground and it will root in about a week.


Cut stem


Remove older leaves


stick into the ground


Plants prefer part shade, and will grow easily and effortlessly.

Regular pruning promotes branching; therefore, creating an abundance of tender shoots and leaves for consumption!


The leaves are best eaten mixed with other greens to avoid an overtly strong flavor.

Tender leaves and shoot tips may be eaten raw, steamed, stir fried, sautéed, or used in soups, stews or tempura.

Older tougher leaves should be cooked and are less palatable. However, over cooking may lead to sliminess.

Where to obtain planting materials

Ask anyone you know growing Okinawan Spinach for cuttings. You may also find them at a farmers market or a plant sale.

My Garden

Okinawan spinach is one of the first plants I started growing here at the house. I just stuck it into the ground in cinder, and forgot about it. Nearly two years later, it’s still thriving and is a keystone ornamental next to the front entryway. I typically forget about the plant and whenever I’m in need of some crunchy greens, I bump into it. Stumbling through the dense vegetation looking for the sprawling stems, they typically find the shadiest places in the understory and emerge through the top layer of the shrubs and fall back down toward the ground. Making it extremely easy to grab a running ‘vine’ and cut it off to eat the leaves. This, in-turn, gives me propagation materials, I then take them and stick them into the ground in the food forest. Generating an overabundance of high quality leafy greens for consumption. Wow, I love tropical gardening!


Happy Gardening!

Luffa (Luffa spp.)


Luffa (Luffa spp.) or angled gourd is another useful multipurpose plant. The small immature fruit may be eaten and mature fruits, once dried, are luffa sponges, great for dishwashing or bathing! Like most cucurbits, the buds, flowers, young leaves and tender shoots are also edible. The fibrous interior of mature fruits can also be used as filters to remove oil from water. Although it is an annual, this plant lives for a long time, creating tons of fruit!

This is one of the few cucurbits I can grow successfully that doesn’t get attacked by the pickleworm, and is virtually pest free, giving me a useful product as well as food. If you have trouble growing squash, cucumbers, gourds, or melons; try luffa and chayote (see previous post).



Luffa is grown from seed; direct sowing works well, as does transplanting. If transplanting, put into the ground as soon as possible, as not to allow them to become root bound.



This plant grows moderately fast, so give it someplace to sprawl, or climb and forget about it. Once you see prolific flowering, check periodically for young fruits, to harvest for consumption. If you plan to use them as a sponge, harvest when fruits are 1-3 feet long.

Fruits grown on a trellis, or allowed to climb, will become elongated, creating large straight fruits. It will be easily harvestable if grown this way.

If allowed to grow on the ground, fruits may become curved and create a more snake like shape. Fruits grown like this are harder to find for harvest, harder to prevent rot and check up on. Fruits growing directly on the ground should be lifted off the ground somehow; put on a rock or log/stick so moisture doesn’t collect and rot out the fruit prematurely.


Young fruit (up to seven inches) may be eaten raw or cooked like zucchini. Larger fruits if still tender, must be peeled and cooked. Great for stir fry and soups.


During the dry season fruits will dry perfectly fine on the plant, however, during the rest of the year when we get constant rains, harvesting the fruit ensures product consistency.

This is how I process my mature fruits into sponges. First, harvest mature fruit when 1-3 feet long, a good indicator is to wait until the green fruit turns yellowish. Second, I leave the fruit on the dashboard of my car for about a week. Once the skin of the fruit is brown, crispy and cracks when you apply pressure, it’s ready. Next, pop off the stem and some of the skin and smack around the fruit to knock loose the seeds; pouring them into a convenient place. Then crack and peel the skin off the fruit and use as a sponge!


Drying. Dried. Peeled.

Where to obtain planting materials

You could ask anyone growing luffa for some seeds, as one fruit gives at least 50 seeds, anyone would be happy to give them away. You could buy a luffa from the farmers market and take out those seeds and plant them. Or you could buy a seed pack online or at the local garden store.

My Garden

Like I mentioned earlier, this is one of the few squash I can grow successfully. So, I’ve been planting it all around the yard. First, I tried growing it as a ground cover, but it doesn’t grow profusely enough to cover and shade the ground, and its always finding a way to sneak and climb up something! But the plant is delicate and has a moderate enough growth, that I can allow it to grow up some trees and around other places I can maintain, but allow to grow on its own. It is also an annual, so it will die back and allow the tree to grow without the stress of a climber once the squash has lived out its life-cycle. Fruits do get heavy on the vine, so make sure the vine doesn’t climb young trees as it could snap branches. I grow my vines year round always having sponges and food. This is a great carefree plant that everyone should be growing. Who wouldn’t want chemical free sponges, grown from home?



Happy Gardening!

Sissoo Spinach (Alternanthera sissoo)


Sissoo spinach, Alternanthera sissoo, or Brazilian spinach is the perfect edible perennial groundcover. Sissoo forms dense mats a foot thick and shades out the soil, making weed seed germination nearly impossible. The leaves are purely crunchy without any slimy texture. This plant grows thick, lush, and roots when nodes touch the soil, what a perfect plant. Sissoo loves the shade too!



Take some rooted stems and throw them on the ground. Literally. I like to stick the cut end into the soil, maybe add some mulch and forget about it.

Sisso does not produce viable seeds. The only way it will spread is from the original planting.


Cut off stem


Remove bottom leaves and stick into the ground. It will root overnight


Sissoo prefers 50% shade and will grow deep green, tender leaves. If grown in a sunnier location it will grow well but not as lush and tender. Perfect under a tree!

It also likes to be pruned back for vigorous growth, making harvesting a must to keep the plant looking healthy.

I’ve found that planting a cluster rather than a single plant produces a dense ground cover, and pruning the plant often, adding the cuttings right around the parent plant.

This plant also loves organic matter, so be sure to enrich the soil a few times a year.


The leaves may be eaten raw, sauteed, steamed or boiled. This spinach does contain small amounts of oxalic acid, meaning if you eat large (large) quantities, you should cook them. They do cook quickly though.

Where to obtain planting materials

Ask a friend growing sissoo for some cuttings. It may also be found at some farmers markets or plant sales.

My Garden

One of my neighbors gave me a ton of cuttings a few months ago (thanks!), and I used them to really establish an area. Since this area has taken off, I’ve been eating a bunch of these leaves. It has great flavor and is actually one of the best ground covers I’ve used. In the shade not much can compete with it. It was the perfect addition to my perennial bed in the main garden. Including air-potato, winged bean, cranberry hibiscus, Malabar spinach, culantro, and with watermelon, and long beans. As this planting matures I will gladly spread cuttings to other areas I wish to have a carefree ground cover. Basically everywhere!


Happy Gardening!

Soil Building/Bed Making

This months entry is a little bit different than those in the past. Instead of talking about a specific plant, I’m going to describe how soils are made, and how I create soil and garden beds.

When I use the word organic, I mean organic matter, or natural earth made materials that will naturally decompose over time. “It is matter composed of organic compounds that has come from the remains of organisms such as plants and animals and their waste products in the environment.” Not to be confused with the the label ‘organic’ meaning that it has been certified by an organization.

First of all, soil is the most important part of growing anything. More important than the plant itself.

I live in Puna, Hawaii. Here our active volcanoes dictate our landscape. I live in a region where the most recent lava flow through was 3-500 years ago. Meaning our forest has had some time to recreate itself and build soil (4-6 inches of beautiful rich organic matter).

Learn from observation

Let’s take a lesson from the forest, a self regulating entity, to learn how to create soils.

As you look around young lava flows, what do you see happening? You see ōhiʻa lehua, Metrosideros polymorpha, repopulating the open landscape: finding a crack, growing, dropping its leaves, building soil and making habitat for other plants to move in. In the early stages of the forest you notice only two plants really thriving, ōhiʻa lehua and uluhe fern, Dicranopteris linearis. These two plants shed tons of organic matter, resulting in leaf litter covering the ground, and uluhe sprawling expansively covering the ground acting as a living mulch. This happens for a few hundred years until the trees grow large enough to shade out the fern, allowing open areas for other tree species to populate. In a native Hawaiian landscape, birds and wind disperse seeds of other species to grow. However, in our current environment we’ve lost most of our lowland native birds to extinction, resulting in almost no dispersal of native trees. Allowing the dispersal of alien plants to move in and take over the forest. Creating a forest nonetheless.


Beginnings of a forest (ōhiʻa lehua)




Young forest (ōhiʻa lehua and uluhe)


Planters at Kaimū following natural cycles. Speeding up the process and growing food plants (Breadfruit and coconut)

Let’s think about what the plants are doing to create soil in this new forest. They are dropping leaves, plants may die, and everything falls to the ground eventually. Now this is where things get interesting. Microscopic life, fungus, bacteria, insects, lichens, whatever you can think of, start doing their work. They decompose all this matter, including rocks, into rich soils. A warm, moist, shaded environment speeds up this process. Through these soils, plants obtain their nutrients and live out their life cycle.

Resource Management

Now, let’s translate this into building soil for our own benefits. First off, all plant matter is a resource. Remember that. That is the MOST IMPORTANT factor to think of in your garden. I never take materials to green waste (unless they are diseased). All those pesky weeds, albizia, waiwi, arthrostemma, and everything else are valuable resources ready to take part in soil building.

So, how do we use these resources? Think about a compost pile, the basic components are nitrogen (green) and carbon (brown) based materials. What happens over time? The materials break down and turn into organic matter.

Hint: Did you know that albizia (Falcataria moluccana) is a nitrogen fixing tree? One of the most important macro nutrients for plants. Have you thought about ways to use its ability to fix nitrogen for your favor? How about coppicing? Literally cutting the tree back hard, as soon as it reaches a desired height. Once the tree is cut it releases its nitrogen from the soil because the roots are larger than the above ground parts and it loses them to compensate for the loss of trunk. Leaving this nitrogen available for other plants to take up. The leaves of the tree are high in nitrogen as well, so using them as mulch around you plants also feeds them, just be careful not to add mature branches or trunk pieces as they will re-root if they are touching the soil. A little bit more work than poisoning the trees, however, you have long term fertility for free. If you have large trees, I would recommend getting them professionally cut and not poisoned, and therefore you can manage them afterward, and cut their new trunks when they reach an inch or two in diameter. This will eventually kill the tree, but you may as well use it for its benefits while its still alive and growing! ****Please do not use this method in native forests, the plants there evolved in low nitrogen soils, adding nitrogen will make environments more favorable for invasive plants.


Coppiced albizia

Soil Making

This is how I create soil, taking care of all my leafy weedy plants. I simply throw them all in a pile at least 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet (a cube). Taller and wider is acceptable, but it must be at least those dimensions for proper sped up decomposition. I build my piles as tall as I can, stomp them down for decompression, then simply cover them (tarp, weed mat, cardboard, whatever) for 6-9 months. Yes this is a while, but in all honesty that is really quick for soil making. What do you do after this time? Check under the tarp and look at your black gold. The pile will have shrunk considerably, but what you have left is pure organic matter ready to start life again.

I make two kinds of piles. One is a large pile that is covered, and the other I add weeds to over time as I pull them from the garden. The covered one is left alone and will become soil more quickly, but I constantly have materials that need to go somewhere, so why not add them to a pile. These piles are separate from my compost pile, which is managed for a quicker turnaround. I wont go into detail on my compost because I’m still trying to figure out a better method.


‘black gold’ – completed pile


covered large pile


uncovered add-on pile

Key Factors Gardening in the Tropics

Due to our heavy rains, nutrients are leached quickly from our soils, and our soils are acidic. Which is fine for most tropical plants because they too evolved to thrive in acidic soils, but in your veggie garden, where things prefer neutral soils we have to amend to raise pH.

Because our nutrients are leached out quickly from the subsoil, plants themselves contain precious nutrients that are unavailable elsewhere. So mulching and chop and drop are highly recommended to cycle nutrients to other plants. And our richest soils are on the surface, creating the organic layer where most plants will obtain its nutrients. Therefore, creating no-till systems will retain highest availability of nutrients.

Chop and drop examples:

Bed Making

All of my beds are raised beds. I use rocks and logs as my borders and mound the soil in my beds. Know what you’re going to grow in that bed. Maybe just sweet potatoes, maybe a veggie garden, different plants have different needs. If growing a mixed veggie garden give it lots of nutrients. My bed making style is a mix between huglekulture and sheet mulching. I’ve found this method to be effective in building nutrients and using plant materials.

  1. I always lay down cardboard first. Weed suppression is key. Remove tape from cardboard before you put it down, or remove it as you see it in the future.
  2. Shape beds with whatever materials around, rocks and dead trees seem to be the most abundant resources I have.
  3. Add layer of any raw organic matter. Leaves, branches, whole plants, tree trunks, it doesn’t matter, as long as it will decompose over time and feed nutrients into the soil. (huglekulture style). Adding problematic weeds at this stage will prevent them from regrowing because they will be completely covered and unable to grow at all.
  4. Depending on what you are growing: amend to raise pH. I use dolomite lime because it gives me magnesium as well as raising pH. Spread a layer recommended by label. Lime and dolomite are two minerals found around the world. They are found naturally and contain no chemicals, so there’s no need to be worrisome about poisoning your bed. (dolopril or calcium carbonate work as well)
  5. Add soil. Unless you have a supply of soil ready to go, I would pick up some cinder-soil from a quarry, and to be honest you may as well get the cheapest one available, as they are all leached soils, no reason to pay more for that degraded top soil. But cinder is important in heavy rain areas to promote drainage.
  6. Add compost, self made soil, indigenous microorganisms (IMOs), biochar, chicken manure, potting soil, or any other organic amendments on top layer. You may mix the organic matter and cinder-soil, but I wouldn’t mix them too deep as the top layer is the most important.
  7. Add mulch. Any materials that will cover the soil works. Banana leaves, coconut leaves, mulch from the transfer station, fern leaves. Anything really.
  8. Plant into your bed. If its dry season I would water the bed as you make it. If its rainy season, let the bed get rained on and plant away.

Steps 1 & 2. Lay down cardboard and shape bed


Step 3. Add organic matter (any raw plant matter will do, trunks, branches, leaves, weeds)


Step 4-6. Add soil and amendments (biochar)


Step 4-6. Add final amendments and mix top layer


Step 8. Plant (sweet potato cuttings)


Step 7. Add mulch


Bed a few months later. (sweet potato, mulberry and fig)

Happy Gardening!