Aloha, Herbs!

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KEA’AU, Hawaii–In Hawaii, where I live and grow medicinal herbs, it’s easy to forget the season. Changes in the weather are reflected in the fruits, vegetables and herbs that are in season at the time. Summer is mango season, and we look forward to that all year. Like many mainland gardens, certain crops, such as lettuce, do better in the slightly cooler winter months (although winter doesn’t last long in my lowland coastal climate). We can grow tomatoes, peppers, beans and such in the winter, but they do better in the summer. I try to set them out before the solstice on June 21 because I believe their growth is more robust when the hours of sunlight are increasing each day.

No matter what the season, we rely on rainfall to water our gardens and to fill our water tanks. Since the fall of 2002 we have been in an El Niño-related drought. Before I moved here in 1998, I used to chuckle when my Hawaiian friends complained about month-long droughts. “What do they know?” I thought, having lived through a seven-year drought in California in the 1970s and another shorter one in the ’80s. But it’s too true: If we don’t get 1/4 to 1/2 inch of rain almost every night, our gardens quickly become a dustbowl. During June of this year, even the native weeds, such as the Hawaiian versions of plantain, purslane and oxalis, were withering and turning brown. We water what we can with the amount of water we have, conserve in the house, sometimes buy water from large trucks that deliver 4,000 gallons to our tank, and pray for rain.

My large medicinal herb garden has noticeable moods: it is happy, vibrant and alive when there has been some rain but sad and dormant when it’s been dry for a spell, as if it’s reserving its energy the way you or I might take a nap on a hot summer afternoon.

Living as close to nature as we do in Hawaii encourages a connection with the earth, over which Mother Nature quickly reminds me I have no control. That in itself becomes a comfort, because I can relax and let go.

One of my central philosophies of gardening here in paradise is that, if a plant is adapted to the whims of the weather and can survive times of drought as well as soaking month-long rains, that plant is worthy of a spot in my garden. If it cannot survive such dramatic variety, it must go.

I baby certain plants, but I’m not certain that my valerian or lemon balm will survive on a long-term basis, even though I water them during dry spells. The native plants are extremely hardy. Their numbers continue to increase in my garden.

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