Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, June 1, 2001

Leaves from the platycerium superbum or staghorn fern
form a cascade over a Chloroleucon tree trunk in Leland
Miyano's Kahaluu garden. The tree was chosen for its
tiny, delicate leaves that filter light for plants that grow
under it and form a particularly aesthetic layer of
mulch when they drop to the ground.

Secret  Garden

Landscape designer Leland Miyano
keeps his experiment with endemic
plants a private sanctuary

Natural gardening tips

By Suzanne Tswei

First let me apologize. I'm sorry I have to tell you about Leland Miyano's garden. I have to tell you about it because there's nothing like it. I'm sorry because you won't be able to see it in person.

Miyano is very busy. He's a much sought-after landscape designer. (If it makes you feel better, he doesn't even let his high-powered clients visit his garden.) When he does have time to himself, he likes to retreat to his personal garden sanctuary, and that's the way he likes to keep it -- private.

"You can see how things are in this garden. I really can't have people traipsing through here. It'd be too disruptive," Miyano said.

At first glance, the one-acre spread in Kahaluu appears more a wild tropical jungle than a well-tended garden. There are no immediately recognizable garden plans, no clearly delineating borders where one plot begins and another ends. Everything is jumbled together -- as nature would have it -- along meandering footpaths made of stone.

Dykia, a spikey bromeliad, grows like aloe, adding
another layer of texture to the landscape.

Large trees -- leopard trees from Brazil and Bismarkia palms from Madagascar, for example --- provide shady canopies here and there. Clinging to the branches are epiphytic plants -- orchids, hoya and giant staghorn ferns, among others. On the ground, cycads and endemic Hawaiian plants, for which he has a particular fondness, dot the landscape among bromeliads, heliconias, philodendrons and a seemingly endless assortments of plants.

One thing you won't find is massive plantings of showy flowering plants. Miyano's flowers are discreet. A lone ground orchid with the scent of grape jelly pokes its flowering spikes out among dainty ground covers. A cascading bougainvillea has the color of watered-down watermelon juice.

"I prefer muted colors. I like things more natural. I am not trying to improve on nature. I just want to learn from it.

A teak canoe from Thailand is housed in a pavilion.
The canoe is filled with ice to chill drinks when
Miyano entertains.

"When I started the garden, I never intended it to be seen. I was doing it for myself. This garden is my experiment, so to speak," Miyano said.

The experiment that he began about 20 years ago has brought him unexpected rewards. Rare visitors -- the amakihi, a tiny and shy green bird in the Hawaiian honeycreeper family, and the red-and-black Kamehameha Butterfly -- appear in his chemical-free garden.

The experiment also has earned him steady consulting work and international recognition. His garden has been featured in numerous magazines, books and on television programs, such as "The Victory Garden." Miyano's garden is featured in the latest issue of "Western Garden Book" by Sunset magazine, which also used him as a consultant on Hawaiian plants.

(For the first time, the Sunset reference book, $32.95 in paperback, includes a climate zone map for Hawaii and Alaska. It provides information on growing conditions and suitable plants for upland and lowland areas in the islands.)

A stone featuring the image of a monk was a gift
that adds a tranquil quality to Miyano's garden.

When Miyano took over the property, the land was nothing but a scruffy lawn bordered by a chain-link fence. He began small, clearing one patch at a time and planting it with trees that will one day provide the cover for his tropical rain forest.

"These trees all started as seedlings or cuttings. I like to begin with small plants. That way, you get to know your plants, how they grow. It's kind of like having children," Miyano said.

While he waited for the trees to mature, he cleared more land for planting islands and laid down the stone paths. He collected boulders and rocks of all sorts and brought them into the garden for natural accents and foundations.

"I personally moved every single rock in the garden at least twice. Once to get it in here, and maybe the second time because I didn't like where I put it. Every rock is moved by hand, with no machinery," Miyano said.

His father, Katsumi, a dentist, helped him haul giant boulders into the garden with nothing but homemade tools: Metal pipes, bamboo tripods and ropes. Katsumi, who is 77, still helps out on his days off. Miyano's mother, Florence, the artist in the family, helps out with small jobs and provides a second opinion on aesthetics. His wife, Karen, whom he met while volunteering at Foster Botanical Garden, also pitches in. But Miyano is the primary labor force.

MacArthur palms.

"Everything here I built up from scratch. This was all blazing hot sun and a lawn when I started. People kind of thought I was crazy. They said: 'Why do you want to do that, the plants aren't going to grow.' "

Miyano was working as a sculptor then --- yes, a starving artist with a fine arts degree from the University of Hawai'i -- and wanted to have a place for his plant collection, which grew from a chance encounter with two little cycads he found in a nursery. He bought the expensive plants as gifts for a girlfriend and found the palm-like conifer relative fascinating. He began reading about plants and collecting unusual plants, becoming an expert on cycads and palms in particular.

Eventually, he met the famed Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. The two collaborated on landscape projects and embarked on rescue missions to save the rain forests in South America.

"I was very fortunate to have met him. He was like me. He was an artist first but got distracted and got into plants. We thought alike; our ideas about keeping things natural were the same. He practically adopted me," Miyano said.

Miyano prefers subtle color in his garden, like the
splash of purple blossoms from the Dianella plant.

The knowledge he gained from working with Marx went into his garden, as well as the plants he gathered on those rescue missions. Some of those plants continue to thrive in his garden while others he found unsuitable and donated to botanical gardens.

"One thing about my garden is I am not afraid to put plants in and I am not afraid to take plants out. I don't want to be a slave to my garden. If a plant is too high maintenance, I'll take it out," Miyano said.

His constant editing has resulted in an ever-changing garden. It evolved from a manicured garden once dominated by bromeliads or heliconias (as it had appeared in a 1994 episode of "The Victory Garden") to a low-land rain forest accented with endemic Hawaii plants.

Leland Miyano collected boulders and rocks as
natural accents for his garden. Some will be
turned into sculptures.

"I'd prefer that my garden is all endemic Hawaiian plants, but that's impossible. We've lost so much. We've lost so many species and we don't even have the knowledge (of the native plants that grew at the site)" Miyano said.

Slowly, though, Miyano has planted 'akia, 'ulei, native palms and other Hawaiian plants to learn what could have been growing in ancient times. One of his earliest successes is 'ohia, which others had advised against.

"People told me it wouldn't grow, and if I wanted to grow it, it had to be in the shade. But it didn't do well in the shade. I moved it under the full sun, and it just took off," Miyano said.

He prefers the fuzzy-leaved 'ohia, which stand up to ravenous rose beetles better than the varieties with smooth leaves.

"This garden never stays the same. The Hawaii plants are small now but one day they will be the ones to take over," Miyano said. "Maybe this place will look like how it used to look before man came in and destroyed so much."

It's a bird! it's a plane! It's Koko the climbing terrier!

 | | |

Natural gardening
according to Leland Miyano:

>> Don't be a slave to your garden. Miyano spends only about a day each week maintaining his yard and relies almost exclusively on natural rainfall for watering. Plant only things that grow well in your garden without much care. Don't be afraid to move a plant to find the best location, and if it doesn't work out, get rid of it.

>> Keep chemicals out. Pesticides and herbicides aren't good for plants, birds or butterflies in the garden. Ultimately, the chemicals harm humans, too. Take care of pests and weeds as soon as they appear. Set up a quarantine area for new plants to make sure slugs and other pests are removed before planting them in the garden. Use compost and manure as fertilizers.

>> Incorporate many different kinds of plants. Think of the garden as a community of living things. Diversity creates a more natural-looking garden and helps keep pests under control. Too many of one type of plant may encourage proliferation of pests associated with it.

>> Take it slow. It's better to work on one small area at a time than to clear the entire yard, because barren earth encourages weeds. Working slowly also allows you to better observe the garden and make appropriate adjustments without having to undo everything.

>> Let the garden be your teacher. Pay attention to how the plants grow in your garden. Don't just rely on books and common wisdom. Every garden and every gardener is different.

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