Garden of life


POSTED: Thursday, May 14, 2009

Herbert Murata's small urban garden sustains him, in more than the obvious ways.







        Here are some tips for urban, organic gardening from Herbert Murata, who says Hawaii's climate is ideal for such efforts:

» Raise the garden bed. His plot is about a foot off the ground, set in cinderblocks. Besides keeping away ground pests, it also means he has to stoop less.


» Planting in pots and trays makes it easier to diversify the crops.


» Plant the items you need the most for nutrition; that provides a sense of purpose.


» Keep compost buckets going at all times, and rotate soil to maintain nutrients.


» Provide adequate drainage, and don't overwater.


» Avoid too much sun; if plants start to wilt, put up a shade.


» Don't use chemical pesticides or herbicides. Do use organic fertilizer.


» Keep the plot's borders raked clean and free of grass and weeds to reduce the number of snails, cockroaches and other pests.


» Put the garden in a convenient spot; if it's hard to get to, you won't go.


It provides nutritious fresh greens and medicinal herbs for him and his ailing wife, it saves him money on grocery bills, eases his mind about foodborne illnesses, gets him outdoors and revives fond childhood memories. Most of all, it feeds his soul.

“;When I moved here … I thought 'This is where I'm going to come and die,'”; said Murata, 89, a retired pastor who lives in public housing for the elderly in Waipahu. “;But no! As long as we are on this earth we can be useful and joyful.”;

Murata grew up on a coffee farm in Holualoa, on the Big Island, immersed in nature. His parents, Japanese immigrants, looked to their native Hawaiian neighbors for advice on how to live off the land, and he grew up self-reliant as a farmer, fisherman and hunter. After serving in World War II and going to college on the G.I. bill, Murata became a Christian missionary, living in Japan for 20 years, where he learned more about horticulture. When he returned to North Kona with his wife and two daughters, he turned about an acre of the family farm into an organic food garden, cultivating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

When he and his wife, Millie, 90, moved to the Waipahu apartment about nine years ago, he figured his farming days were over — along with the self-sufficiency and sense of “;aloha aina”; he cherished.

But the housing complex has a community garden nestled between the two seven-story apartment buildings, and after some time on the waiting list, Murata got a space about five years ago.

He has the zeal of an evangelist as he extols the virtues of urban organic gardening, and insists that if he can do it, anybody can — in a speck of yard, on a lanai or even indoors.

“;I'm halfway crippled (from an old back injury), I barely walk, and my wife has Alzheimer's disease. … We could just stay in bed and watch TV all day long, and that wouldn't help us very much,”; he said Monday. “;Going to the garden every day … has been the best therapy for me. It's good for your mind, body and spirit.”;

Right now, he's growing dryland watercress, two kinds of spinach, Romaine lettuce, leeks, green onions, mint, and medicinal herbs in trays and pots in his 4-foot by 8-foot plot. He picked that mix because the plants grow quickly, thrive together, provide nutrients that he and his wife need and tend to be expensive in the grocery store. “;I could grow carrots, but carrots don't cost much (at the store) and take a long time to grow,”; he said. “;You have to think about those things.”;

He rides a mobility scooter from his apartment to the garden, where he spends about 30 minutes a day tending his plants. He trims the greens every few days, providing enough for salad twice a day, every day. Composting and rotation keep the soil rich, and he's still harvesting plants that took root three years ago.

“;If I can do it with such limitations, then I would say anyone could do it, anyplace. With this garden I feel secure,”; he said. “;Having a little garden and knowing how to grow food, I feel is essential right now. It's something to sustain you no matter how bad things get.”;

Beyond stocking his own fridge, inspiring others to garden and encouraging seniors to maintain cherished hobbies as they age, Murata hopes his experience gets people thinking.

“;We are living in an age … when we've lost all the good farmlands,”; he said. “;The native Hawaiians lived off the land and the sea. I can think of no better lifestyle. We individually must make every effort to take care of ourselves in Hawaii. I can't do much, but I feel that if I can do this little thing before I pass away, I will have accomplished something.”;