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Monday, July 10, 2000

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
At Pearl City Urban Garden Center, director Dale Sato,
who developed the center, kneels by a scarecrow made of pots.

Urban garden sows
seeds of knowledge

Pat Sato grew a boyhood
dream into a special place where
plants and imaginations can flourish

By Pat Gee


When Dale Sato was a high school student over 25 years ago, he accidentally mowed down a citrus tree with a tractor. For that, he was lectured vigorously for an hour.

During that hour, he resolved to plant as many types of citrus varieties in existence so that losing one would not be the end of the world. Today, citrus trees and hundred of other plants thrive under his direction at the Pearl City Urban Garden Center, a 30-acre one-stop educational facility.

"My dream was to develop a garden center like this. It's almost like a hobby to me," said Sato.

The Pahoa native's dream has resulted in the Outstanding Alumnus Award from the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture.

Sato accepted the award on behalf of the volunteers "who do all the work." Most of the volunteers are "retired, love gardening and love to share their talents" in such fields as mechanics, computers and teaching.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Jesse Del Rosario of Friendship Christian Schools
in Ewa, along with others, is shown a "lipstick"
plant by docent Joe Mori.

In 1988 he accepted the challenge to transform 30 acres of underutilized flood zone land under a freeway into the garden center with a $100,000 federal grant.

Cars whizzing by on H-1 provide a jarring backdrop to the solitude of the garden center, neatly sectioned by white picket fences and guarded by eccentric scarecrows.

About 73 volunteers, a few of them mainland residents who come seasonally, are the backbone of the facility, he said.

Toshi Odagiri, 72, lives just down the road and repairs golf carts and lawn mowers on the property. He also raises orchids and grows the best lettuce, Sato said. Odagiri has been a volunteer for 10 years and never misses a day, he said.

"I like watching things grow. I grew up on a plantation farm and liked growing things from small-kid time," said Odagiri, who misses his favorite pastime when he goes on a vacation.

4-H Clubs and other groups have also pitched in to create innovative features such as the pizza garden, a colorful maze of 61 types of shrubs, a Hawaiian alphabet garden and a section devoted to plants with animal names, like cat's whiskers, kangaroo's paw and rabbit's foot fern.

The pizza garden includes everything normally found on a pizza, such as oregano, green peppers, onions, tomatoes and even pineapple. Right now, the kids are helping to put in a sundial/compass garden with colorful bedding plants, Sato said.

Sato gets his ideas from his yearly trips to famous gardens on the mainland. "I like to try something different, something creative to stimulate interest. ... A garden should always be dynamic and changing, not stagnant. A garden is supposed to make you say, 'Wow!'" he said.

But in spite of the garden center's attributes, Sato is still not satisfied. "This doesn't say, 'Wow,'" he added.

If he had more paid staff and money, Sato would build a "high-tech facility, a building for the general public" so more classes could be held. He would make the grounds handicapped-accessible, provide more interactive educational displays like the maze, and put in garden statuary and ornaments.

Like the cobbler's children who don't have shoes, Sato is too busy to garden at home. "I do everything here, from being the janitor to operating heavy equipment," he said. He describes his job as "ideal -- plants don't talk back."

But until the center says, "Wow," Sato will always be looking for ways to make gardening as exciting to the public as it is to him.

The center is open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday and the first Saturday morning of every month for tours. Schools may call 453-6050 or 453-6053 to arrange special tours.

E-mail to City Desk

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