garden patch in the city

Michelle Liu
September 26, 2023

Green space can be limited in cities, but that’s not stopping dozens of people in Waikiki from growing fruits and vegetables. Some residents in high-rise buildings that surround Jefferson Elementary School are beautifying a formerly barren space with fruit trees, vegetables in all stages of growth, and sprouting herbs.

The Jefferson Ohana community garden is on campus property.

Planting roots
The school started the community garden in 2015 under its STEM initiative. Principal Garret Zakahi wanted to create a space where students could observe, explore, and learn the science and benefits of gardening.

“They’re making connections between what they see in the grocery store and what it takes to grow and care for the produce,” explains Zakahi.

Volunteers who live in nearby high-rises tend the garden beds on property, where they water, weed, and grow fruits and vegetables of their choice. Wumaier Yilamu has been part of the project since the beginning. His three kids were students at Jefferson when the garden opened.

Yilamu with his son, Rafael, and daughters, Clara and Flora, in 2017.

For the last eight years, the Yilamu family has been eating farm-to-table, creating dishes like stir-fried beef with kale harvested from their garden. While they appreciate having their garden as a food source, they’ve enjoyed giving back to the community more. They’ve witnessed how much this hands-on experience in nature helps children grow.

“They’ve learned how to produce organic food sources and work with others,” says Yilamu. “Gardening also helps them develop character. It takes perseverance, collaboration, and a sense of responsibility.”

Yilamu with his daughters today.

Green thumbs
The volunteer gardeners have planted a variety of vegetables, fruits, herbs, and ornamentals. There are rows of Okinawan sweet potatoes, tomato plants, stalks of ti leaf, and more. It takes a lot of hard work to ensure that everything thrives.

Flora and Clara taking care of a fruit tree.

“I love to pat my trees and water the garden because I know the next time I visit, the plants will have grown a little taller and gifted us with more fruit,” says Yilamu.

His family has planted papaya, avocado, chili peppers, and guava. Yilamu recalls how some of their fruit trees came to be. His daughter, Flora, brought home some guavas from a play date with her friend five years ago. They kept the seeds and there’s now a 10-foot-tall guava tree in their garden. Their star fruit trees came from seeds from a star fruit he bought at a farmers market on Kauai.

“Every plant has a story,” says Yilamu.

Building a community
When Yilamu and the other volunteer gardeners first got their planter beds, they were filled with soil enriched with compost from the Honolulu Zoo. The collaboration has continued for the last eight years.

Clara and Flora watering some plants in their garden bed.

“We’re right across the street from each other so we wanted to create a partnership that benefits both of us,” says Zakahi.

The school cuts banana stumps from the gardens and gives them to the zoo’s elephants. In return, the elephants provide the school with manure that’s mixed with compost and placed into worm bins. When worms eat through the mixture, they produce waste known as vermicast. The combination of the “zoo doo” and vermicast forms the nutrient-rich soil for the garden beds.

The initiative began with just four garden beds, which has since expanded to 24. Everyone has their own assigned space, but they don’t mind sharing their produce. There’s a “pluck, but don’t pull” policy for fruit trees: you can pluck what you need, but make sure you don’t pull all the fruit.

The Yilamu family's star fruit tree.

“Our volunteers are always happy, smiling, and talking story with one another and to me,” says Zakahi. “They’re thankful for the opportunity to garden, provide food for their ohana, and work with and learn from the other gardeners.”

“No man is an island,” says Yilamu. “We live together, work together, and build our community together.”

All photos courtesy Wumaier Yilamu

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