Shades of Gray

There is dramatic starkness in an acre of lava. The huge ancient swooping ohia trees provide more shades of black and gray against the stony landscape. Another early growth out of new lava is the bit of green fern that gives a spot of color amidst the somber monotone.

The legend told to every newcomer to Hawaii is that Madam Pele will turn you upside down and give you a good shaking. If you can survive that, she allows you to stay, but on her terms. Learning how to handle her and accommodate her moodiness is part of gardening here.

Walking across the a`a lava can be tricky, and I developed a better sense of balance in the process, along with nicks and bruises. Picking up the lava rocks can do some real damage to your skin. I tried using gloves at first, but found it was faster to simply pick them up to move them. My skin toughened up at last.

But skin wasn’t the only thing that suffered. The tires on my car were getting shredded from driving over the rough stones. I needed to cover up the driveway to protect my tires. I bought the cinder, and a friend called in a favor from a dump truck owner. Once the cinder was on the driveway, he used his little Bobcat and smoothed it out. What a difference it made!

I also wanted a place to park near the house, so a base was put down and cinder dumped on that, as well. Here are pictures of that process. Never would I have thought I could be that excited over a load of cinder!

. . . and not a drop to drink!

The first item to be addressed on our acre of lava was a 15,000 gallon water catchment tank full of algae. The water in the tank was full to the brim, but the color of the green on the sides of this blog! In the toilets, it was almost black.

I found a young man in the area who worked on water tanks He took one look inside and vowed he’d never seen a tank so green, and definitely didn’t encourage me to use it! Over the next few weeks, he “shocked” the water several times, killed off all the algae, then vacuumed it out. He went through this process several times, before he felt it was useable.

Notice, I didn’t say “drinkable!” Even after a couple of years, I still buy my drinking water, although I’m sure it is fine now. I plan to put in an ultra violet filter that will make it safe for drinking.

The cover on the tank was old, covered in bird sh*t, and a dead bird was in the bottom of the tank. As soon as the water started to look clear, I bought a new cover (see photo above). This keeps the sun off the water and protects it from any outside debris.

The gutters are designed to catch all our rain and pipe it to the tank. We added a gutter on the shed in order to maximize the water we caught. Every drop counts around here! There is a net bag at the end of each pipe to catch leaves and trash before the water enters the tank.

There is a pump under the house that then pumps the tank water back to the house for use. We installed two filters – one to take out the chlorine and the other to catch anything else that might have gotten through. These are replaced about every six weeks, or you end up with the pump clogged and not working.

While suburbanites make an effort to be “green” by buying 50-gallon rain barrels, that wouldn’t go far here on the south end of the Big Island of Hawai`i. We live off catchment water. We love the rainy season, and a drought can hit us hard. By late summer, I may have to buy 4,000 gallons ($150) from a water truck that gets it from the county. They will pump it in, getting us through until the first rain, but it messes up the chemical balance in the tank.

There is a delicate balance to maintain the water. The pH and chlorine levels need to be just right, so I’m constantly checking, then adding whatever is necessary to keep it right. I rigged a “Mark Twain” kind of rope so I can measure the depth. “Conservation” is the constant word of the day. But I lived on my 37′ sailboat ( so I already knew about conserving water.

There were so many things I wanted to do – plant a garden, make curtains, buy a stove – but our basic need for water came first. I’m pleased with what has been accomplished.

For more “official” information about all this, see the UH Cooperative Extension Service. (

Aloha until next week!


In beginning

I admit it! I get jealous when I read my usual gardening magazines and see people digging in rich loam, trying to decide the best landscape design to showcase their home.

I re-locate rocks!

My years of gardening in California and Arizona are proving to be useless here in Hawai`i. One would think it is similar, and that may be true for some parts of Hawai`i. It’s certainly not the case for those of us living on the south end of the Big Island of Hawai`i, and in this particular area.

I came to Hawai`i almost twelve years ago, but lived in an area where there was more decomposed lava, i.e., I had soil. When I bought this land and house two years ago, the only things blooming were ohia trees, which are one of the first things to grow after a lava flow, and wild yellow poppies that were spreading all over the area. (See photo above)

There is a beautiful legend about ohia trees and the lehua blossom that blooms on them.

On the surface, it looks like you could rake aside the rocks and find the soil underneath. But when you move a rock, all you find is more rock. Under the ohia trees there is a bit of tree litter starting to decompose, but mostly it’s a matter of finding soil somewhere else

The process involves moving aside enough rocks to get a nice hole (without the rocks rolling back down into the hole), then pouring in a bucket or bag of soil for your plant. Of course, every time it rains or you water, the soil filters down into the cracks between the lava rocks, so of course, you need to pour in more fresh soil.

Still, I’m very happy to be here, so I won’t bore you with what led to the purchase of this acre. This blog will guide you through the ongoing process of converting lava into a more friendly growing place.

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