11/11/2013 05:56 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Jungle Beat: Ka'u Community Garden

The communities surrounding Na'alehu, at the Big Island's southern tip, are proud to lay claim to being the most southerly of all the United States. From the Punalu'u Bake Shop to the Shaka Restaurant, people and businesses in the sparsely populated Ka'u District are a distinct breed.

Change comes slowly to Ka'u (cow-OO) and many people continue to suffer from the shutdown of the sugarcane industry that occurred between 1990 and 2002. Life in this bucolic area is quiet and the people are fiercely independent, with strong goals to "Keep Ka'u Country."

Well, "keeping it country" is exactly what the Ka'u Community Garden is all about. Started in November 2011, the Garden is run 100 percent by volunteers and is tasked with helping to provide fresh, healthy food to those in the local community who might not otherwise have access to good nutrition or whose budgets don't allow it. The mission, according to the Ka'u Community Garden blog, is to "produce food for Ka'u residents, teach others how to produce food, experiment with different ways to produce food and to be a teaching ground for our keiki."

By joining forces with others, volunteers share their knowledge, experience and talents to ensure that the Garden benefits the largest possible number of people in the surrounding region. Individuals and businesses have been a blessing to the garden as well. For example, Betty of Discovery Harbor donated a storage shed and Island Market in Na'alehu supplies wooden pallets and the stacks of cardboard that are necessary for weed control.

"We currently have one acre, which has been donated to us by the owner," reported co-coordinator Sue Barnett, "but we have permission to use all five of the acres. The garden will comprise up to two acres and we plan to develop a pasture for sheep, chickens and other livestock on the other three." Along with Harvey McDaniels, Barnett and other volunteers all work to the best of their abilities and expertise. "Most of our volunteers are between the ages of 62 and 82, so we're hoping to attract some younger people," she added.

Gardening and sustainability classes are high on the list of the Garden's activities. "We have started holding our 'grow it at home' workshops for newcomers to gardening," Barnett added. "And soon we'll open to the public so everyone can come and see how easy it is to create a garden and grow many food items."

The list of crops growing at the Garden is already large and includes sweet potatoes, beets, Swiss chard, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, onions, leeks, green beans, snap and snow peas, tomatoes, herbs, gourds, pipinola squash (chayote), wing beans, kohlrabi and carrots. "We also are growing some native plants, including maile, mamaki and seven varieties of taro," Barnett said as she ticked off crops on the Garden's list.

"We're completely organic," Barnett announced. "We use locally collected horse and chicken manure currently and will soon be building a rabbitry that will house about six bunnies. We have five sheep, but they aren't on the property yet -- their manure will be a valuable addition to what we're already using. We have begun creating compost, mulch and biochar, which is a carbon-rich form of charcoal that increases soil fertility. Our hoop house was made possible thanks to donations and has given us a place to start seeds and propagate plants."

The Ka'u Community Garden is always looking for donations of the following types of materials: newspapers, 5-gallon buckets, seeds, plant starts, food-producing trees and other food plants, old carpeting, wood scraps and lumber, an old catchment tank and HI 5 recyclables. You may drop any of these items at the Na'alehu farmers market -- ask for Sue Barnett on Wednesday and Diane Nelson on Saturday.