KALIHIWAI — Krista Ruchaber went to the Kauai Food Forest Saturday morning to gather medicinal plants, and she ended up harvesting rollinia from a tree laden with the fruit.
“The market is happening in Kilauea,” she said as a five-gallon bucket was filled with the fruit, which resembles a soursop or a cherimoya.
The fruit isn’t common on the island, said Paul Massey, who helped start the Kauai Food Forest, but encountering rare plants is a frequent occurrence in the forest.
Rollinia is one of more than a hundred different kinds of plants scattered strategically throughout an acre and a half just north of Kilauea town, leased to Malama Kauai in 2009 from Bill and Joan Porter.
It’s a permaculture-centered agriculture operation where people in the community can learn the ways plants coexist, how to create an abundant forest ecosystem, and where people can dig their fingers into the dirt themselves.
The idea for the Kauai Food Forest was developed by students in a permaculture design course taught by Massey and a production team. Seven months after the April 2009 permaculture class, Malama Kauai signed the lease.
The land was a bare field that had been home to guava trees for 35 years before it was cleared. As soon as they had the lease signed, people from Regenerations Botanical Garden, Permaculture Kauai, Malama Kauai and other volunteers covered the land with cardboard sheet mulch.
“Everybody huied up in the beginning and then the people who were crazy about plants were coming,” Massey said.
The idea of the food forest’s varied plants is to provide a never-ending flow of food from the land. Fruit trees usually take anywhere from three to 12 years to bear, so volunteers at Kauai Food Forest have planted other things around them.
Permaculture also adds human presence into the equation.
“In general, it’s trying to build a system and provide a perfect environment for humans to live in cooperation with nature,” Massey said. “In a fully fledged permaculture design, humans are living in the landscape.”
People can’t live in the Kauai Food Forest, but community members can take a page from the Food Forest’s book and give it a try at home. Massey said he had a few ideas on how to get started — like repurposing waste around the home and composting.
Every plant in the Food Forest has a job, like the comfrey that keeps weeds at bay and provides nutrients when its leaves are used for mulch, and the nitrogen-fixing plants that are balancing the soil.
And the land is fertile. Food Forest volunteer Rob Cruz said they have trouble figuring out what to do with all the bananas they are growing.
Within the bounty, experiments are taking form. Cruz is tinkering with different types of turmeric, for instance, and just secured a batch of white turmeric from the Big Island to try.
“We’re excited about this way (of growing food), and it may be a better choice than other models,” Massey said. “It’s up to us to demonstrate it.”
And there’s room at the Kauai Food Forest for more hands on deck. Massey said the group is open to the public and hoping for more volunteers.
It’s a good way to learn how to grow your own food, Cruz said.
“It’s a seed bank out here,” Cruz said. “Come out and learn, copy us and create that for yourself.”
The group meets Saturdays at 8:30 a.m. for work days in the Kauai Food Forest. This Saturday the Food Forest will have 20 different types of taro starts available during the day.