It’s no wonder Glenn and Jane Goldsmith, founders of Goldsmith Seed Co., chose to live on the Hawaiian island of Kauai when they retired. Ever since Glenn managed a tropical plant nursery in graduate school, he dreamed of living where he could raise his own tropicals. The couple, now in their mid-70s, moved from their northern California home in 1997 into a spacious house nestled in a valley near the small town of Koloa.
The property, once part of a pineapple farm, contained several large palms and other trees that thrive in Kauai’s tropical climate. A tangle of hau bushes edged one part of the property, and guinea grass grew 10 to 15 feet tall along the east side of their yard in abandoned sugar-cane fields. “The landscape was somewhat neglected,” says Jane, “but it was attractive and we could see a lot of potential.”
Tropical garden paradise
Today, a winding driveway bordered with bougainvillea leads into the yard. Along the way, giant spider lilies and the striking turquoise flowers of a blue jade vine catch visitors’ eyes. A broad manicured lawn, interrupted by beds of tropical trees, shrubs, and flowers, surrounds the house.
“We wanted our garden to be tropical and lush,” says Jane. “Many people say our yard has the jungle look.” And it does. In their rock garden, for example, bromeliads with variegated red and green strap-like leaves complement a variety of orchids, including various species of Vanda, Dendrobium, and Epidendrum.
During their career at Goldsmith Seeds, the couple traveled to tropical locales where the company had seed-production facilities. Among their favorite souvenirs were seeds from new plants they saw. (With his vast knowledge of horticulture, Glenn knows which plants are invasive in his climate, so he brought back only seeds of non-invasive plants.)
In several spots in their Koloa garden, the couple cultivates plants that bring back memories of these trips abroad. One of these is a tall, fast-growing Moringa drouhardii tree with a bottle-like, white trunk and topknot of fringy foliage. The Goldsmiths grew it from a seed they brought back from Madagascar. And their lush border of Philodendron bipinnatifidum started with a seed they brought back from Costa Rica. With its large serrated leaves, it makes an attractive hedge around the yard.
An umbrella-like canopy of a mammoth royal poinciana tree shades one corner of the yard. Near it, a path leads down to an area that is much less manicured than the rest of the property. Here, Glenn and Jane planted papayas, bananas, star apple, and other tropical trees. They enjoy eating the papayas fresh from the trees, and Jane uses other fruits in banana bread and citrus marmalade.
Changing the landscape
The Goldsmiths installed a swimming pool soon after they moved in. Because it is exposed to the prevailing trade winds (which blow up to 25 mph from the northeast), they planted a windbreak of fast-growing tropicals like white bird of paradise (Strelitzia nicoli) and weeping fig (Ficus benjamina). The 10-foot-tall bird of paradise makes a great windbreak because of its clumping habit and leaves that are sturdier than bananas. The 40-foot-tall weeping fig makes a good pool companion, too—its leaves don’t fall into the water and its spreading crown crowds out other vegetation.
Most people don’t realize that such plants are not native to Hawaii, a state that is often called the endangered-species capital of the United States, with a third of the listed plants (273). Instead, most of the plants we associate with Hawaii originate in places like Central America and South Africa.
On the east side of the yard, Glen and Jane pulled out tall, coarse guinea grass and planted Hawaii’s state flower, the hibiscus. These familiar saucer-sized flowers that most of us grow in containers thrive as hedges in Hawaii, sometimes reaching 15 feet tall.
Tropical food for the table
In addition to red grapefruit, naval oranges, lemons, tangelos, and pomelo, Jane and Glenn grow tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce in a small greenhouse. The structure also serves as a nursery for out-of-bloom houseplant orchids and as a potting shed to start annuals and seeds they bring home from their travels. “Even though the temperatures are mild and don’t vary greatly, there are seasons of flowering and fruiting here,” says Glenn. For example, the flame trees and royal poinciana bloom in June or July, the avocados peak in September and October, and the citrus ripen in December.
In Hawaii vegetables have the opposite growing season of temperate-climate gardens. The Goldsmiths start tomatoes in the greenhouse in August and harvest the fruit from November until June. Summers are too hot to grow anything in the greenhouse, and foliar diseases attack tomatoes when they’re grown outdoors. “It is much easier to garden in the tropics than in harsher climates,” Glenn says. “Plants grow faster because they grow year round.” Gardening in the tropics doesn’t mean you can grow everything, though—plants most of us take for granted won’t grow in Hawaii’s climate. The Goldsmiths can’t grow anything that requires a cold period, such as peaches, apricots, apples, and plums. And mainland favorites like zinnias and petunias get mildew and other diseases from frequent rains.
The Goldsmiths don’t miss those plants much, though, because they’re able to grow tropical wonders such as heliconias, ornamental bananas, gingers, bird of paradise, tree ferns, and tropical fruits. Glenn scatters impatiens seed directly into the soil at any time of the year, and in no time the beds are bright with color. Unlike many climates where gardeners have to coax plants to grow, Jane and Glenn’s challenge is keeping them under control. “We’ve got to keep hacking things off,” says Jane.
The couple hires gardeners to help with more physically demanding tasks like pruning and mowing, but they spend two hours a day with their hands in the soil. They garden mostly in the morning, and they rotate around the garden, working in different areas. To make gardening tasks easier, they grow as many low-maintenance plants as they can, including palms, large philodendrons, impatiens, and other shade-loving foliage plants. “And we aren’t obsessed with perfection,” says Jane.
Garden at a Glance
Size of garden: 2.3 acres, equally divided among lawn, shaded jungle areas, and sunny garden beds.
USDA Hardiness Zone: 11
Watering technique: Automatic sprinklers for beds near the house; a hose for certain areas when it’s very dry.
Soil: Clay with particles that have the characteristic of sand, so water flows through it quickly.
Age of the garden: Started in 1988 by previous owners. Goldsmiths began gardening there in 1997.
Average summer temperatures: Low of 70ºF, high of 90ºF.
Average winter temperatures: Low of 60ºF, high of 80ºF.
Average annual rainfall: 60 inches, more in winter than summer.
Hours spent in the garden each week: 10
Worst garden pests: Jungle fowl—wild chickens that eat bananas, papayas, and other fruit. “They fly up and eat the bananas before they get ripe, so we have to harvest them a little earlier than we’d like to,” says Glenn.
Favorite trees: Palms, pink shaving brush tree (Pseudobombax elliptica), horseradish tree (Moringa drouhardii), shower tree (Cassia spp.), giant kapok or silk cotton tree (Ceiba pentandra), royal poinciana (Delonix regia), and flame tree (Brachychiton acerifolius).
Favorite annuals: Pentas, impatiens, vinca, and cleome. Glenn would like to grow petunias, pansies, and geraniums that he helped develop for Goldsmith Seeds, but they don’t do well in Kauai’s climate.
Fertilizer: 16-16-16 applied three to four times a year. “I’m not a firm believer in having a different fertilizer for every plant,” says Glenn.
Mulch: All beds top-dressed with compost for weed control and moisture retention.
Worst weeds: Guinea grass, hila hila or sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica), hau bush, and guava trees.
Weed control: Mostly hand weeding, but some herbicide for larger areas.
Dividing garden chores: Glenn designs and they both weed and prune. They do most chores together.
Margaret A. Haapoja is a garden writer who spends six weeks a year on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
Photography by James Denny.