Matilda Tompson was likely born with a green thumb. As a child, she enjoyed visits to her grandparents’ farm in Massachusetts. At home in Delaware, she looked for pretty flowers in the woods near her house, dug up the plant, and brought it home. Her father grew vegetables such as lettuce, green beans, and tomatoes. He wasn’t always thrilled with the addition of forest weeds to his garden. That didn’t discourage Matilda.
She continued to garden wherever she ended up. While working as a potter at her home in southeastern Pennsylvania, Matilda’s backyard was a place to relax and make delicious groceries for herself and her friends.
In 1981 she came to Hawaii to visit a friend. She describes her arrival with the words: “I felt like I had come home.”
She soon moved to a commercial ginger farm in Honaunau and began a crash course in tropical plants. Chayote, ulu, grapefruit, and jackfruit were some of her new acquaintances that inspired new recipes and some tasty results. She expanded the vegetable garden on the farm and added many herbs that she had grown in the past.
She expanded her tropical garden repertoire while working on cocoa and coffee farms in Colombia and Ecuador and visiting the beautiful gardens in Bali. She returned to Honaunau to become a tropical gardener, but still knew that she still had a lot to learn. She moved to a working farm just below the highway on the road to Pu’u Honua, where she built a small building and became a gardener.
“Here it became a reality to be a tropical gardener,” says Matilda. “I have learned so much in my years on this farm in Honaunau.”
Looking back, she laughs and talks about life in a cacophonic jungle. She had built her living space under two large mango trees. Mango season meant lots of noisy bangs when the fruit hit their roof. The night noises became intense as the pigs spotted the fallen mangoes, especially when they ate fermented and turned into loud drunkards. In addition, adult myna birds would gather in the mangoes every night to hold violent gossiping events, and the younger birds decided 3 a.m. was the time to start the day.
When she was offered a position at the West Hawaii Mediation Center in Waimea, she decided to move to a higher level and settle in Waimea. Again, Matilda planted a garden wherever she lived until she finally decided to buy a house and create her own permanent garden. For the past 20 years she has grown many foods and flowers in her home on the rainy side of Waimea town.
When asked what the difference between gardening in the humid side of Waimea and in the lower Honaunau, her response was 2,000 feet higher, 20 degrees colder, and slightly more humid. The good news was that she actually had earth instead of stones on her property in Waimea.
Shortly after Matilda moved into her new home, she started planting and playing. She put in a retaining wall to level her front yard and put corrugated iron fences around the perimeter to make it more private. Once she had a level planting area, she started creating raised beds and upgrading the existing medium by gathering good soil and changes from around the city.
“I always had buckets in the back of my car,” she explained. “Whenever I saw topsoil piling up on construction sites, I asked for something. If I saw piles of leaves, manure, or wood chips on a construction site, I would collect them for my garden with permission. “
I asked Matilda if she thought gardening was a passion for her. She hesitated a minute and then replied that it was a need, something she was forced to do as a pleasant meditation and grounding experience. Her love for gardening was fulfilled when, for once, her actual job matched her passion. Although she always worked in the Mala’ai Gardens at Waimea Middle School, her two years as managing director suited her perfectly.
Today she takes care of her garden every day. She mulches around her plants and expands her soil with everything she needs for the plants. She regularly adds compost and occasionally purchases organic fertilizers or other OMRI-certified additives like bat guano, blood meal, and bone meal. She describes her process and says she’s waiting to see what the plants want. That could qualify Matilda as a real plant whisperer.
Whatever she does is dramatically successful. Her gardens thrive with an abundance of vegetables, herbs, and flowers that she uses on a daily basis. What she doesn’t eat straight from the garden she gives to friends, freezes, or keeps for future use.
On the day in January that I visited Matilda, we sat down to have some wonderful lemon verbenea tea while she showed me her latest canning projects. She had made mango jam and mango chutney. She had also made a wonderful citrus jam that was on the table with her harvest of turmeric, Meyer lemon, and avocado that would be part of an upcoming meal.
That winter day she prepared a bed for spring vegetables. She recently sent me a photo of this bed, which is now full of basil, parsley, beans and arugula. Another photo of her hearty broccoli harvest convinced me that Matilda certainly communicates well with her plants.
The often cold and humid conditions in your garden mean that seeds sometimes have difficulty germinating and growing. Of the few plants she gets from seed, Botanical Interest’s Gold Rush French Beans are her all-time favorite. In addition to growing plants from seeds, she also buys seedlings from local growers such as Kari Hagerman, Sandy and Everett Pang, as well as the Ouli Plants stand at the Pukalani Stables Farmer’s Market on Saturday. Occasionally she will reproduce from cuttings and sometimes she will see the results of unplanned hybridization growing in her garden.
She reported that her bok choy appears to be crossed with a kailan, leading Matilda to call her “handkerchief panky” bok choy. More open and with purple stems, she says, the new hybrid is very tasty. She is excited to see what she will get from the next generation of seeds.
Matilda’s garden is living proof of the adage that insects and diseases don’t attack healthy plants. The diversity of plants in their beds is also a good deterrent against insects and diseases. She reported occasional rounds of aphids and very little disease. She treats harmful insects early with safer soap and neem oil. After seeing that zucchini and tomato plants suffer from powdery mildew, she decided that these plants were not well suited for their location. So she doesn’t grow them anymore.
When asked about her gardening problems on the humid side of Waimea, she quickly responded that the snail population in her garden can grow exponentially. Also, rats have chewed her sweet potatoes underground and she needs a light fence to keep stray chickens from eating their seedlings or greens. She also puts up barriers to keep cats from considering their litter boxes.
Their current bounty includes a variety of greens and herbs, as well as broccoli, beans, and onions. She also grows Dixondale Farms leeks and shallots in recycled plastic tubs.
When asked, Matilda had some advice for budding gardeners. She replied, “Grow what you love to eat and have fun doing it.”
She added that taking care of your plants is important. They recognize. If you enjoy gardening, the joy you bring in the task will be repaid in no time by your happy and highly productive plants.
Diana Duff is a plant consultant, educator and consultant who lives part-time in Kailua-Kona.
Every Saturday: “Working Day at Amy Greenwell Garden” from 9:00 am to 12:30 pm. Meet at the Garden Visitor Center across from the Manago Hotel in Captain Cook. Come with a mask and be ready to practice social distancing. Volunteers can help with the garden maintenance and are invited to bring a brown packed lunch. Water and snacks provided. Call Peter at 323-3318 for more information.
Available online: Hawaiian Leaf Rust Brochure at HawaiiCoffeeEd.com/CLRtrifold or by contacting Andrea Kawabata by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, text at 415-694-1511
or by phone at 808-322-4892.
“Video on Little Fire Ants” with new information from the Hawaii Ant Lab and the Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers at https://www.htfg.org/post/learn-about-little-fire-ants
Save the date: “Coffee Berry Borer & Coffee Leaf Rust Conference 2021” on Friday April 16 and Saturday April 17 from 9 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. on Zoom
Registration takes place at: https://cbb-clr2021.eventbrite.com
Farmer Direct Markets (check the websites for the latest opening hours and online markets)
Wednesday: “Ho’oulu Farmers Market” at the Sheraton Kona Resort & Spa on Keauhou Bay
Saturday: “Keauhou Farmers Market” from 8 am to 12 pm in the Keauhou Shopping Center
Information about their online market at keauhoufarmersmThursarket.com/onlinemarket
“Kamuela Farmer’s Market” 7:30 am to 12:00 pm at the Pukalani Stables
Waimea Town Market 7:30 am to 12:00 pm at Parker School in downtown Waimea
Waimea Homestead Farmers Market from 7:30 am to 12:00 pm in the Waimea Middle and Elementary School playground
Sunday: Pure Kona Green Market 9 am to 2 pm at Amy Greenwell Garden in Captain Cook
Hamakua Harvest 9 am to 2 pm on Highway 19 and Mamane Street in Honoka’a
Plant advice lines
Anytime: email@example.com Tuesdays and Thursdays: 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the UH-CES in Kainaliu – 322-4893 or on Monday, Tuesday and Friday: 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the UH CES in Komohana in Hilo 981- 5199 or firstname.lastname@example.org