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By embracing the natural landscape, a barren yard turns into an eco-friendly outdoor retreat

By Staff | Sep 3, 2015

Deb Caswell, Lanikeha homeowner, stands above her garden that features native drought-tolerant plants, drip irrigation and other LID (Low-Impact Design and Development) elements such as bioswales to control runoff and reduce pollution. PHOTO BY LIZ FOOTE.

KAANAPALI – When Debra Caswell bought a barren one-third-acre lot in Lanikeha above Kaanapali, building a house wasn’t her top priority. “I wanted a property to grow a garden,” said Caswell. When she got the green light to start construction, she quickly moved her mass of plants – already growing in anticipation at her then-condo – to her new property.

Her vision for the outdoors was similar to that of her now three-bedroom, one-story house that was designed to catch the trades: it needed to embrace the natural landscape. Specifically, she wanted a low-water landscape that featured mostly native plants.

The first step was planning her gardens – all four – according to the direction of the sun. The bright, west-facing garden is for edibles, like Molokai sweet potatoes, squash and peppers. The south is for plants that can take the heat, such as ma’o (Hawaiian cotton), kokio keokeo (white hibiscus), kokio ula (red-orange hibiscus) and a hedge of a’ali’i (shrub). Along the east lies a steep slope, completely sunken from the front road, which Caswell turned into her serenity garden.

“The area is protected from the wind and very calming,” she said. Here, trees like dwarf mango, keahi and hau provide a shaded canopy. Winds from the northeast roll through the north garden, fingering through kupukupu ferns, green and red ti plants.

The diversity of the outdoor areas are like Caswell’s personal compass. “When I was young, I made a commitment to myself that wherever I live, I would have a place to go according to my mood,” she said. “If I need sunshine, I go south. For calm, it’s the north. To feel cloistered, I go east. If I’m hungry, I head west.”

Deb Caswell (right) and West Maui Ridge to Reef Initiative Watershed and Coastal Management Coordinator Tova Callender explore Caswell's north-facing garden in her Lanikeha home, while standing in a bioswale that serves as a sustainable feature designed to capture and filter storm-water runoff to prevent flooding and pollution.

Navayo Caiserman, owner of West Maui Lawn & Landscape, helped Caswell put her ideas into action. “Usually, I have a vision for the design,” said Caiserman. “But Deb knew exactly what she wanted. I steered her in the right direction on certain aspects, but this was clearly her yard, her project.” The project took two months, and Caswell got her hands dirty with the crew, digging alongside of them.

One element served as a new venture for them both: two 50-foot-long, two-foot-wide bioswales that run along the north and south-facing sides of the property. Though they look and function like loose gravel pathways, the bioswales catch water runoff and allow it to slowly percolate into the ground, similar to how a native forest catches rain and draws water into the aquifer. “When we had our big rains last spring, all of the water was captured in the bioswales. It was a success,” she explained.

Other water-saving tricks include nixing sprinklers and opting for a drip system that runs for only 15 minutes every other day. Drip lines even water the two-foot by six-foot swathe of lawn made for her Chihuahua-Poodle mix, Parker. “Most people told me to expect an initial water bill of $500 a month as my garden got underway,” said Caswell, who admits to taking long showers. “My largest bill has been $88 so far.”

One of the reasons for her low bill, said Caiserman, is that she used the right plants in the right places. “Getting that Hana style of landscaping on West Maui requires a lot of effort,” he said. “You’re going to need lots of water and fertilizer, and when you combine that with our West Maui sun, the amount of growth and ongoing maintenance can be tremendous.” Both Caiserman and Caswell are quick to point out that a native garden doesn’t mean you have to exclude your favorite plants. For example, if you want red ginger, put a few, not dozens, on the shady side of the house.

In the end, Caiserman said he learned a lot from the project, and he’s going to use his new skills on other jobs. “The coolest part about Deb’s landscaping is that it cost less to do, costs less to maintain and costs our island a lot less resources,” he said.

For Caswell, she finds gratification in simplicity. “Sometimes, I look out and watch Monarch butterflies sit on my crown flowers and think, we created a space that honors this land and has life. Now that’s what I find most important.”

For those interested in learning more about sustainable landscaping practices, West Maui Kumuwai coordinates an Ocean-Friendly Landscaping Program and maintains a listing of companies on its website that have taken a pledge to adhere to sustainable landscaping practices. Ocean-Friendly Landscapers are provided with marketing materials to share with clients and receive exposure through the program’s media efforts. To date, participating companies include A Nutt Nurseries, E’Scapes, Kaanapali Operations Association, MauiScapes LLC, Mel’s Yard Service, SGS Hawaii, West Maui Lawn and Landscape, and ZELM (Zero Emission Landscape Maintenance).

As part of a new project to promote sustainability in West Maui and highlight the connection of landscaping practices to the health of the coral reef, West Maui Kumuwai is specifically looking for Honokowai condo properties’ landscaping service providers to join the Ocean-Friendly Landscaping program. For more information, or to join, visit westmauikumuwai.org/resources/landscape-partners/, e-mail WestMauiKumuwai@gmail.com or call Campaign Manager Liz Foote at (808) 669-9062 or 283-1631.