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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, August 6, 2004

Tending surfer garden evolves into labor of love

By Carrie Ching
Advertiser Staff Writer

Gilbert Lum padded down a grassy path of the cliffside garden near the lookout off Diamond Head Road. His wide, brown, calloused feet gripped the sloping path as he navigated around islands of bromeliads, hibiscus, sugarcane and ti.

Gilbert Lum pulls weeds from the surfer garden. Since the garden was started five years ago, the Diamond Head cliffs have begun blooming with a variety of plants.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

"See this papaya?" he said, crouching nimbly near a rocky drop-off to point out a small tree. "This one's a volunteer. People eat papaya, drop seeds, and they grow," he said, gesturing to the lush Eden around him.

"Lucky beer bottles don't grow," he said jokingly, pointing to an empty Heineken bottle lying nearby.

Lum, 79, knows a lot about volunteers. He's seen them come and go in the garden he started on a rocky, dusty stretch of city property five years ago. Lum's volunteer garden project on the barren Diamond Head cliffside has brought him awards and local fame, but he said he gets the most satisfaction simply from watching things grow.

Through his teach-by-example methods, goodwill gardening has spread down the road like dandelions in the wind. The two hills on either side of the beach access path are now being landscaped by the city with native Hawaiian plants.

Amy Brown, who led the city-sponsored team that proposed irrigation and landscaping near the beach access, said the surfers' actions set a good example for city officials and other residents. "If they didn't do it, no one else would," she said. "It's a work of art." She suggested City Hall could assist Lum by maintaining the "surfer garden."

Lum could use the help, but he isn't so sure the city could fill his gardener's gloves. For one thing, the city's evenly spaced plantings just aren't his style. "(Ours is) like a sculpture garden," he said. "Not flat like the city do. Too perfect."

Lum tried to adopt the strip of land officially through the city several years ago, but there was too much red tape for him. The surfer garden, he said, evolved through a much more organic process.

Clearing the ground

Back in 1999, Lum and a friend came up from surfing their usual Diamond Head spot, sat down to talk story on a rock wall, as they always did, and noticed all of the weeds, the overgrown haole koa and the litter. They decided it was time to take matters into their own hands.

Diamond Head Surfer Garden

Where: It's on the makai side of Diamond Head Road, west of the lighthouse and beach-access path.

Year started: 1999

Core volunteers: Gilbert Lum, 79; Lindsey Mossman, 75; Soyu Kawamoto, 60

How much land involved: about three-quarters of an acre

How to help: Come down in the mornings between 8 and 10 a.m. to help weed and water. Drop off donations and gardening supplies with Gilbert Lum. He's usually out gardening off Diamond Head Road during those times. Look for the man in the flowered green sun hat.

Lum brought a hand saw and started cutting trees. Another guy brought a chain saw. Someone else helped to clean up the garbage and install hoses. Like the spreading of seeds, their good works inspired others to help out until an oasis of green stretched for more than 100 yards.

Now, tour buses stop at the lookout so visitors can wander the garden paths. Joggers circling the crater stretch in the shade

of a tree-like cactus. Even stray cats are welcomed by a shelter built from palm fronds and boards.

Every morning at 5, Lum, a retired Hawaiian Electric Co. worker, shows up to ride the waves at Diamond Head. He then retreats to the cliffside garden to dig around in the dirt for an hour or two. In his black shorts, "pray for surf" tank top, and flowered green hat, Lum said, he's become a kind of landmark to passing tourists.

"They always ask the guys, 'Who's the lady in the green hat pulling weeds?' " he said with a laugh. "That's me."

Mix-and-match planting

Many of the plants growing in the surfer garden grew from cuttings Lum brought from his Manoa home. Others were donated by other surfers and neighbors, including a kou tree from former Advertiser owner Thurs-ton Twigg-Smith. Some, like an allspice tree, just showed up anonymously one morning.

"This one is beautiful when it blooms," he said, pointing to a green-and-purple shrub. "If we don't know what it is, we just call it 'da kine.' "

But Lum said not all have been pleased with his mix-and-match approach to gardening.

"When we started the first year, people from Foster Garden came here and criticized — they said, 'We want native plants,' " Lum said with a shrug. "I don't know, what is native now?" Like Hawai'i itself, Lum said, the population in the surfer garden is "all mixed up."

"People say it's different. I say it's a beautiful spot on the South Shore."

Mike Hadlock of Wilhelmina Rise said he often watches the waves from the garden's shade before paddling out.

"I've seen this garden grow over the years," said Hadlock, 30, as he waxed his board. "It's very impressive."

Hadlock said he also likes what he sees happening with the city's project down the road.

"The love shows through," he said of Lum and the other gardeners' influence.

Lum said he's happy to share with others; all they have to do is ask.

"One homeless guy wanted to start a garden down by the Ala Wai canoe club," he said. "He like plant flowers to make it nice. So I gave him some cuttings. I said anytime, just ask."

But it can be frustrating, he said, when people dig up plants during the night, or steal hoses and other supplies — a constant problem over the years. "Don't just take and leave a mess," he said. "If they ask, I'll gladly give it."

The money that goes into upkeep has come mostly from Lum's pocket, plus donations from other surfers and neighbors. A $500 community-service award from the Waikiki Rotary Club also helped jump-start the project in the beginning.

"When we needed money for a Weed Whacker, somebody dropped the money ... And people bring pastries to fatten us up so we can do more work," he said with a laugh.

Go surf, pull weeds

Lum said he's always open to more help. "If people want to give a donation, I say OK," he said, opening both of his tan gardener's hands. At the top of his wish list are some weed killer, a new Weed Whacker, and fertilizer — Triple16 or 10-30-10. And he's always looking for someone to lend a helping hand.

Besides being known for the surfer garden, Gilbert Lum has acquired a reputation for being able to weld hoes from pipes, auto springs and bicycle handlebars. Nevertheless, he insists, he is a surfer first.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

"Plenty surfers got their finger in it when we first started," Lum said. "Now nobody comes by to maintain."

Lum has shoveled on for the past few years with the regular help of a few other surfers, including Soyu Kawamoto of Kaimuki and Lindsey Mossman of Kapi'olani Boulevard. Together, the three surfers have their hands full: planting, weeding, watering and picking up litter.

Mossman, a 75-year-old retiree from the city's Wastewater Service Department, said he doesn't mind "pulling the hoses around" by himself. "A lotta guys say they're gonna come, but they don't show," he said. "That's what you call 'waha.' All mouth."

"It's plenty big for three people. Four now with her," Lum said, pointing to Toko Saito, a bodyboarder from Japan who started helping out with the weeding a month ago. "Nobody wants to do something for nothing these days."

Lum, on the other hand, has plenty of time and energy for projects. Besides gardening, the inventive retiree welds his own custom gardening hoes out of pipes, auto springs and bicycle handlebars. He makes his own surfboards, too, including a hydrofoil board that he said is the fastest in town.

The gardeners even have a bumper sticker reading "Diamond Head Surf and Garden Club" that is in high demand, he said. "People ask 'Can I have a sticker?' I say, 'You gotta pull a five-gallon bucket of weeds first.' "

But Lum doesn't hold grudges. "If you feel like pull weeds, pull weeds. If not, go surf," he said. Although he loves gardening, Lum said, he definitely has his priorities straight: "It's surf first, then garden."