The Challenges of Seaside Gardening in the Solomon Islands

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The Solomon Islands are in the South Pacific, roughly halfway between the Equator and the Tropic of Capricorn, in the Coral Sea. When I tell friends about our location, I usually say “We are to the right of Papua New Guinea” because many people do not know where the Solomon Islands are.

Geologically, the Solomons, part of ‘The Ring of Fire’ is an area of high volcanic and seismic activity. In March 2011, we had to evacuate to higher ground after the devastating Japanese earthquake and tsunami occurred. We feel tremors at least a couple of times a month. However, Honiara, the capital where we live is reasonably well protected by other islands. The last serious tsunami to affect the Solomons struck the island of Gizo in the Western Province in 2007. Many people were killed or injured.

The Solomon Islands are a Melanesian/Polynesian country with a fascinating pre-history rich in stories of head-hunting and warrior tribes. It is an archipelago, with 995 islands and atolls, and the people have a unique and intimate knowledge about water and agriculture. While there is extreme poverty as a result of underlying corruption, organic subsistence agriculture is a mainstay of the economy.

I moved here from Australia with my husband, Adrian, to work for an international development organisation. In the 1980s we owned a nursery in Cairns, Queensland, and a flower farm further south at Babinda, so I have always maintained a keen interest in tropical plants despite pursuing a different career since those days.

Our home in Honiara is located on the Tandai Highway, facing Iron Bottom Sound, so called because of the many Japanese and Allied forces ships that sank during ‘The Battle of Guadalcanal’ in World War II.

We usually receive around three metres of rain a year during the monsoon period between November and March. The soil here is naturally alkaline so certain plants do not take up nutrients well (like Ixora species). Because the sub-strata is mostly made up of volcanic rock and coral, there is some natural fertiliser within the soil, but there are still quite a few deficiencies. The top soil is very sandy and contains large chunks of partially decomposed coral.

Very early on I scouted around for appropriate raw materials to improve the soil. There is a little NGO here called Kastom Garden supporting community gardening and offering organic training for people (mostly women) who have food gardens. Sometimes I buy compost from them when it is available.

Otherwise I make my own compost using leaves, kitchen scraps, shredded paper from work and chicken manure which I purchase from a local doctor (obstetrics, gynaecology, paediatrics, malaria, tropical infections, general practitioner and chicken poo!)

I also buy chicken manure from my friends at the local nurseries. Most chicken manure (or ‘chicken dust’ as the local gardeners call it) is well rotted. It is very hard to find fresh manure, so my composting at home takes a lot longer than normal because I don’t have any pure nitrogen, activators or accelerants to heat up the pile other than kitchen waste. But with all the ingredients that I have, it eventually becomes friable and full of life.

I also have some large tropical almond trees (Terminalia catappa) which defoliate and renew about three times a year providing a plentiful supply of ovate leaves for composting and mulching. The small nut is a delicacy and I have to regularly remove seedlings from my garden.

The other thing we have to watch out for is rats. Because we live right on the sea, they are regular visitors and will eat anything, including kitchen scraps in the compost heap. “Waste not want not” being my proverb motto, our local dog ‘Solomon’, who is like an oversized Jack Russell, is also a very good ratter, but thankfully he does not eat them, so I bury them in my garden. ‘Solly’, as we call him, just needs to hear me shout “Rat!” and he launches himself off the front patio into the foliage to hunt them down.

After more than three years of applying compost and mulching generously, my soil has improved to a great extent and my garden is now quite mature.

When I began to plan my garden after moving to the Solomon Islands, I searched the few hardware stores here for potting mix and fertiliser but found that it was so incredibly expensive that I gave up (a 20kg bag of potting mix was approximately five times the cost in Australia). All products are imported from Australia or New Zealand so a large part of the price is due to the shipping costs. The fertiliser was also past its use-by-date!

When I go home to Australia, I sometimes bring back some slow release fertiliser in my luggage. But having trialled it with my potted plants, it is not impressive, possibly because of the pH of the mix. So I just focus on using compost for the pots, with regular top-up of rotted chicken manure, and keep an eye on the condition of the plants. I will be investing in a soil pH test kit soon to enable me to work on different areas of the garden and hopefully be able to grow the difficult plants.

When we owned a nursery in north Queensland, Australia, we used to make our own potting mix by the tonne with the use of a tractor and good quality ingredients that were always available. For the in-ground plant stock, we had access to a by-product of sugar cane, called bagasse which is a terrific mulch and a proven recipe for fertilising. Production was much more straightforward being able to control irrigation and plant nutrition.

Here it’s a bit of detective work, constant building of the soil, and accepting the loss of plants when conditions are not quite right. But I must say, with these challenges, there are always great rewards, like when the first of a much-coaxed flower appears, such as the red Amaryllis in the photograph. It is simple yet truly beautiful, and I get a lot of satisfaction out of flowering it, despite the difficulties.

I was very lucky to have had ‘good bones’ in the garden when we moved in. There were medium sized trees including a beautiful Cassia fistula (my favourite of all trees here), several coconuts (Cocus nucifora), and a large mango (Mangifera indica), seasonally enjoyed by our guards and the flying foxes in equal quantities.

At the front (sea side) of the house there are several evergreen Frangipani (Plumeria species), a Neem tree (Azadarachtica indica) (the leaves of which are used by locals for medicinal tea) and a wonderful medium-sized Raintree (Samanea saman). I’m also blessed with a Poinciana (Delonix Regia) and an elegant Cut Nut (Barringtonia Edulis) with those incredible racemes of soft yellow flowers that hang up to a metre long.

We have extended a groundcover which is a little clover with a tiny blue flower that does not appear to set seed. It sends its runners out and covers the ground very quickly. The clover makes a beautiful tapestry with dark and light green montages wherever it travels and will happily climb over tree stumps, rocks and mounds to give an almost fairy-like appeal to the garden.

I now have some orange Coreopsis, self-seeding Zinnias, Aralia, Coleus, some beautiful single Hibiscus, many Cordyline, including the divine ‘New Guinea’ variety, and several small clumps of bamboo grass (Pogonatherum paniceum).   

One of my latest initiatives was to plant two round gardens of Sansiviera hyacinthoides surrounded by Rhoeo spathacea (‘Moses in the Cradle’) and the result is a strong architectural look which is not just pleasing to the eye but very easy to manage. The lizards love it. At the same time, I planted some little pink floribunda roses (yes, in the tropics, and with no black spot at all!).

At our commercial nursery and flower farm in Queensland I grew Dracaenas, Calatheas, Heliconias, Zingibers, including Costus cultivars commercially. So naturally, I’ve maintained an interest in those plants.

Here, I have found an exquisite pale pink torch ginger (Etlingera elatior), some Alpinia purpurata, variegated Alpinia, Galangal, edible ginger (Zingiber officianale), some lovely Hedychiums and many Heliconia species – H. Bihai (large crab claw), some H. psittacorums, including ‘Sassy’, ‘Parakeet’ and ‘St Vincent’s Red’, a spectacular red H. carribea and H. wagneriana, and a Heliconia hybrid ‘Golden Torch’. These all make wonderful cut flowers.

There are some very creative florists in Honiara and every Saturday at the Central Markets there is a wide range of flowering tropical plants for sale, including unusual species. I have been able to share my cut flower experience with the florists which I enjoy very much.

My most exciting find at the markets last year was a H. Chartacea ‘Sexy Pink’ which was apparently smuggled in from Papua New Guinea. I have seen it growing beautifully there in the Port Moresby Botanical Gardens. It now lives just beside the front door and enjoys being fussed over.

I have introduced all the species of Costus that I could find, including C. productus and C. speciosus with its stunning dark red terminal bract and crepe-like white day flowers which are almost as big as a dinner plate. The spiral behaviour of this plant never ceases to amaze me.

Recently I found a Calathea crotalifera ‘Rattlesnake’ and Calathea lutea ‘Cigar’, which are spectacular feature plants when they flower, and some foliage types of Calathea.  And we planted an ornamental Scarlet Banana (Musa coccinea) which was banned in Queensland during the 1980s. I couldn’t resist investing in some of my favourite plants, the aroids (Araceae). Lucky for me, I have four local nurseries just up the road at Kakabona where I buy most of my Philodendrons, Anthuriums and Caladiums, and even a black Bat Plant (Tacca chantrieri). I also have lots of Hymenocallis, Hemerocallis, Amaryllis and Crinum.

I loaned my reference books ‘Tropica’ and ‘Exotica’, by Alfred Byrd Graf, to my nursery friends to help them identify some of their beautiful specimens and there was much excitement when we sat and looked through the books. These are wonderful reference texts, and though printed in 1984-6, are still considered to be the bibles for referencing tropical plants in this part of the world. I acknowledge them in writing this piece.

There are over 200 species of orchids which are endemic to the area, mostly Dendrobium, Vanda and some terrestrial species. I have taken a leaf out of the local approach and have set mine up rooted in aged coconut husks and attached them to trees, and a small timber frame that my husband made for me.

I plan to take a field trip into the forest to photograph some of these plants in their natural habitat once the monsoon season is over. So perhaps a photo feature on the native orchids of the Solomon Islands is not too far away!

Photo credits: Header image © StewyOz / CC BY-SA. All other images © Corallie Ferguson

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