Caring for the Land

Organic landscaping is growing on Maui

“I will never let my kids play on a lawn that doesn’t have dandelions.” This emphatic statement came from a professor visiting my school to give a talk on how pesticides act as endocrine disruptors—chemicals that act much like hormones in both animals and plants. His research showed elevated levels of cancer in workers at lawn care companies that were using pesticides.

Later that year, a graduate student presented how Atrazine, an endocrine-disrupting herbicide banned in Hawai‘i in 2020, would cause male frogs to develop as females. In both cases, non-lethal levels—often levels that are difficult to even detect in the environment—can alter developmental pathways, cause tumors, trigger diseases such as cancers, and in some animals, change sex. 

Photo by Darris Hurst

Research increasingly highlights the health and environmental problem with synthetic pesticides, which includes the -icide categories such as herbi-, insecti- and fungicides. As the dangers of chemicals that act as artificial hormones in our bodies and environment come into focus, there has been a swelling interest on Maui and around the world in caring for the land using more sustainable, traditional, or “organic” methods. 

While the Organic Landscape Association dryly defines the approach as “…the creation and maintenance of naturally sustaining systems whereby soil and plant nutrition and plant health are the byproducts of a chemical-free management program,” the kanaka maoli have long had a simpler way to express this: mālama ʻāina. Though there is far more wrapped up in those two words than the idea of simply taking care of the environment, it is important to note that it includes the concept of responsibility and reciprocity. You care for the land not as a commodity, but as a relative, and the land will care for you.

I had the opportunity to chat with Duane Sparkman, an advocate of organic landscaping, at Kipuka Olowalu Cultural Reserve, a grassroots organization that provides a place to experience and share the traditional value of mālama ʻāina while also exploring modern organic landscaping practices. Sparkman volunteers his services at Kipuka Olowalu and works as a chief engineer, formerly at the Westin Maui Resort & Spa and currently at Royal Lahaina Resort, and has introduced and proven the effectiveness of organic landscaping at two large resort properties. 

Sparkman noted that using organic methods is not only proving to be as functionally effective as using commercial fertilizers and -icides; it also comes with a number of benefits. The products used in organic landscaping reduce operating costs as fewer and often less expensive products can be used to maintain the property. The property also becomes more consistently accessible, as traditional herbicides and pesticides can require a no-entry period of up to 72 hours, which is not the case with organic products. 

Using locally sourced compost “tea” as a fertilizer and recycled R1 water rather than drinking water can further help recycle “waste” products and bring them back into the natural cycle of growth and decomposition. Sparkman added that the application rates of compost tea are also lower when compared to conventional fertilizers, as they allow the soil to function as a system that generates its own fertilizer, as it would naturally.

The Kipuka Olowalu Cultural Reserve exhibits modern organic landscaping practices. Courtesy Kipuka Olowalu

At the root of organic growing processes is soil health. Applying conventional herbicides and pesticides results in loss of soil function with very low levels of soil bacteria, fungi, and protozoans (single-celled organisms). While fewer bacteria might seem like a good thing, the community of soil microorganisms is what supports the breakdown of organic waste (i.e. lawn cuttings or fallen leaves) and slowly releases the nutrients that plants can then utilize as fertilizer. This healthy soil tends to hold water better as well. Sparkman noted, “Treat the soil like it is king and the plants will follow.”

Another problem with conventional -icides and fertilizers is that they often persist in the environment and tend to wash downstream and into our coastal waters. In an effort to further its goal of protecting coral reefs, the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council (MNMRC) has started a Reef Friendly Landscaping Certification Program for businesses in Maui. The project’s coordinator, Jill Wirt, said the program provides a year of complimentary consulting by a local organic landscaping expert and complementary resources to allow landowners to experience the results of an organic landscaping approach firsthand. 

The pilot program is a partnership with several local organizations: Edaphic Perspective, LLC, Environmental Solutions Maui, Beyond Pesticides, West Maui Ridge to Reef Initiative, and Maui Visitors and Convention Bureau, and is funded by the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority.  

Participants in the pilot program receive a free property assessment that includes soil testing, guidance about transitioning to reef-friendly landscape products, and complementary applications of the locally produced “Soil Thrive” compost tea to regenerate soil health if needed. 

Wirt noted that in another, ongoing MNMRC organic landscape pilot program that includes test plots in tee boxes at Mākena Golf and Beach Club, a baseball field at Maui County’s Keopuolani Park, and a turf field within Wailea Community Association, are showing improved soil health after a few applications of a compost tea solution developed locally by Environmental Solutions Maui.

The ultimate goal of both programs is to get facilities to move to chemical-free landscaping. Businesses that reduce or eliminate their chemical use receive recognition through MNMRC’s reef-friendly landscaping certification.  Wirt noted that the program has benefits beyond the target of coral reef protection as when properties join the program “it will have positive effects on the health of their guests, Maui’s residents, aquifer, nearshore waters, and reef health, all at the same time.”

While resort-scale organic landscaping is growing in Maui, don’t feel left out—it’s easy for homeowners to join in. If you’d like to dive deeper into organic landscaping, the UH Master Gardener program is a great place to start. You can also sign up to volunteer at Kipuka Olowalu to learn more about traditional and chemical-free landscape management and agriculture. 

Courtesy Pexels / Akil Mazumder

Even if you don’t own or manage your own property, you can support the reduced use of synthetic -icides and fertilizers by spreading the word and encouraging local businesses to try it out. Tell your legislators that this is an important issue. Last year, Maui County Council passed a bill, now Ordinance 5242, which mandates the use of organic pesticides and fertilizers on the majority of county properties due to strong public support for the measure. 

Thanks to this, Maui has the strongest organic policy for public lands, but there is more to do. Atrazine—the herbicide that castrates frogs—has been banned by the European Union since 2003. It was only banned statewide in Hawai‘i and U.S. Territories in 2020 and is still legal in the rest of the country.

Hopefully, as organic and chemical-free landscaping and gardening continue to become more mainstream, it will become clear that the expense, danger, and ecological consequences of synthetic chemical-based landscaping are not worth it. Care for the land and the land will care for you. Mālama ʻāina.

There are many simple ways to improve the landscape ecology of where you live.

• Swap out synthetic chemicals for organic options.

• Plant natives that will benefit native pollinators, may reduce introduced and invasive species that don’t do well on local plants, and tend to reduce water use as native plants are adapted to thrive and survive with local conditions.  

• Alter your watering regimes to keep out weeds and invasive species.  Duane Sparkman noted that nutsedge, a persistent weed generally treated with herbicides, is actually an indicator of overwatering and it can readily be controlled by changing to a deep but infrequent watering schedule. 

• Get a mulching blade for your mower and mulch around plant beds with fallen leaves to help retain water in the soil and return nutrients to the soil as the leaves break down.   

• Start a worm farm in a few five-gallon buckets to compost kitchen scraps and generate compost that you can use to make your own compost tea. Your yard and house plants will appreciate the effort.


UH Master Gardener Program

Kipuka Olowalu

MNMRC Reef Friendly Landscaping

Worm Composting

Herbicide free campus

Introduction to organic lawns 


John Starmer