Story by David Thompson
Photos by Monte Costa
Once Clayton Punihaole planted carrots, but lettuce came up instead. Another time he planted head cabbage but ended up with mustard greens. There are disadvantages to gardening while blind, and not being able to read seed packets is one. Clayton finds ways to work around this. But if cauliflower comes up where he thought he planted bok choy, so be it. Clayton doesn’t worry about little things like that.
Clayton spends much of his week in the garden, which occupies the old pigpen behind the machine shop on his family’s land outside of Kailua-Kona. He’s a trim, powerfully built man in his early 60s, and the first time we meet he’s wearing steeltoed boots, kneepads, a broad-brimmed hat and black sunglasses. When I arrive he puts down an electric rototiller and reaches out toward my voice to shake hands. He’s been completely blind for about six years now, and he’s been a hard-core gardener for about five.
He gives me a tour of the garden, navigating so easily among the raised beds that if it weren’t for the white cane tucked in the fold of his arm, you might forget he has no light or depth perception at all. “In this bed here, Manoa lettuce,” he says, pointing out wavy rows of sprouts that haven’t yet come to resemble lettuce. “This is cilantro. … These are my onions. I don’t know what’s wrong with them. They’re just not very big. … This bed is gobo. I think it’s also called burdock root. … Right here, a big rosemary plant. We raise sheep, so gotta have rosemary.” In the ground he has planted a couple of beds of sweet corn, and around the borders he’s strung rope so he doesn’t accidentally wander in and trample the plants, which are beginning to sprout. At either end of the long, rectangular garden stand big trellises that Clayton constructed from metal pipe and string. Long beans climb one of the trellises, and tomatoes climb the other. These are Clayton’s first tomatoes, and he’s pleased with the promise they’re showing. “I just planted seeds that said ‘tomatoes,’” he says. “I don’t know what kind they are. Maybe beef tomatoes?” He runs his fingers along a stem of one plant until they find a huge green tomato hanging there. “My friend who grows tomatoes he told me, ‘Eh, I got about thirty tomatoes on one plant!’ I told him, ‘Eh, me too!’”
Clayton has impressive vegetableidentification skills. With a quick touch of a leaf, he can usually name the species. But sometimes he gets thrown off. As he’s showing me all the different vegetables sharing one particularly diversified bed, he comes across an unexpected volunteer. He runs his fingers along the stalk and feels the leaves of the mystery plant several times, finally saying, “This is a cucumber.” Then he doubts himself and yells to his wife, Pam, who is standing nearby. “Hon, is this a cucumber?” “Yes, it is,” she replies. “That’s what I thought,” he says.
The fence around the garden, which once kept in the pigs, now mostly keeps out the trio of old dogs that follow Clayton everywhere and like to slam their dusty heads into his thigh so he can scratch their chins. The entire back stretch of the fence has been swallowed by chayote, a squash that grows on a rapidly spreading vine that climbs over everything in sight, including other vegetables.
Clayton’s garden is not one of those disciplined, geometrically correct, manover- nature kind of gardens. It’s far more casual, as if vegetables and gardener had an agreement in which they share the same space but pretty much do their own thing. There’s an element of unruliness. A rogue cauliflower can pop up in a pathway and go unnoticed for weeks. A fugitive cucumber can hide out among the eggplant. The chayote can abuse the bitter melon for ages before the gardener steps in to referee. But the garden is bountiful. Clayton grows more produce than his own large family can eat, and he and Pam are forever giving away carrots and corn and greens and chayote and jars of pickled daikon. Clayton’s friends keep encouraging him to open a stand at the farmers market, and he tells them, yeah, he might do that someday. But the truth is he’s not interested in growing vegetables for money.