We Tried It: Kaka‘ako Butterfly Garden Workday in Honolulu

Plant flowers, pull weeds, harvest veggies and get dirty while giving back to the community in this family-friendly volunteer opportunity.


Surfrider Foundation Garden Bananas Photo Laura Dornbush

Photo: Laura Dornbush


The next scheduled workday is January 29, 2022. Sign up here through the Surfrider Foundation’s website.


What: Surfrider Foundation’s Volunteer Garden Workday

Who: A “black thumb” mom and her bug-loving 4-year-old son

Where: Kaka‘ako Ocean Friendly Garden

When: Sunday from 9 a.m. to noon


I had no idea that there was a flourishing edible garden in the heart of Kaka‘ako, just a couple of blocks from the Hawai‘i Children’s Discovery Center and down the street from our condo. Granted the area, home to car dealerships, littered sidewalks and homeless issues, is not the type of street you would scooter or tricycle down. But, the Kaka‘ako Ocean Friendly Garden is doing its part to change that.


Planted in March 2019, the garden was started by Surfrider Foundation O‘ahu in partnership with Permablitz Hawaiʻi, as a community gathering space and a model for ocean protection and local food security. The area has transformed from a trash-filled lot into a beautiful thriving garden. Still in its installation phase, the project recently welcomed a work-in-progress butterfly garden spearheaded by Eco Rotary Club of Kaka‘ako.


SEE ALSO: 🌱 Get Growing: 11 Tips to Start a Backyard or Lānai Garden in Hawai‘i 


Surfrider Foundation Kakaako Garden Sign Photo Laura Dornbush

Photo: Laura Dornbush


I jumped at the chance to get my city-slicker son, Duke, out into nature, digging in the dirt and learning about plants. We signed up for the monthly garden workday through the Surfrider Foundation Events Calendar online. Heads-up: The foundation is limiting the number of visitors right now and you will need to wear a face mask and complete a liability form.


Entering the garden gates is like walking into a little oasis. The winding paths and lush plants bring a feeling of serenity and spark Duke’s urge to explore. We check in with the workday leaders and then wander through the 11,000-square-foot garden as we wait for more volunteers to arrive.


Immediately we spot several small white butterflies fluttering to and from the basil, eggplant and mamaki plants. We try to get a closer look, but of course, Duke’s youthful erratic movements scare them away. We track the butterflies for some time through the gravel pathways until we hear the call to start the workday.


Surfrider Foundation Garden Butterfly On Basil Photo Laura Dornbush

Photo: Laura Dornbush


SEE ALSO: Volunteering Opportunities Families Can Do Right Now in Honolulu


For introductions and instructions, we gather in the memorial section of the garden, in front of a cheerful mural dedicated to Heather Riley, a volunteer and community member who passed away. After going around the circle to introduce ourselves and tell about our favorite parts of nature, we feel part of a team and are ready to get to work.


I’m impressed and grateful at how low-key and flexible the leaders are. They help tailor our tasks for Duke’s small stature and short attention span. Our first duty is picking up trash that’s blown into the garden. Duke finds a buddy, a 12-year-old girl from ‘Aiea, to tag along with and search for loose wrappers. I think he likes the grabber tool more than the actual task of litter removal.


Once we clear the area of garbage, we move onto our next assignment: weeding the pathways. I find the work very therapeutic; Duke finds it similar to a treasure hunt—and he loses interest before the task is done. He’s antsy to start digging.


Luckily there’s just the project for us! Planting golden glories is the highlight of our morning. I love the cute yellow flowers, and Duke is obsessed with the different hand trowel options. He makes quite a commotion yelling out the different bugs we uncover when trenching each hole. “Ewww … look at that one, Mom. What is THAT?!?” The other volunteers just laugh and keep planting in their sections.


Surfrider Foundation Garden Harvest Cucumber Photo Laura Dornbush

Photo: Laura Dornbush


Then suddenly, Mike, one of the leaders calls out: “Drop everything! Time for a dance break!” We love the fun, team-like atmosphere.


After about 90 minutes of work, I can tell Duke is starting to lose it. You know the signs: whining, asking for a snack, and the dreaded “I just want to go home.” While we don’t make it to the end of our shift, Mike makes sure we don’t leave empty-handed. He insists we take some parting gifts, and shows Duke how to harvest cucumbers, spinach, lilikoˊi and moringa.


SEE ALSO: 🦋 Grow It Yourself: A Backyard Butterfly Garden


We leave the garden with sore muscles, mosquito bites and edible garden goodies as well as a sense of giving back. And, perhaps the best effect: Duke’s 2 ½-hour nap afterward!


If you’d like to help tend to the garden and plant more butterfly-attracting plants, stay tuned for the sign-up for the next workday on March 27 via the Surfrider Foundation’s website.


Our Tips

  1. Prepare for the elements. The garden doesn’t offer much shade. You’ll want to wear a sun hat, closed-toed shoes, sunscreen and mosquito repellent. And definitely bring plenty of water.
  2. Bring gloves. Although there was a limited quantity of garden gloves available, we’d suggest you bring your own.
  3. Plan potty stops. Bad news for families: There aren’t any bathrooms nearby. Your best bet is Kaka‘ako Waterfront Park or the retail center, SALT at Our Kaka‘ako.
  4. Ask questions. The friendly, knowledgeable leaders are happy to share and teach. I learned about several new plants I’d never heard of: pigeon peas and moringa. Don’t forget to ask to take some fruits and veggies home! Note: Harvested edibles are placed in a donation box on the fence of the garden for folks in the community to help themselves free of charge.
  5. Lunch reward. While we didn’t make it to lunchtime, volunteers were served a complimentary lunch as a thank you.


Kaka‘ako Ocean Friendly Garden is currently only accessible during official workdays, otherwise it is gated and locked. Check the Surfrider Foundation O‘ahu website for upcoming workdays. The garden is at 210 Coral St. in Kaka‘ako. oahu.surfrider.org/ofg/