Growing Dryland Taro Part I
By Glenn I. Teves, County Extension Agent, UH CTAHR Cooperative Extension Service
Molokai is blessed with many Hawaiian taro varieties, in part due to the vision of the late Martha and Cowboy Otsuka in seeking out and preserving these legacies. Also, under the direction of Alton Arakaki and Faith Tuipulotu in making huli available each year at the annual Molokai Taro Field Day.
With the advent of drip irrigation and water distribution systems, taro can be grown in areas where it could never grow before. In the past, dryland taro was only grown in the uplands in mulch where seasonal rains were sufficient to bring the taro to harvest.
Most varieties will mature between eight and 12 months, and keeping plants actively growing is the key. Taro loves water, and along with fertilizer, will flourish before your eyes. Dryland taro is distinguished from wetland taro in that the latter grows in water ponds or lo`i. Different varieties were selected for these two conditions. Taking a soil sample of your planting area is the first step in growing upland taro. Call our office at 567-6932 for more information on taking a soil sample.
The biggest challenge in growing taro is weeds, but there are strategies to minimize them. One is to prepare the ground for planting by adding the required fertilizer and amendments. Give the ground a few very good soakings so weeds emerge. Before weeds get half an inch high, scorch weeds with a propane torch. Be safe with fire, and have your water hose charged and ready for action. After killing most of the weeds, it’s important not to disturb the soil since you have now wiped out all the weeds on the surface of the soil, and any soil disturbance will bring up more weeds from below the surface. The use of plastic mulch is also an option in controlling weeds, but can also cook the roots in hot months. Once plants cover the surface, temperatures under the mulch won’t be as high. However, taro grows better without it since they prefer cool roots. Another option is the use of vegetative mulch to control weeds, retain water, and keep roots cool. However, additional nitrogen fertilizer is required to feed both mulch and taro because microorganisms that break down organic matter utilize nitrogen as a food source, and will steal it from the plant if it’s in short supply.
Now you’re ready to plant huli. It’s a good idea to surface sterilize huli to kill any nematodes on the remaining corm, and also insects in the stalks or ha. This is done by dipping it in a solution of one part Clorox and 10 parts water for a couple of minutes. Don’t need to rinse, just plant. It’s a good idea to sort the huli by size, planting the larger ones at the end of the row so these are harvested first, with the smaller ones planted near the water source. When using drip irrigation, tie up the drip line as you harvest and the rest of the row can still be irrigated. Some farmers make a hole with a digging stick; I use a pineapple planter. Dig a small hole about three to four feet deep, drop in the huli and cover so it stands on its own. You can plant two feet apart in lines or zigzags along the water line, or in a furrow or in beds two feet apart in all directions. Taro loves water, but water lightly when first planting until roots emerge. When healthy leaves unfurl, this is an indication that roots are emerging. Water can be increased and the surface kept moist since taro roots move laterally and stay close to the surface. There’s such a thing as too much water for dryland taro because they also require air near their roots to grow well. More next time…