Online tool helps gardeners and farmers identify their climate zone before providing information about which crops grow well in their locations.

A graduate student in tropical conservation biology and environmental science at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo has developed an online tool to help Hawaiʻi gardeners and small-scale farmers select crop varieties most likely to succeed in their specific geographic areas.

UH Hilo graduate student Ilana Stout began to develop the Seed Variety Selection Tool for the Hawaiian Islands as a final project in a geographic information systems or GIS class. She started by combining elevation data—a proxy for temperature—with moisture-zone data that had been gathered based on rainfall and vegetation by Jonathan Price, assistant professor of geography at UH Hilo.

By combining the two, Stout ended up identifying 18 different climate zones for Hawaiʻi Island. With grant support in the summer of 2014, she expanded the map to include all islands and built a search function so that users could enter their addresses and learn their specific climate zones.

Ryan Perroy, assistant professor of geography, and Sylvana Cares at the UH Hilo Spatial Data Analysis and Visualization Labs, provided assistance and resources to develop the Seed Variety Selection Tool.

Increasing crop success

The Seed Variety Selection Tool is intended to help novice and even experienced gardeners identify their specific plant hardiness zones and select varieties to increase the chance of success in their area, potentially helping them grow food more rapidly and reduce the risk of crop failure.

The new tool, developed through The Kohala Center’s Hawaiʻi Public Seed Initiative, also offers a detailed representation of local plant hardiness zones based on Hawaiʻi’s diverse microclimates.

Stout and colleague Lyn Howe, coordinator of the Seed Initiative, surveyed experienced gardeners throughout the islands about their successes in growing different plant varieties. Starting with seven food crops commonly planted in Hawaiʻi—lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beans, squash/pumpkins, and kalo (taro)—Stout and Howe collected performance data from experienced gardeners and small-scale farmers and input them into a searchable database, tagging each data set by crop variety, climate zone, island and whether the variety was grown using organic or conventional method.

“What’s unique about the Hawaiian Islands is how abruptly our microclimates change,” says Howe. “A difference of just a mile or two, or a slight increase in elevation, can mean very different soil and growing conditions. This tool is meant to help anyone in Hawaiʻi determine their specific climate zone and learn from the success of other growers who garden or farm in similar conditions.”

The Seed Variety Selection Tool for the Hawaiian Islands is now accessible online to help seed savers, gardeners and small-scale farmers share information about which crops perform well in their locations.

Gardeners and small-scale farmers from all islands with at least two years of successful experience growing specific varieties are encouraged to submit their crop-performance data online. Names, physical addresses and contact information of contributors are kept confidential and are not published on the website.

From the UH Hilo Stories website