Five Tips When Shopping for a Mini Maui Homestead

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We regularly field inquiries from buyers who are looking to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle. Typically, that translates to finding acreage for the prospective buyers to grow their own food. The market conditions of the last 24 months means the entry point for acreage is higher and the inventory of these properties is substantially lower. If the shift in the market put acreage out of the reach of your budget, it is worth considering the food production and sustainability potential of smaller parcels.

I can speak to this from personal experience. My home sits on less than a quarter of an acre. Despite its size, it generates a pretty substantial amount of food. I can’t claim that it is due to my own efforts. I consider myself fortunate that I bought a property where previous owners planted quite a few fruit and nut trees. The trees growing including Avocado, Lemon, Macadamia Nut, Mango, Jaboticaba, Surinam Cherry, Malabar Chestnut, Noni, Guava, Banana, and Papaya. I also grow vegetables and herbs in a few raise beds and pots. I am about to put up a trellis for growing Lilikoi (Passion Fruit) Vines. Future ambitions include more raised beds, growing mushrooms, additional fruit trees, and chickens or quail.

Backyard avocados with my hand for scale.
Avocados from the backyard with my hand for scale.

I can’t say that I am an expert gardener. Far from it. That said, I think there are some insights from my own experiences worth sharing if you are in the market for your own little homestead on Maui. Here are 5 things to consider when purchasing a smaller property with food production in mind.

What’s the Waste Water System for the Property?

That may seem like a head scratcher for my first bit of advice, but it’s important to know the type of waste water system of the properties you consider for purchase. Not all areas on island are on municipal or private sewer systems. Other homes rely on cess pools or septic systems. This is particularly the case in some of the rural areas of the North Shore and Upcountry.The type of waste water system may well impact your growing area and/or lead to future disruptions in your growing area.

The property I bought in Makawao came with two cesspools. One for the house and one for the cottage. If you aren’t familiar with cesspools, they are basically deep pits where waste collects. If they work well, liquids eventually percolate out of the bottom while microbes break down solid waste over time. Well functioning cesspools do not require pumping. The good news is cesspools have relatively small footprints. While you don’t want to plant trees too close to a cesspool, they shouldn’t limit your planting areas too much.

I learned first hand the downside of cesspools. Plain and simple, they can fail. A few years back, I kept seeing septic trucks come and go from my neighborhood after a prolonged period of heavy rain. I decided to check my cesspool and it was full. I pumped it and hoped that it was the end of my issues. Two years later, I had to pump it again. Within a few months, it was almost full again and it was time for a septic system. That entailed digging up my backyard including my in-ground vegetable beds and a large banana patch.

If you plan to move forward with a cesspool property, it’s important to have the cesspool inspected during your due diligence process. Local septic pumping companies offer inspections as a service. The cost varies depending on whether the location is known and the lid is exposed for access. Regardless, it is a worthwhile investment to know if any troubles might be looming. It might also be worth asking about the number of people who experience issues with their cesspools in the immediate area. While the cesspool may look ok during inspection, a high number of cesspools failures in the area may speak to the potential for future problems.

Now that I have a septic system in place, it comes with its own limitations and challenges. The biggest being that the leech field takes up a significant portion of my back yard. You can’t plant trees over a leech field. You may want to put root barriers up for trees planted in close proximity to the leech field. I received mixed messages on how much I gardening I could over my leech field. While some told me I should grow grass over the entirety of the leech field. Others, including the installer for the septic system, said garden beds are fine.

I compromised by putting raised beds at the far end of the leech field. Growing dwarf fruit trees in large pots may be another option in areas where septic tanks constrain tree growth. Another option is to put in a chicken run over the leech field. There are ways to work around the limitations imposed by the septic system.

It is also worth noting that septic tanks take some care and maintenance. That includes periodic pumping. Make sure that when you plant gardens beds or add trees outside the periphery of the septic system, that they do not limit access to the lids of your septic tanks for future pumping.

Municipal or private sewer is the most friendly waste water system for maximizing the area of your yard for growing. That said, It is worth knowing where the sewer line is on the property. You don’t want to plant trees where the roots might damage the sewer line.

Conspicuous in its absence is the combination of composting toilets and grey water systems. That is arguably the most sustainable solution. At this point in time, the county does not permit compositing toilets.

Make Sure Your Potential Growing Areas Get Plenty of Sun

I feel incredibly fortunate to have so many fruit trees on my property. The two avocado trees in particular provide abundant harvests for both family and friends. That said, they are both huge trees that shade my backyard until about 9:00 in the morning. My neighbors to the South also have large avocado trees that tend to shade my yard a little earlier in the afternoon. This means my veggie garden doesn’t get quite as much sun as I would like.

If you want to focus on growing vegetables, it’s imperative that your garden areas get more sun. Not enough sun means growing shade tolerant veggies and herbs and/or lesser yields. While it’s great to find a place with existing fruit trees, there is something to be said for starting with a clean slate. It puts you in a position to plant things strategically so they don’t shade garden beds. That also allows you the option to plant and grow varieties of fruit trees that you want and will use the most.

Sun exposure is also a consideration if you want to add a photovoltaic system to the roof of your home. Too many large trees shading your roof may limit the effectiveness of a PV system.

How is the Soil?

If you are growing on a smaller lot, that often means growing closer to your home itself. Homes built prior to 1978 may have used lead based paint. It might be worth testing your soil for lead if you plan to use in ground beds close to older homes. A general soil test may also tell you if there are any deficiencies in your soil and if you need more amendments.

While less likely to be an issue on smaller residential lots, lots located in areas where pineapple and sugar cane grew may pose their own set of challenges. Sugar Cane and Pineapple were intensive agricultural practices that depended heavily on fertilizer and pesticides. A lot of the old fields are devoid of the nutrients and microbial life that make plants happy. Regenerative practices such as extensive composting or korean natural farming practices are imperative to restore life to the soil.

Will CCRs Impact Your Plans?

If you are buying in a subdivision, make sure that there aren’t any CCRs that might block your plans. For example, if you want to keep hens, make sure that there are no restrictions on keeping poultry in your yards. If you want to tear up your entire front yard and plant a garden, make sure there are no landscaping requirements.

Consider Your Microclimate

For a relatively small island, Maui offers many different microclimates. Make sure you chose the right things to grow for your particular part of the island. For example, Mangoes tend to thrive in the warmer and drier parts of the island while only select varieties will grow in windward areas or Upcountry. Bananas and Papaya may not grow as well in the higher elevations of Kula. That said, higher elevations may support fruit trees like apples, peaches and persimmons that don’t grow as well at lower elevations. Areas with higher humidity may mean more vulnerability to powdery mildew with your veggies.

Backyard raised bed

Sustainability on An Even Smaller Scale

As mentioned above, the Covid real estate boom pushed up prices on island substantially. Even smaller homes may be prohibitively expensive for prospective buyers. There are condos on island that offer small back yard areas. Places like Keonekai Villages, Kihei Villages, Southpointe at Waikoa and Iao Parkside all feature yards for ground floor locations. While visiting these properties, I’ve observed a number of back yards with impressive gardens and dwarf fruit trees. Combine backyard produce with what’s available through local farmer’s markets and CSAs and you can significantly reduce your reliance on imported food.

Additional Resources

I am constantly trying to learn more and improve my knowledge about growing food in smaller spaces. Here are some resources that helped me and may be of value to you.

Hawaii Home Gardens – This is a great book for learning more about gardening in the subtropics.

Epic Homestead – I frequently watch Kevin’s Youtube videos for inspiration and tips as he transforms his property in San Diego. He also runs the epic gardening channel with all kinds of advice on vegetable gardening.

Charles Dowding – Ok, the UK is a far different climate zone from Maui, but Charles is still a great resource on gardening at all scales.

Social media is a great resource. There are too many good Instagram and Youtube accounts to list off the top of my head. Search gardening or homesteading and you will find a treasure trove of information.

Finally, reach out to the community. Talk to nurseries. Speak to growers at the local farmer’s market. Those that sell vegetable starts can be particularly helpful.

Contact The Maui Real Estate Team

Contact The Maui Real Estate Team if you are in search of your own little homestead on Maui. We would welcome the opportunity to help you find a property that will fit your gardening and growing needs.

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