Meet James Keach, new Kauai Extension Agent

We are fortunate to have two new hires, James Keach was another recent hire into the ornamental extension ohana. Russell Galanti, Extension Agent, Oahu, asked James to sit down with him to discuss his interests, duties, and thoughts on the industry. Hana hou!

Q: Hi James thanks for interviewing, lets start at the start! What is your area of responsibility? How long have you been in this position?

A: I officially started at the beginning of last October, but I was back-and-forth to Hilo a lot to finish up projects there. I really got going on Kauaʽi around November. I started running the local Master Gardener training course around the beginning of the year and now that that’s wrapped-up I’m excited to have more time to get out to other stakeholders.
My job description includes ‘ornamental, floriculture, nursery, turf, and landscape’ as well as coordinating the local Master Gardener chapter, so it’s pretty broad. I’ve worked or interacted a little with most of these sectors at some point in my career, but have to admit that turf is totally new. I’m still learning a lot about the industry on Kauaʽi too, and it’s been fun to see similarities and differences with the industry on Big Island or Singapore.

Q: So you have Master Gardener duties. Who are they and do they have an interaction with the landscape industry?

A: The Master Gardeners are a group housed in the University that seeks to apply science-based practices in order to go a level deeper in their gardening. They also have a mandate to help the greater community, and you’ll see a lot of our volunteers at plant-related events across the island and the state.
One neat thing about this group is that is draws people in from all walks of life. While many of our volunteers are retired, we also have quite a few who are actively working with local companies or non-profits. I know a few who work in the landscape industry here and view this as job-related training, covering some of the new scientific discoveries that they might not have heard of or which came out after they started their jobs. Having folks like this in our group is a real treat, since they often share their experiences and give a real-world take on the topics.

Q: Outside of the career, tell me a little bit about yourself.

A: I’m originally from Maryland, and have loved plants since I was a kid. I originally came to Hawaiʻi around 15 years ago on a one-semester internship to study orchids at UH. I moved back, after getting my Bachelors at Hampshire College, and worked for Frankie’s Nursery in Waimānalo as well as Pioneer Hi-Bred in Kunia. I left Hawaiʻi to go to graduate school because I was really interested in plant breeding and wanted to learn more. I did my Masters at Washington State University on breeding with wild species of wheat. My PhD work was on breeding impatiens with their wild relatives to bring in resistance to downy mildew, and that project is still ongoing with my advisor at Cornell’s Long Island Research & Extension Center. I lived briefly in Thailand at the end of my degree, doing a series of internships on vegetable breeding and extracting medicine from plants, and then moved to Singapore where I worked in the research division at Gardens by the Bay: Singapore’s ‘horticultural theme park’. I missed plant breeding and getting out into the field though, and when I saw an opening to breed sweet potatoes and taro on Big Island I jumped at the chance! That position was only temporary, but it was great being back in Hawaiʻi. As I came closer to the end of the timeline for that position several of the extension agents at the University suggested I apply for the position opening up on Kauaʽi. I thought it would be a good chance to get back into ornamentals and also give me an opportunity to help make sure that the science gets out into the community, something I think is really critical.

Q: Hey a fellow Marylander! Crabs and football, am I right? That’s great that you are into breeding. What are some interesting breeding directions in the ornamental crop industry?

A: I could go on-and-on about this, but two areas that I think are really relevant here are developing edible ornamentals and making selections from an area’s native species. So many of the plants we use for landscaping and gardening can also be delicious: dahlias, taro, hibiscus, sweet potato, etc. I like seeing work that accentuates both sides of these plants, especially for folks who might have limited gardening space. I also like seeing our native species used in landscaping, but especially some of the new selections folks have made for manageable growth habit, novel visual characteristics, adaptability, etc. I know several other folks from the University are doing great work with this, and some of our prized native species are even catching on internationally!
In fact, so many places I visited around the world use material which originated in Hawaiʻi and I’d love to see this translate into more opportunities for local growers and landscapers to showcase their expertise. I visited Taiwan several times when I lived in the area and was really blown away by the amount of time and public resources they’re investing in their ornamental breeding programs. They’re well known for their work with phalaenopsis orchids, but I also saw things like thornless Crown-of-Thorns, scented hibiscus (bred from our native species!), selection for flowers and foliage that look good both fresh or dried, and more! How could we invest in something like this?

Q: What do you think some of the biggest issues facing the landscaping and nursery industries in Hawaii is?

A: Invasive species I think continue to be a major challenge, both as pests/diseases but also as escapes from plantings. There’s this constant push-and-pull between wanting to bring in new and unusual materials but also prevent the introduction of species which can become a problem. I see work by industry groups as being key to this: investing in shared facilities to monitor new imports, testing out control methods developed by the public sector and providing feedback, helping keep the legislature and public informed, and so on.
Competition with imports is also going to continue to be an issue. We’re seeing some upsets to this, with things like the Myrtaceae ban and other restrictions or disruptions of international trade, but our isolated location and the cost of shipping are still going to be factors. Personally though, I see this as an opportunity. As I mentioned earlier we have a lot of unique plant material here, both native and introduced, and I think that highlighting these in research and branding can help set us apart.

Q: What areas are you focusing on? What future areas will you focus on?

A: One thing I’ve been enjoying is getting a better sense of what materials are available on the island already. The University has a sizable collection at its station up in Wailua, gathered over the years by former agents, and I’ve been working with the folks there to slowly get things sorted out and also add in new materials as we find gaps. I’d like to see what has already made it out into the community from this collection and what other things we could propagate and send out for folks to try.
In my role as Master Gardener Coordinator I’ve ordered a lot of vegetable seeds to trial locally and multiply. Some of these also look like they’d be excellent candidates for the type of dual-purpose edible ornamentals I mentioned above. We’re currently waiting for the go-ahead to have volunteers come onto the station again so I can get a wider range feedback. (and some more help with the weeding!)
I’ve also been lucky enough to start in this position around the same time as some other new faculty, and we’ve been really active in trying to set up collaborations. We have some grants and work proposed on flower induction in orchids (work I have experience with from Singapore), local cut-foliage eucalyptus, import replacement plants, selections of native plants for ornamental purposes, and more!
I like trialing plants in general and am open to suggestions for new areas to explore. I’ve done a few site visits so far but am hoping to do more now that the Master Gardener training course has wrapped-up for the year. Getting out and seeing what’s going on is good inspiration for relevant projects but can also sometimes help spot issues before they get out of hand.

Q: What is your favorite landscape plant?

A:  Oof, tough question! I’m really partial to hibiscus though, due to their versatility and the range of native and hybridized options. It’s also been amazing to look at how much the breeding has changed the color palette and size: I took a picture a while back of one of my favorite older cultivars, ‘Princess Michiko’, next to a newer release, ‘Black Dragon’, and the difference is staggering. Both are still beautiful to me though. I love driving around and seeing all the cultivars in people’s yards.

Q: How can people get in touch with you and the master gardeners?

A: My email is jkeach@hawaii.edu , and I always tell people it’s fine to prod me if they don’t get a response: I’m out in the field a lot and sometimes messages fall through the cracks.
If you live on Kauaʽi and want to get on the list for the next round of Master Gardener training, send me an email! The Master Gardeners have a helpline for gardening questions and you can email them at kauaimg@ctahr.hawaii.edu Before the pandemic they were also out at the Saturday farmers market at Kauaʽi Community College, selling seeds and answering plant questions. We’re waiting to hear back when it will be safe to resume there, but keep an eye out for us as markets reopen.

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About the author  ⁄ Garrett Webb

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