Interview with Larry Borgatti, Irrigation Technician, Arborist, & Landscaper by Dr. James Keach, Associate Extension Agent for Ornamental Crops in Kauai County
JK: What is your current position and role?
LB: Right now I’m an irrigation technician for the County of Kaua‘i. I take care of all the irrigation systems for Parks & Recreation. I’ve been doing this for about 6 years. Prior to that I had my own business as a landscape contractor.
How did you get started both in land- scape and then transitioning over to this position?
I went to college to get a degree in horticulture. When I graduated I got a 3 month internship here on Kaua‘i at a botanical garden that’s now closed. That was in ‘82 and I’m still here! After a 3-month internship I decided to stay.
Awesome! That’s a nice connection.
I mean, what do you do after graduating college? One of my professors told me about an internship in Hawai‘i and I thought ‘Go for it!’ and never looked back. So then after the internship I did various jobs and then I started my business slowly. I went into business full time around ‘85, ‘86. And did my business until 2014, when I got a ‘real’ job working for the government with benefits and health insurance and all that great stuff.
Yeah, that’s definitely a driving force…
Irrigation was part of being a landscape contractor and so when the position opened up with the county I thought ‘Oh, that sounds good!’ because I get to work by myself, and I don’t have a crew or anything; it was something I was willing to try.
Nice! Do you feel beyond your irrigation experience that your landscaping experience really helps you out in your day-to-day job?
Definitely! I’m able to look at the whole landscape system and the entire landscape and use it to manage the irrigation and the whole thing as a single entity. Rather than just looking at the water use, or the turf, or the trees, I look at the whole system: the ecosystem.
I think that’s so critical. In school I think we’re taught to ‘narrow, narrow, narrow’ and sometimes that’s not what day-to-day life is.
Yeah, everyone wants to focus and look at the nitty gritty but sometimes you have to step back and look at the big picture.
In both of your positions have you noticed any trends in the local landscaping industry that you want to talk about?
Slowly people are going to a more integrated approach to the landscape, kind of like Integrated Pest Management. Where it’s not just ‘rake everything up and throw away the green waste’. Instead, you recycle, and mulch, and reuse, and find alternative ways of managing the landscape. I wouldn’t call it ‘organic’ but more of slowly moving towards an integrated landscape management approach.
I really like the way you put that: ‘integrated’, because I feel it really is. Considering the ecosystem, not just what we see on the surface of it.
And not looking at that one tree that might have bugs but looking at the whole system, and maybe taking care of that without hav ing to spray everything. Like how mulching helps with the water control. It’s all one entire system where everything affects everything else.
Do you have a favorite ‘go-to’ plant that you like in landscaping? That you see as very useful in a wide variety of applications?
I mean I’m a tree guy. My favorite is Monkeypod. I know it’s a big tree but it’s indestructible. It can be easily trained and maintained. You can prune the heck out of it and it comes back. Plus, being an arborist it’s a great tree to climb. A fun tree to climb!
I’m parked under one right now! I was just getting back from the field. A great source of shade and beautiful architecture!
Yes! Just because it’s not in flower doesn’t mean it’s not an attractive and useful tree. I love to climb it, and I can trust it.
I think that’s worth a lot. I was on Big Island before and you would see folks climbing up into them in some of the parks there.
Is there a plant that you feel is really under utilized in landscaping, that you’d like to see more work done with it?
The first thing that comes to mind is fruit trees. Why don’t we plant more fruit trees in the parks? What’s wrong with that?
Everybody wants to plant something that flowers. Why not plant something that’s edible?
In my role in Master Gardeners we’ve had some discussions with Village Harvest and really integrating community groups like these, where there are public trees and people can benefit from them. And when there are community groups that can keep the fruit under control everyone benefits from it.
I think a lot of people are worried about liability and maintenance but I don’t know too many people who have been killed
by a falling mango or slipped on one and hurt themselves. We trim the coconuts constantly because of the liability and how many people
have died from being hit in the head by a coconut?
you’re on the Arborist Advisory Committee for the County, which includes the ‘Preservation of Exceptional Trees’. Is there one tree that springs to mind that you think more people should know about or go visit?
There’s a big beautiful Royal Poinciana tree up in Kapahi Park. I drive by it every day because I live in that area. It’s just a beautiful, fantastic, relatively unpruned specimen and when it flowers it’s spectacular because the full canopy is probably 60 feet across.
I’ll definitely check that out! I’ve been by that park, but just in passing and not really spending time there.
It’s by the comfort station. Right now it doesn’t look like much but give it a couple months and in May or June it’s just awesome when it is all red with flowers. It’s something where almost every day you drive by it and see somebody under the tree enjoying the shade.
I always think that’s a great sign with parks: seeing people use them.
That’s what they’re there for.
Exactly! Not just an aesthetic to keep people out. Is there one park or landscaping trend you’d like to see come back that’s not really big right now?
Community gardens. It seems like they’ve kind of faded away and yet so many people don’t have the space in their own yard to garden. I know there are always issues about who is going to maintain them, and things like that, but for a while there it seemed like everyone was planting community gardens. Now it’s like they’ve disappeared, when we need them the most.
Yeah, I lived on O‘ahu 15 years ago and was involved with the community gardens there. It was rewarding to be involved with, but also it was just a really nice area to walk through. Especially with folks who had immigrated there, and seeing what they were growing. Sometimes it was something really different. And there was a real trade of the different plants among the gardeners.
There’s a little one outside of Foster Botanical Gardens and it’s almost a tour in itself to walk in there and see what people are growing and how they’re growing it.
Especially with all this interest now in food and seed security; I think it’s almost a perfect time to bring them back.
I have to show my background as a breeder. One thing I always get asked about is new cultivars of plants. Is there one crop that you would like to see more cultivars of that might be getting stale otherwise?
Ti have always been a favorite of mine and I like all the different varieties of ti that are out there, but I’d like to see more. I used to go to Garden Exchange in Hilo, if you’re familiar with them.
Yeah, I really like that store! I went there a lot when I lived there.
I would visit there and every time I’d go and I’d look and I’d pick up a few different varieties of ti plants. They always had something different, and yet now when I shop in other stores it’s always the same old ti. They’re just so spectacular. It’d be nice to see somebody breeding ti again. They have great colors. They’re relatively easy to grow. They’re pretty much pest-free. They’re low maintenance. They’re not invasive. What more could you ask for?
Right now travel is kind of challenging with Covid-19, but during normal times is there a park or landscaped area that you like to go to when you travel, or which inspires you?
That’s hard. When you said inspire, I’m always inspired when I go by Ala Moana Beach Park and you look at all the differ- ent species they have there. If I go over- seas: Australia. Their parks are always so well-maintained. The people don’t abuse and trash those parks. I don’t know if you’ve ever spent time in Australia? But you’ll drive for hours to a park and it’s spotless, and the facilities are clean, and there are well-maintained trails. It’s just amazing over there.
I’ve heard so much about them and I really want to go. I worked at a garden in Singapore that had been inspired by several parks in Australia and tried to recapture some of that. But I’ve heard a lot and seen some incredible pictures. I haven’t made it over though. But I did live near Ala Moana Beach Park when I was on O‘ahu., and
I would visit there a few times a week. I know what you’re talking about.
One of these days I’ve got to make it to Singapore. I’ve so heard much about that city and the landscaping that they incorporated in such a crowded city. It’s on my bucket list.
It’s a really nice place to visit. As a tourist it’s a really fun experience.
What advice do you have for someone starting out? Or would you do differently. if you could go back?
I guess for people starting out something that I’d do differently is to ask lots of questions. There are lots of ways to think about things and different people have different ideas so the more questions you ask, the better idea you get of the best way to do something. You can’t learn everything on YouTube: you have to get out there, get hands-on experience, and ask questions.