Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — While the chokehold of traffic consumes Kamuning, Quezon City on an early Saturday morning, Pancho Villanueva is in a space of relative calm, as he tends to the erratic foliage of his urban garden.
In his patch of greenery, the plants are tall, bright, and varied. In one corner, two pineapple seedlings sit in a transparent container filled with water. “This piña is about two years old,” he says. “The curious thing about [it] is noong nag-harvest kami, nagkaroon siya ng dalawang shoots. Ibig sabihin, in another year, magkakaroon ng dalawang bunga 'yan.”
“Diba, ang galing?” He marvels. Previously, in his old Xavierville apartment, he discovered pineapples can be grown on water. Ever since, he has been harvesting small amounts of malunggay, tanglad, sayote, camote tops, and ginger from his backyard.
Villanueva, a visual artist and architect, has no background in farming or gardening. There was little soil in his old apartment when he started planting in 2011. “I was producing my own soil from the compost. So you get to a point [where] you’re producing more than you need,” which compelled him to start planting in pots. “’Yung tinatanim ko, it’s always seeds from fruits that I eat. It’s because I don’t want them to add up to the trash.”
One pot led to another, until Villanueva had a sizeable collection of saplings, some of them later growing into trees. He thought of holding a “tree custodian campaign” for his friends, giving his prized saplings for free, but with a condition: the recipients would have to guarantee that when the tree bears fruit, its seeds would be planted again.
“You’re only a custodian for the years that the trees need you,” he explains. “Ang concept ko, you’re not the owner of the tree. It just passes through you, to another, to its actual home.”
Villanueva can’t help but revel in the things he planted. In the middle of a thought, he would suddenly walk to a corner of the garden and show the things that grow. “This is a five-year-old mango tree but it will never grow big. It’s because it’s not in its proper soil,” he points out. After a beat, he says, “You can see atis, santol. With santol, meron akong experiments na nag-graft ako. In the event that it grows to maturity, it would be nice to have a tree house. For me, it’s also like living art.”
After a few minutes, he talks about lemongrass. “I get fresh tanglad every day. I will just cut it. ‘Di mo na kailangan ‘yung root eh … nag-re-regrow naman agad siya,” he says. “Once you have one, endless supply na siya.”
In a city of clogged roads and harsh pavements, to nurture the soil and create something from it is a kind of silent rebellion, a way of taking control from capitalist means of production.
Seeds of life
While there is a growing movement towards healthier lifestyles by way of organic farming, most city dwellers tend to grow houseplants not for food, but for aesthetics.
From Villanueva’s balcony alone, one can see similar houses along K-5th street in Kamuning with creeping vines or potted plants. But not all of them bear edible fruit or vegetables.
“People plant ornamentals because there’s little failure,” says Villanueva. “Hindi masyadong sensitive ang ornamentals, ‘di namamatay. Kasi gardening is disheartening when you see something die.”
But Villanueva does not intend to dismiss those who utilize gardens for pure aesthetic. His perspective is based on practicality and the needs of a larger community. “You have to find your plant. If ornamentals make you feel good, so be it. Just be mindful of water,” he advises. “Ayoko lang i-promote na mag-gardening lahat and then you’re using a lot of water.”
His reason is simple: “I use water to plant, and the plants feed me. Kasi kung ornamentals, you don’t have that connection. You’re just wasting water to beautify it,” he says.
“But it’s fine, it’s okay, it’s just not my vision,” he adds. “Ornamentals for me are like filters. They have a particular purpose.” In his garden, for example, his cat Mathilda’s litter box is kept in a space enclosed with ornamental plants, which keeps the cat litter — harmful for fruits and vegetables — from leeching into the edible plants.
Dino Calderon, an environmental education consultant for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in the Philippines, began gardening in January 2017 to show the feasibility of starting an edible garden at home. His little containers of soil and seed are part of an experiment to see if he could do it for himself.
Calderon inherited his grandmother’s array of ornamental plants, which he keeps alongside his edible plants. “Nagsimula kami sa buto,” he says. “Sinimulan ko na wala akong bibilin, wala akong ginagastos. Para makita ko ‘yung problem na lumabas ‘pag ganun.”
Filipinos, he says, will usually plant something if there’s space for it. “Makikita mo sa mga bahay nila, palaging mayroon silang maliit na halaman dito, halaman doon. Ang problema lang, minsan, ‘yung halaman ornamental lang.”
“Okay lang naman ‘yun,” he says. “’Yung inaano lang namin, kung mahihikayat mo lang sila na [magtanim na] wala silang gagastusin [especially for poor communities],” says Calderon. To be able to sustain inclusive urban gardening habits, Calderon encourages that one starts from virtually nothing.
“Sa totoo lang, madaling ma-tempt bumili ng seedlings. Kasi mura lang siya sa Quezon [City] Circle. Pero hindi kasi ganoon ang ginagawa namin,” he says. “Hindi na nga sila maykaya, pabibilin mo pa sila ng seedlings?”
Some of his containers in his vertical garden are empty, testament to seeds that did not break out or leaves eaten away by birds, among the many small failures he experienced when he started. But he now has smattering of edible plants: ghost chili (one of the hottest in the world), eggplant, tomatoes, basil, ginger, and several calamansi shrubs.
One of Calderon’s calamansi shrubs is nine years old, the same age as one of his sons. He planted it after his wife gave birth. When he arrived home, he prepared calamansi juice, took some seeds, and buried them in soil. Only the nine-year old shrub survived. It has yet to bear fruit, but Calderon keeps it.
“'Di pa naman goal ko mag-harvest,” he says. “Sana mag-pay off, pero wala naman akong malaking investment, kung pag-uusapan mo pera.”
"Natutuwa lang ako sa kanya ‘pag may nakikita akong tumubo,” Calderon adds. “Mas gusto ko na nakikita ng mga anak ko na tumutubo, na may na-go-grow.”
"Doon ka makakaka-connect, once you see something grow,” says Villanueva. “For me [the value is] that connection with my garden, not [in looking] pretty or smelling good.”
Blooming in captivity
For Angie Ipong, to plant an urban garden was a temporary respite from prison, an empowering activity that fuelled her advocacy in agroecology, a subfield of ecology that studies how ecological processes can be applied to agriculture. She is now part of the Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA), and travels often between Manila and Tarlac. Despite her busy schedule, she was able to make time for a brief interview somewhere in Quezon City, where she lives, but was unable to schedule a shoot to have her garden photographed.
Unlawfully arrested in 2005 for rebellion, murder, and arson, Ipong was freed in 2011, after initiating several livelihood programs and tending to a productive urban garden while behind bars, where she and her inmates sold the produce. Now, her bigger goal is to help attain food security.
“If I was able to plant in jail, we could do it outside,” says Ipong. “Here outside is a bigger jail,” she laughs.
While she was detained in Pagadian, Misamis Occidental, Ipong sought the permission of the warden to set up a garden in a small space near the chapel. She secured seeds from visitors, and made use of available resources inside the detention facility. “After two months, I had an organic vegetable garden … ang gaganda ng mga pechay namin, ‘day,” she exclaims, laughing.
“I had a long trellis of pipino, [and I also had] tomatoes. Full talaga ‘yung garden ko, ang ganda-ganda niya, tapos organic,” Ipong recalls. She, along with other inmates, also grew onion, mustasa, singkamas, squash, and alugbati, among others. “I counted them: There were 31 kinds,” she adds. “In all of my life, it is only here [in prison] that I ate salads every day.”
“If I was able to plant in jail, we could do it outside,” says Angie Ipong. “Here outside is a bigger jail,” she laughs.
“Ang sama ng kain sa jail na ‘yan, para kang baboy. With that, gumanda ang kain namin. Somehow it helped in terms of nutrition,” says Ipong.
Ipong, who grew up in a peasant family, was no stranger to farming. Her early exposure trained her to think of the welfare of farmers and other marginalized communities, such as the Lumad. For 40 years, she worked with female peasant farmers, and also had the chance to study organic farming abroad in the 1970s.
Having experienced torture and various abuses upon her arrest, Ipong refused to let herself get mired in despair. “May buhay din dito, may dignity pa rin ang mga tao dito [in jail],” she recalls. She knew she had to be productive: “Paano ‘yung ‘di sila nalulugmok, mawalan ng pag-asa?”
After she was released, Ipong continued to plant in her home, and even in her office space. At 73 years old, she holds on to a belief that continues to sustain her. “They cannot imprison our body, our minds, what we stand for,” she says. “You have to bloom where you are planted.”
Edible urban gardening 101
To start an edible urban garden, one needs soil or just water, as in the case of Villanueva’s pineapple shoots; the science behind the latter is called hydroponics. This presupposes the need for space, which, for Calderon, Villanueva, and Ipong, was more about creativity than availability.
Calderon’s front yard is actually scarce in soil, and most of his plants are in plastic containers, not on the ground. He collects the soil from an ongoing construction project along his street, but he needs to make it fertile by treating it to ensure that his plants will grow well. “Ikaw, tuturuan ka namin magtanim, pero [kung] wala kang matabang lupa, ma-di-discourage ka lang,” he explains.
For fertilizer, Calderon sings praises for a recent discovery: bokashi composting. “Lahat ng biodegradable waste lalagay mo sa bucket. Tapos lalagyan mo ng bokashi bran — para siyang combination of molasses, ipa (rice hull), other microorganisms,” he instructs. “I-fe-ferment mo ‘yung basura for two weeks … Tapos every so often lalagyan mo ng bran, ‘yun ‘yung bacteria na mag-fe-ferment sa kanya.”
Calderon sources the bran locally, and it costs around ₱50 for a tub as big as an ice cream container. “Nung hindi ko pa [ito] ginagawa … nagtatanim ako, laging namamatay. Pero noong nagsimula na ako mag-bokashi, eto na, ang lalaki na nila. Parang miracle growth talaga,” he says.
Villanueva relies, among others, on a composting technique involving black soldier flies, a local species whose larvae are voracious eaters of biodegradable waste. The larvae feast and turn matter into compost.
Once the larvae turn into pupae, they seek flight. “Sa fly stage, they don’t eat. They just mate, reproduce. That’s why we don’t see them in our house and bothering us sa food,” says Villanueva. To address the unpleasant smell, he simply adds grass, soil, or leaves on top of the compost. He also aerates his pots.
Ipong, while in prison and while working for UMA, learned how to make “IMO”: indigenous micro-organisms, which she describes as material to “enhance ‘yung pagbulok ng bagay, at ‘di magbabaho.”
To make IMO, Ipong instructs: Take a portion of cooked rice, cover it in paper or plastic, and put it in a shaded area, then let it grow mold for three to four days. Rice, which has yellow or white mold, is good for IMO; black mold is not. Add an equivalent portion of molasses or raw sugar to the rice then leave for two weeks. The resulting juice from the mixture is added to water: two tablespoons of IMO for each liter of water, sprayed on plants to keep them healthy.
While all these may seem a bit tedious, at the heart of growing an urban garden is to know what you want, and to believe your plants will grow. “’Diba mahirap mag-plant? Kahit nung first time ko. [People kept saying] ah, may green thumb ‘yan,” says Villanueva. “Walang ganun. You keep trying until it grows.”
Beginner urban gardeners are advised to start with plants that have shallow roots. “Pinakamadali leafy vegetables like pechay and basil,” says Calderon. “‘Yung mustasa, oregano, tarragon, parsley. Green vegetables, [kasi] mababaw lang roots niya.”
“‘Yung fruit-bearing like talong, kamatis, kailangan i-transplant para mag-flourish,” Calderon adds. Unless large plants or fruit bearing trees are transplanted, their growth is arrested. “Nabo-bonsai sila,” he says.
Villanueva lives five minutes away from the local market. But growing his own urban garden saves him a few trips. Like Ipong, in his garden are vegetables he makes into a salad: “[There’s] camote tops, malunggay, saluyot, then just do your own dressing,” he says. “Even in a small garden, you can grow tanglad, tomatoes, sili when they’re in season, ginger, and all these things you actually need almost every day.”
The long view
Ipong, who now works with farmers in Hacienda Luisita, helped write a newly published book entitled “Bungkalan,” a manual for organic farmers. The book is in Filipino, published by UP’s Sentro ng Wikang Filipino. Written in ordinary and accessible language, the book is also a political statement, one that speaks of land control and food sovereignty.
One cannot discuss urban gardening without mentioning the plight of farmers or how pockets of greenery affect the environment. The long view — based from those who fashion small farms in city homes — is that urban gardening can hopefully raise awareness on salient issues in agriculture and ecology.
“Palagi kong tinuturo sa mga bata ay waste [management]. Kasi madaling solusyonan, pero pinakamahirap gawin. Ang daling sabihing ‘wag magkalat, pero ang daming taong nagkakalat eh.” — Dino Calderon
“There is no true land reform in our country,” emphasizes Ipong. “Nine out of ten of our farmers are landless. The whole agriculture is atrasado.”
“I grew up in the province. It wasn’t as if it was a new concept [there], that you grow your own food,” says Villanueva. “I feel like everyone should plant their own food, with organic food being so expensive.”
Calderon speaks as someone who tries to achieve a zero-waste lifestyle. While his wife takes to heart “The Plastic Solution” — a movement that encourages everyone to turn plastic bottles into eco-bricks — his contribution is to get waste off the streets through his garden. “Palagi kong tinuturo sa mga bata ay waste [management]. Kasi madaling solusyonan, pero pinakamahirap gawin,” he says. “Ang daling sabihing ‘wag magkalat, pero ang daming taong nagkakalat eh.”
“Anyone can imagine that there’s a reward, you plant something, you see it grow,” Villanueva says of the sense of fulfilment in tending an urban garden. “There’s the perpetuation of life and the symbiosis na you take care of it, and it takes care of you.”
But the common sentiment is sustaining an urban garden, moreso an edible one, makes you more mindful of the interactions between humans and the environment, and how food security can be a gateway to issues like poverty, hunger, social isolation, or even traffic. “It’s not just about you planting or your gratification that matters,” says Villanueva. One must look at the bigger picture.
For these urban gardeners, the simple act of planting a seed can be an effective solution for some of the world’s biggest problems, if one only has the patience to get their hands dirty.