I’m sensing a whole lot of passion for urban farming or gardening these days. Everyone is home, with the time and space to garden. We now see how food is the very stuff of life and that the supermarket is fast becoming a wasteland. Slowly, we are changing our fundamental relationship to food and the act of sourcing and putting it on our tables ourselves. With an entire summer lockdown, slow hours, and nothing else to do, people want to try their hand (and green thumbs) at growing some vegetables.
I live in a homestead. We have 50 chickens, 6 rabbits, and 4 dogs, and are welcoming hosts to ladybugs, earthworms, butterflies, birds, and all sorts of creepy crawlies. Our homestead has raised beds (600 square meters of food garden,) nurseries, worm bins, a chicken coop and chicken run, 2 compost piles, and a rainwater catchment. Our front yard, our garage, and our garden are planted to crops instead of ornamental plants. Our canopies are of passion fruit, our hedges are turmeric and sambong, and our gate cover is of the climbing blue ternate flower, heirloom cherry tomatoes or sitaw.
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We have fruit trees surrounding the house such as atis, starapple, banana, papaya, jackfruit, mango, and cacao. As hedges or bushes, we have kadios, malunggay, sili, calamansi, and corn. The beds grow Bahay Kubo local vegetables and herbs. Under the ground are root crops such as air potato and cassava, and our nurseries grow the micro greens. And of course, we have edible weeds everywhere—amaranth, pancit-pancitan, tawa-tawa.
People are asking me how to do it. And so I thought I’d lay it bare, and help some of you who are stuck at home with a hoe and a spade, or even just a patch of earth. Before you start though, go easy on yourself. Leave your dread at the garden gate. Here are some easy-peasy tips to jumpstart your urban farming career:
1. Grow only useful things
Since you don’t have lots of space, every plant should count. Try to always plant something edible or medicinal. Our rule of thumb: if you water it, you have to be able to eat it. Water, time, and space are resources, so don’t squander them on plants that look nice but have very little use.
2. Know your terrain
Do you have enough space or live in a high-rise with little access to soil? If you have no access to soil, grow your food in containers, by the patio, on the roof, on your balcony, or even indoors where there is enough sunlight. If you have a patio or balcony, maximize all spaces (in all directions) by combining low plants and those that creep like beans. You can even grow plants in hanging pots.
3. Know what to grow
Where you are planting will determine what you should grow or plant. However, YouTube videos and tutorials on the Internet will probably not help you. These how-to’s were made for the temperate regions. Seed packet information is not universal either. So I suggest you ask fellow gardeners what plants work for them, or seek out a local nursery with seeds to spare. Below are some of the easiest vegetables you can grow in the tropics:
String beans: Plant them along a trellis where the beans can climb. Give them at least 10 hours of sun per day and regular watering twice a week.
Leafy greens: These include pechay, talinum, camote tops, kangkong, malunggay, saluyot, and mustard leaves. Arugula is also easy to grow. These can be grown in beds or even in containers for a small kitchen garden or backyard. Just make sure you have good soil with plenty of organic matter or compost, regular watering twice a week and full sun.
Lettuce: They grow well if your soil is healthy and rich in organic matter. You also have to water them at least twice a week. You can place them under full sun, although some afternoon shade would also be good. Choose loose leaf varieties and oak leaf lettuce that are hardy and better adapted to our hot climate.
Herbs: These include La Buena mint, Thai and holy basil, Italian flat leaf parsley, tarragon, Italian oregano, coriander, and lemongrass which all thrive well, even under tropical conditions, and without needing high elevation.
Legumes: These moderate the soil feeders (leaf crops) and have nitrogen fixing properties (converting nitrogen in the air into nitrogen in the soil). Mung bean is the easiest legume to grow and makes a great cover crop. Pigeon pea (kadios) can also be planted for its nitrogen fixing properties. The peas can end up as nutritious food for the table, and you can use the plant’s leaves, flowers, and pods for animals. Its flowers attract bees, too.
Sweet potato: This is a good root crop for your multiple crop bed or small garden. Sweet potatoes grow well in the hot sun, and have little need for water or fertilizer (don’t over fertilize). In fact, you might end up with too much, as they grow like vines on the ground. They also are resistant to disease. Not only that, you can use them as ground cover and for mulching as well. (Tip: they need some space.)
4. Build good and healthy soil
The success of your crops is directly related to how healthy your soil is. You will need to build the quality and structure of your soil with compost and mulch. If you allow every microbe, bacteria, worm, and fungi some elbow room to thrive, your beds will be teeming with life. The mulch acts as a coat of armor, protecting the soil from erosion, keeping the weeds from taking root, and even providing food for the living organisms. Healthy living soil shall then feed plants with the nutrients they need. What you’ll have are healthy plants, increasing yields, and subsequently, nutrient-rich food. What we do is compost all our yard and kitchen waste, use mulch to protect and build soil, try not to till, rotate crops every so often, and not use pesticides or herbicides.
Remember: waste not, want not. With so much time on your hands, try to build a compost pile for your kitchen waste or garden trimmings. This will be what you will use as soil or to fill your raised beds. You can also use compost as mulch or as fertilizer. There are a lot of easy guides on how to build a compost pile. It can be a very simple thing but it will be your most invaluable resource.
6. Gather seeds
There are some seed starters and savers who might be willing to share some seeds with you, neighbors with a good calamansi bush, or a friend who has beans. You can also buy seed packets from the supermarket, or plants or seedlings from nurseries and some markets. If you really can’t get your hands on seeds or seedlings, try saving the seeds from what you eat, for example, squash seeds or even the cuttings from green onion stalks. If still you can’t get your hands on any seeds or plants during this lockdown, you can spend the time preparing for the future, by starting your compost pile and building your raised beds.
7. Start small
Don’t plant too much and end up feeling overwhelmed. Start with a small bed or a few pots. Remember that you will make mistakes, but this is how you will learn how to garden. And don’t worry if sometimes you are lazy, forget things, or have the wrong know-how. Learn to let go of mistakes, the changing weather included. Keep what works and just remember to only grow the strong and sturdy, not the fussy and weak.
I say there has never been a better time for growing our own food. And I do think anyone can start his/her own backyard farm or kitchen garden. I hope your summer lockdown inspires you to unleash the farmer within. Go and get dirty with purpose!
The author is a lawyer by profession and a mother of two who lives in a homestead in Laguna. Since 2009, she has written extensively about sustainable agriculture, environmental stewardship, backyard farming, and food forest gardening. She has a blog downtoearthph.com and is the author of The Backyard Farm: How to Grow Your Own Food (available in National Bookstore). She owns a flower farm and vegetable farm which provide a bounty of produce available through the brand DowntoEarth. Since 2011, DowntoEarth has offered practical backyard farming workshops. The online store also sells seeds, gardening tools, compost kits, and vertical tower gardens. Visit www.downtoearth.ph and follow DowntoEarth on Instagram @downtoearthph and Facebook: downtoearthphilippines
Photos by Paula Zayco Aberasturi