wellness by Jane Villa

Start Something: Urban Gardening

An enthusiast looks back on her first year of farming in the city

One quiet Sunday morning last year, I woke up earlier than usual, perhaps because I just moved in to our new place. As I opened my bedroom door what greeted me was the sight of the early morning sun shining on our empty balcony. In that moment, I envisioned how the space would look like with a thriving edible garden, filled with herbs, salad greens, and bahay kubo vegetables.

It was not the first time I thought of taking up gardening or farming. January of that year, my parents and I visited my dad’s hometown of Pulilan, Bulacan to attend a cousin’s wedding. I hadn’t been there in years. They brought me to two small farms where we get our occasional ration of mangoes, owned by dad and his siblings. Seeing the rows of bananas, mangoes, squash, and other plants made me entertain the thought of running a farm one day, become a haciendera.

Well, that far-off-in-the-future dream got an actual timeline after that Sunday morning. If I wanted my real-life Farmtown Hacienda to happen, I needed to start it immediately. I bought a book, The Urban Kitchen Gardener, by Tom Moggach, to give me an idea of what I really wanted. I knew that being able to pick fresh herbs and add them to my meals and drinks would give me utter satisfaction, but I did not know where or how to start. Luckily I had a colleague who helped me jumpstart my urban gardening ambitions. She said a beginner gardener should answer the following:

What do you want to grow? Herbs for my drinks and salad vegetables.
How big is your space? I have a 5 x 8 sq foot area to start with.
How much do you want to spend? I don’t want to invest a lot yet because I might kill them all. Maybe P1,000 max.

Following this plan, I got myself a seedling each of rosemary, lemon balm, oregano, stevia, and swiss mint—herbs I would use often, a manageable number to occupy me in this new hobby.

Funny how I found myself behaving like… a parent within the next two weeks. I love kids as long as they are not mine and that’s why I decided not to grow my own, but suddenly, I was calling home in the middle of the day to ask how Rosemary Gil, Stevia Wonder, Margot Lemonbaum, Oreganern, and Ermintgarde were. Yes, I named them. I woke up earlier to check on them every morning. I would leave specific instructions for watering and care whenever I would be gone for an extended period.

This month marks my first anniversary in urban gardening. I now have a thriving overproduction of sweet basils that supply my weekly pesto needs. Basils are the easiest to grow as a noob urban gardener. In addition, I have lime and lemon basils for drinks and tea, cherry tomatoes, serrano, jalapeño, and labuyo chili plants waiting to bear fruit, a dwarf sunflower starting to bud. Recently, I harvested kale and mizuna leaves and enjoyed it as a salad snack.

The most challenging thing for a new urban gardener in Manila is the lack of information about growing edible plants particular to our city’s environment. Every available resource in print or online is almost sure to be based on temperate countries’ climates. But, the wide range of micro-climates in Manila means growing conditions will differ if you live in a townhouse or in a high rise condo. Thankfully, I found a support group in Manila Grows Food (acebook.com/groups/manilagrowsfood/), filled with people who help each other out over gardening woes.

For any person in Manila who wants to start gardening in their own backyards, terrace, or balcony, I guarantee that plants can grow anywhere, and that anyone can grow their own food. The black and green thumb label is a myth. You grow some, you kill some; it all depends on your area, the quality of seeds, the season, and the attention you give to each plant in terms of sunlight, water, and nutrients.

You can start with seedlings or seeds. Seedlings are especially encouraging because the plants are already thriving and you can even start using the leaves or fruit the day you bring them home. I prefer starting from seeds because the plants acclimatize to your home’s environment better. Buy seedlings at Legazpi Sunday Market, Farmer’s market in Cubao, or Quezon City Circle. I get seeds from Unique Seeds PH (facebook.com/uniqueseeds/), Down to Earth PH in Yakal, Makati, or from SeedsNow.com. For Gardening materials, including soil, seeds, and pots, you can check out Cedar Hills Garden Center at 57 Mother Ignacia St., QC., and Harbest Agribusiness Corp at No. 5, Rosemarie Lane, Pasig.

One year of gardening has taught lessons about plants and life:

Plants do not respond well to helicopter parenting. Give them their sun and water requirements and leave them alone!

Gardening requires patience, discipline, and is not for the faint of heart. You will get heart-broken each time a seedling gets sick and dies. You will rejoice every time you see a seed germinate, grow new leaves, start to bud, and bear fruit.

As I go into my second year of urban gardening, I feel more confident in expanding my vegetable portfolio, coming from the trials and errors of the past year. I plan to grow salsa ingredients like tomatillo, onion, and cilantro, and grow more salad leaves like tatsoi, arugula, and lettuce.I promised my mom that by December, she will be doing her marketing in our balcony. The goal is by year three, I will be closer to becoming an haciendera.

Jane Villa
Jane Villa is a public relations practitioner by day, and a not-so-newbie urban gardener-farmer during her free time. Her planting adventures are documented in her Instagram at @janeymackfarms.
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