Edible gardens in the city

ONE of the good surprises that came out of the Covid-19 lockdowns was increased interest in gardening and growing food. As a weekend farmer, I’ve learned over the past 10 years to adapt lessons from the farm into a space-constrained city home. The “plantito and plantita” trend recruited a new breed of urbanites into the green world of gardening. Some have crossed over and learned to grow vegetables.

The idea of ​​urban farming, pushed by ecologists in the 1970s, has made a comeback in recent years with more sophistication and technology. The greening of cities is a common theme in international forums that address global sustainability issues. In the Philippines, home farming — whether urban or rural — has been incorporated in school programs, barangay activities and even in the song “Bahay Kubo.”

As the world continues to deal with food security and the agricultural crisis, it’s a wonder why not more Filipinos grow food at home. We can do this all year round, with no winter interruptions. Space doesn’t have to be a hindrance as urban farming can be done in vertical gardens, rooftops, condo balconies and community gardens. Schools and restaurants can also grow food.

It’s also fascinating to see some edible and medicinal plants being used in landscaping. While featuring the work of Juan Carlo Calma, an award-winning Filipino architect, I noticed the humble pansit-pansitan or Peperomia pellucida (Linn.) in the front yard of a post-modernist house. The herb is used as both medicine and food. Some chefs use it with salads. Others drink it as tea. There are scientific studies that have found pansit-pansitan to have analgesic, anti-arthritic and diuretic properties.

Want big leaves in your garden? Try planting taro (gabi). These can be quite dramatic lined up in a front yard. Tanglad (lemongrass) is also a wonderful addition to the garden. Tanglad is delicious as tea or cooked in curry or a roast chicken. It looks like a gigantic clump of grass that adds a vertical impact on any good-looking garden. Its fragrance also deters mosquitoes. It’s great to see medicinal plants used as ornamental landscaping.

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In my experience growing vegetables in the city, I have found that the easiest to grow are the common gulay we consume in the Filipino diet — pechay (Chinese cabbage), eggplant, sili (peppers), tomatoes, kangkong (water spinach), camote (sweet potato), alugbati (Malabar spinach), mustasa (mustard greens). Squash is relatively easy but needs a trellis. It’s great to have a steady supply of fresh squash blossoms. In my early years I kept trying to go fancy with rosemary, lettuce, spinach and zucchini, but bugs and pests always got to them first — until I learned some techniques. It’s all doable if you have the patience to learn. For newbies, start with eggplant, chili peppers, camote, kangkong, blue ternate. They have been fool-proof for me.

One season I planted too much bottle gourd or upo. They bore more fruit than we could consume. We aren’t so fond of upo as well, so we ended up giving them to our neighbors. The good thing is that it started a sharing culture among some neighbors and friends. Since our urban gardens didn’t produce enough to sell but they were too much for one family to consume, we stumbled upon a barter culture.

Plastic ice cream tubs and yogurt containers make for good seed germination. If you’d like to grow vegetables from seed, you can germinate seeds in small batches and in controlled environments like a greenhouse. Since I don’t have a greenhouse, I use the darker part of my kitchen to germinate bell pepper and tomato seeds. I create a mini greenhouse for them by propping up recycled chopsticks in four corners and draping a loose recycled plastic bag over the tub. Once the seeds sprout with real leaves, like the fourth or fifth leaf, I transfer the seedling to an appropriate container. Keep in mind that plastic is not porous. Your soil will need proper drainage and circulation to avoid getting moldy.

Growing vegetables in the city needs good soil. Unlike in our farm where anything grows on the ground, city gardening needs more soil consciousness. Container gardens are susceptible to harboring pests and being waterlogged. For newbies, buy potting mix or seed raising mix that is light enough to allow air and water into the roots. Once you get the hang of it you can make your own potting mix using compost, cocopeat or coco coir, and perlite. A big tip: learn how to compost.

The benefits of urban farming outweigh the learning curve and extra effort one needs to get into it. It contributes to the greening of the city. It promotes good health and healing. It is one step towards curbing hunger and malnutrition. I have seen community gardens in relocation sites from my humanitarian visits to typhoon-affected areas. It can be a source of income. And it can make your home beautiful.