Taking a Second Look at the Philippine Horticulture Industry’s Livelihood Possibilities

By Arsenio “Toto” Barcelona

My involvement with the Go Negosyo Kapatid Agri Mentor Me Program (KAMMP), spearheaded by the Philippine Center for Entrepreneurship of Joey Concepcion and the Department of Agriculture headed by Secretary Manny Piñol has taken me out of my comfort zone.

A new variety of begonia from East-West Seed that is very floriferous.

Indeed, the past year has been a continuous eye opener on how agribusiness can become sustainable for young farmers who are just beginning to realize the difficulty of enterprise development. Even friends who had been in agribusiness for several years see the need to be mentored on how to upscale their blossoming enterprises. With our occasional get-togethers, many of our successful friends in the industry are also fired-up to mentor young enterprising agri-entrepreneurs. According to the top honcho of Go Negosyo, Boss Joey Concepcion, the three essentials in enterprise development are the 3Ms: Mentoring, Money, and Market. With these, we can develop our new generation of “Mang Sasakas.”

Here, I would like to particularly focus on a neglected sector of our horticulture industry, ornamental plants and trees. As many of my friends in the Orchid Society, Philippine Horticulture Society, Philippine Bonsai Society, and ornamental plants nursery operators who are my Facebook friends oftentimes bring up in conversations, initiatives to develop the industry are usually made by leaders and members of the industry. The government only provides published research papers and occasional measly funding for shows and conferences. Most of the time, funds come from the pockets of plant lovers.

Hence, it is about time to do something that ought to be done twenty to fifty years ago like what Taiwan and Thailand did. The development of the ornamental plants industry deserves serious attention from government planners, and funds should be allocated to support its robust development throughout the 20 main islands of the Philippines. Agriculture-inspired students in SUCs should be exposed to the necessary skills to become agri-entrepreneurs during their four-year courses, no longer just planting in a few pots as part of their thesis requirements but to operate school-based nurseries that can put money in their pockets. “Earning while learning” is the key to sustain their interest in seriously considering a career in agribusiness.

What are the possibilities?

Ornamental Plants

I remember my good friend Zac Sarian, one of the pillars of the Philippine horticulture industry, guiding young nursery operators to start propagating and multiplying good, exotic planting materials as potted plants before offering these in the market. The first one who sells this in volume makes the money. Another good friend, Antonio Alisla, Jr., a member of the Royal Horticulture Society based in the United Kingdom, encouraged many in a get-together during his last visit organized by our good friend, Henry Brolagda of Cavite, to take seriously a career in horticulture. He encouraged plant lovers to professionalize the career of nurserymen, a well-respected profession in Western countries and developed Asian countries like Japan and Taiwan.

Dwarf flowering ornamentals from Allied Botanical.

It is about time to put the brilliant minds in horticulture together and concretize a course of action to impart the right skills to young plant lovers and chart a development course of action to mentor young enterprising nursery operators to establish their agribusinesses. Industry leaders like Vicente Chin, Dory Bernabe, Vangie Go, Rolita Spowart, Helen Balmayor, Evelyn Lavina, Fely Gupit, Bob Gopiao, Nolan Sison, Joe Reano, Flor Tarriela, Jaime Chua, Herbie Teodoro, and many more can get together through the initiative of the High-value Crops Development Program headed by USEC Evelyn Lavina and the DOSTPCAARRD Crops Division headed by Dr. Jocelyn Eusebio.

Ornamental plants include orchids, flowering plants, leaf plants, flowering trees, forest trees for landscaping, bamboo, medicinal plants, herbs, bonsai, and succulents. These plants have established agronomic and botanical knowledge among experts and practitioners. There are great possibilities of imparting these to the youth and focus their career development.

Orchid and Potted Ornamentals

The Philippines is well known worldwide as a country with the most number of orchid species in its forests. We have many exotic varieties used by our plant breeders to come up with beautiful and colorful variations for Cattleya, Palaenopsis, and Oncidium, among others. Yet, our neighbors, Taiwan and Thailand, are able to undertake serious breeding and propagation programs, through tissue culture, of our wild materials or mother plants. In turn, most of our nurseries just import their planting materials for commercialization. Our forest and breeders have also yielded a wide variety of flowering and leaf ornamentals but commercialization is done in small volumes.

A research center for Philippine orchids and other ornamental potted plants, staffed with full-time breeders, botanist, managers, engineers, can be considered by the DA and DOST. This can be based in a host SUC or administered by a plant lovers’ association. The successful varieties can be sold to the highest bidder for tissue culture propagation. Income from tissue culture mericlones and potted plants can sustain the operating capital of the center. Entrepreneurs or expert nurserymen can be tapped to develop teaching materials and training modules for students and young practitioners who look at horticulture as a career path.

A rare white-flowered Tillandsia can be a money-maker if grown in big numbers.

With good planting materials readily available and affordable, a subsector, the cut flower agri enterprise can be developed, made up of young entrepreneurs who are trained properly in nursery operations and marketing. Cut flowers have a big export market in Asian capital cities. The growing urbanization in major towns and cities in the Philippines provides a big domestic market for ornamentals.

Filipinos are fond of orchids. Oftentimes, it is the fear of not having a green thumb that discourages them from bringing home their own live plants. With proper teaching seminars in social media and TV programs, more households will be encouraged to plant in their gardens. The art of flower arrangement can also be promoted as part of home decoration. Filipino style Ikebana? Why not?

Ornamental Trees and Bamboo

Ornamental trees like flowering trees with fragrant flowers, bush-type or tall trees, and shade trees are all materials for landscaping to beautify communities, streets and highways, parks, schools, public facilities and homes. The market is still unlimited.

In Taiwan, there are tree farms growing mature trees to be used in landscaping. Usually, farms are less than one hectare. With a simple irrigation system, one person can manage one enterprise. Capitalization for this type of operation may not be affordable for individual young entrepreneurs; however, a possibility is for government to establish a horticulture subdivision of 1,000 square meters cut with centralized water pump, filters and irrigation water distribution system, road network, electricity, cooperative style sourcing of agricultural inputs, common facilities for logistics and packaging, cooperative marketing, and promotion. The tenants can just rent the space, with government credit for greenhouse nursery, sprinkler irrigation system, and working capital.

This same setup can be done for the orchids and potted ornamental plants nurseries. The area can be a manageable 2 to 3 hectares. Skills training, credit support and financial education, and marketing strategies should be established to develop new blood in this potential agribusiness.

Taiwan has an island-wide beautification program using trees and potted flowering plants in season. The government is the biggest client of plant nurseries, aside from their exports and home markets. It is about time also that the DPWH and LGUs embark on a beautification program with Philippine plants, getting guidance from horticultural experts, and not merely leaving the planting of trees mainly to uneducated maintenance workers and the aides of street sweepers. It would be good to have an examination of conscience for officials involved in beautification projects to enhance their horticultural knowledge, and select the right plants and people to do the job. They can learn from Singapore and Japan, as well as Filipino experts.

Propagations of Pole bamboo for sale.

Bamboo is another plant with great potential, not only as ornamentals but as construction material for houses, resorts, and restaurants. In Bali, Thailand, and China, bamboo is a very important plant that provides materials for furniture, scaffolding for building construction, materials for houses and other buildings. In agriculture, bamboo can be used as structure
for small and big greenhouses, trellises, and planting pots for hydroponics systems. It has unlimited possibilities also for handicrafts and household accessories. Many East Asians cannot live without their bamboo chopsticks or barbeque sticks. I visited a Taiwanese factory several years back that exported two forty foot containers of barbeque sticks to Japan daily.

It is about time that bamboo propagation and planting should be promoted in all provinces. It can be a ready material for temporary housing, or even permanent homes as substitute for steel bars in low cost housing communities as Herbie Teodoro taught me. The young bamboo shoots are also a source for food. Bamboo charcoal has many uses. The leaves serve as wrapping material for the Chinese Autumn Festival delicacy “Ma Chang.” Bamboo is also an effective windbreaker for high value farms.

Skills in bamboo farming and value-adding should be promoted among the youth. It needs a small amount of capital, lots of time in learning skills, industriousness, and perseverance. It requires 90% effort, filled with wisdom, and 10% capital.

Medicinal Plants 

During the time of Dr. Galvez Tan as the Department of Health Secretary, medicinal plants were given importance in treating common maladies like cold, fever, organ disorders, muscle pains, and even dread diseases like cancer. The Philippines is gifted with a wide range of cures from our forest and pathways. They grow wild. Our elders have traditionally handed down these cures but this knowledge is slowly being neglected so our youth are ignorant about our herbal medicines. In fact, government only recognizes mostly Western chemical medicines and ordered an insulting “no therapeutic value” on herbals with proven cures like Lagundi syrup for coughs. Thailand is more clever to give due recognition to their herbals as medicine. Malunggay, recognized to be power-packed with nutrition, has yet to be promoted in every home garden.

Some plant growers specialize in foliage anthuriums like these.

It is time to teach our elementary and high school students the value of our medicinal plants. Health centers operated by government can stock up on herb seedlings and supplies for immediate provision of these to those in need. Seedlings can be distributed to households after training them how to care for their own “farmacy” herbal gardens. They should be trained how to prepare the concoction and how to apply this. Dependence on chemical medicine can be supplemented with the herbals.


The past decade has seen the proliferation of bonsai clubs and hobbyists all over the major provinces of the Philippines. Through the initiatives of the Philippines Bonsai Society (PBSI) since the late 1980s, bonsai competitions, workshops, and exhibitions, as well as the participation of Philippine delegations in bonsai shows in Japan, Taiwan, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, and Vietnam, the standard of Philippine bonsai masterpieces has reached international levels, particularly the Bantigue and Tugas, among other Philippine endemic and indigenous species.

Now there are affiliate clubs throughout the country. The recently organized Bonsai and Suiseki Association of the Philippines also has twenty affiliates added to the thirty affiliates of the PBSI. Easily, there are now more than a thousand serious bonsai practitioners. Our local experts are being recognized in international bonsai circles during our annual bonsai shows and competition. Almost monthly now, there is an on-going bonsai show in different parts of the Philippines.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) needs to be educated on the hunting of bonsai materials. Many species considered endangered are a small part of the bonsai materials used. DENR should regulate the big loggers and not the small bonsai hunters who only dig up naturally formed bonsai materials growing in rocks or contained grounds. Time to have a serious heart-to-heart talk with DENR officials to enlighten them.

A logical direction is to look into bonsai material farming. Meaning, planting material propagation from seeds and cuttings. It can also be by air-layering or marcotting. Grafting of materials is now possible too. This can provide a good agribusiness opportunity for bonsai nursery operators. One hectare of land is already big for this enterprise. 1,000 square meters will do. The important thing is to learn the skills to form the bonsai materials during its early growth stage and the agronomic techniques to care for the plants to transform them into quality bonsai materials, with a stout base.

Golden buho for landscaping.

Interest in bonsai as ornamentals and as a hobby is growing fast. The Facebook pages of many experts and enthusiasts helped in promoting the public’s interest in the art of bonsai. Harbest has a bonsai e-magazine on Facebook, Harbest Bonsai, which has a growing following of more than 2,500. By visiting many other bonsai Facebook pages, you can link up with experts and hobbyists. Your interest will grow as you see beautiful work of art. Bonsai is an art form, a participation of man in God’s creation which is the tree. You too can be an artist.

Succulent and Other Specialty Plants

The Succulent and Fern Society is promoting interest in cactus and ferns. It is not so popular although small potted cactus brought down from Baguio are popular in garden shows. It is easily affordable and needs less care. Many even consider it disposable. It is usually given as a gift or used as tabletop décor. This has a good future as a small nursery of 100 square meters can already be a viable enterprise. Seminars can be conducted as added income for nursery operators. This can even be a subject in agribusiness courses in college.

Parting Advice

Design and management skills of commercial greenhouses, irrigation technology, plant nutrition, soil health, and pests and diseases should be part of the training for agriculture students as well as nursery operators. Practical agronomic and botanical knowledge should be learned and continuously studied. Short courses for upgrading skills should be programmed by the SUCs with known experts. All these training sessions should be brought down to the grassroots level. These should be hands-on and sustained in order to nurture confidence and the effective transfer of technology.

Management skills in commercial scale operations should constantly be part of nursery operator or nurseryman accreditation, aside from pure botanical and agronomic skills, so that a new breed of confident agri entrepreneurs will be developed. Money making operations will sustain the business. Financial management and credit education, and the ability to improvise (“diskarte”) when it comes to marketing should be developed through experience.

It is about time that horticulture development becomes a target of private sector and government convergence. The experts from the private sector, the Department of Agriculture through its HVCDP office, the Department of Science and Technology through the PCAARRD Crops Division, the Commission on Higher Education through its course development in SUCs curriculum for more practicum subjects in horticulture, and the Department of Trade and Industry in developing common facilities and market promotion, particularly the cut flower market in Asian, Chinese, Japanese and Korean markets. The Go Negosyo – DTI, DA Mentor Me Program to nurture a new breed of agri-entrepreneurs, Private financial institutions and loan agencies of DA and DOST to provide credit and mentoring in financial responsibility and capital formation…and certainly, the youth to develop strong characters to become savvy businesspersons who can deal with all the difficulties of establishing and growing a business enterprise. As the saying goes, good habits are developed through daily practice. Good habits become virtues. Virtues become a part of character. A sound and stable character becomes the foundation of success.

There is indeed light at the end of the tunnel of horticulture if we get our acts in order.

(Contact the author, Arsenio “Toto” Barcelona, president, Harbest Agribusiness Corporation, via email at Those into bonsai art as a hobby or as a profession may join our Facebook page Harbest Bonsai to learn a lot about bonsai from the experts. Other sites are Bonsayista of Ogi Uyehara and Herden Pedrajas, and the Bonsai Institute of the Philippines of Nolan Sison. There are also many individual Facebook pages of bonsai lovers from all over the world. Link yourself with them through the Harbest Bonsai group page. Attend garden shows and bonsai shows. Learn from lectures and workshops. Go to YouTube for to learn more, or Google your topic of interest. Join the Philippine Orchid Society, Philippine Horticulture Society, Philippine Bonsai Society, Bonsai and Suiseki Association of the Philippines, and local garden or bonsai clubs. Lots of agribusiness opportunities are waiting for you.)

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s January 2018 issue. 

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