(As told to Yvette Tan)
I am Dr. Lorgene A. Mata, Registered Psychologist with a Doctorate in Psychology from U. P. Diliman, Director/Owner of LAM Personnel Compumetrics Center, Psychology Professor retired after 35 years of service.
My family was blessed to have a 1,000 sq.m. vacant lot where our humble home in Quezon City was built. Talihib and other wild grasses were growing everywhere and I thought this was a lot of waste. I thought that planting fruit-bearing trees and vegetables would make this land gain better value and use to a family like ours. I believed we could eat the edible fruits, harvest and cook the vegetables that we can grow. I could also have planted flowering plants and decorative trees instead of fruit trees and vegetables. But, being the pragmatic and practical guy that I am, I choose food for the stomach more than flowers for the eyes and nose. So, I decided to convert the empty lot into a fruit tree and vegetable garden. This was thirty seven years ago.
The empty lot around the house was big enough to allow me to apportion about 20 square meters to grow a vegetable garden. So before I went to my office at a large, nationwide chain of bookstores in the morning and taught college students in the afternoon, I devoted a few hours to doing some gardening.
A delicious experiment
I made several plots and experimented planting all kinds of vegetables, local and imported, from seeds. I was able to grow okra, eggplant, ampalaya, upo and kalabasa, which we harvested for our dining table. I was even able to grow sayote, which normally thrives in the cold climate of Baguio, and harvested a lot of sweet tender and sayote tops from it. I even tried planting carrots, cauliflower, lettuce and imported tomatoes, with limited success.
The reason why I planted all kinds of vegetables, local and imported, was to see which type of vegetables would grow successfully and be able to bear fruit in my garden soil and the type of climate we have here in Quezon City. This initial gardening experiment lasted about two years. Having three full time jobs: being assistant vice-president at a nationwide bookstore, being guidance director and professor in a college at Quezon City, and operating my computerized testing center, also in Quezon city kept me permanently away from home gardening for more than 30 years.
When I retired from teaching five years ago, my daughter, Ginny, came home with an oregano plant which she asked me to put into the ground. After a few weeks, seeing the oregano plant growing bigger, my daughter told me that she wished she had an herb garden. During her teen years and young adulthood, Ginny got interested in cooking and baking and used different herbs a lot. In fact, later she took a whole course on baking and became a certified pastry chef.
Because I want my daughter to be happy and provide her with instant herbs for her baking and cooking, I thought of planting a whole range of culinary herbs in front of the house. So, after a hiatus of 30 years, her 10 sq.m. herb garden was born. This was the first of a series of three gardens I was able to build around the house. We grew these herbs from seeds, bought herb seedlings from what used to be Manila Seedling Bank, and also from Quezon Circle plant stores to transplant to our herb garden. I was able to grow and harvest sweet basil, Thai basil, curry plant, rosemary, tarragon, peppermint, oregano, laurel, and sage.
Hard work that keeps reaping rewards
First, I had to pull out all the overgrown weeds by their roots so they won’t regrow again. Next, I had to dig, till, and loosen the original hard soil and add garden soil purchased from a nearby supplier. Then I had to create different parallel plots for various types of vegetable plants: climbing and non-climbing.
I did not use wood and bamboo sticks for the trellis which the climbing plants need to grow. Such wooden structures rot fast and may only last a few years. To remedy this, I used GI pipes as posts and GI wire woven together in lieu of wooden strips for the trellis. These have lasted me more than 20 years now.
I experimented on which types of vegetables would grow under Type 1 climate in Quezon City and the particularly clayish soil I had. I had limited or no success at all with carrots, asparagus, cauliflower, and other imported vegetables. After a few years of testing and observation, I was able to determine the select type of local vegetables that could actually grow and fruit in my garden.
To keep dogs, cats, and other small animals from destroying the herbs, I had the herb garden enclosed with chicken wire. To keep the rain from overflooding the herbs during the rainy season but still allow the sun to shine in throughout the year, I constructed a roof over the herbs covered with transparent UV plastic.
Expanding the garden
More than a year after the herb garden was created, we were able to construct two more additional vegetable gardens measuring 20 sq.m. and 15 sq.m. respectively. For several years, these two vegetable gardens were covered with UV plastic to protect the plants from being flooded during the rainy season, but to always allow sunshine in. They were enclosed by fish nets all around the perimeter, with entry-exit gates that can be locked to keep away any stray animals from entering and destroying the crops.
I cemented all the walkways in between the plots in the three gardens so I could walk through when doing planting, tilling the soil, weeding, fertilizing and watering the plants. During the rainy season, if these walkways were just ordinary ground and not cemented, they would have become muddy and sticky, which would have made it hard to move around, even if I wore rubber boots.
Within one of the two large vegetable gardens, I was also able to put a mini-aviary which housed both local and imported birds that I maintained for several years as additional attraction and for observational study.
An array of delicious backyard-grown vegetables
Depending on the particular dry or wet months of the year, I usually was, and still am, able to grow and harvest in my garden the following vegetables: saluyot, labanos, kalabasa, patola, upo, okra, string beans, Baguio beans, black pepper, pandan, ampalaya, eggplant, native and Taiwan pechay, green and red bell pepper, hot pepper, luya, turmeric, kalabasa, and many more local vegetables. I grow only organic vegetables. I never use pesticides to control garden pests.
Also, because I missed the fruit orchard of my lolo in the province, I started planting fruit-bearing trees on the side and back of the house about 10 years ago for my family to harvest. Now, most of them are bearing fruits. We have carabao mango, Indian mango, star apple, kamias, duhat, rambutan, chico, makopa, atis, anonas, marang, lychees, mangosteen, langka, lanzones, avocado, guyabano, American lemon, and calamansi. We harvest a lot of malunggay leaves from the garden, too. We have rare Kaffir lime trees bearing so many fruits all year round. Our dayap/lime trees give out hundreds of fruits which are so fond to collect in the morning. We drink a lot of their dayap juices daily to keep us healthy.
For the herbs, we have sweet basil, Thai basil, curry plant, rosemary, tarragon, peppermint, oregano, laurel, and sage.
I water the plants every other day during the dry months. But during the wet season, I water the plants much less so they would not rot and fail to bear fruit. Taking away the weeds that compete with the growing plants is usually done weekly. Putting fertilizer, mostly chicken manure, but occasionally artificial fertilizer, is done once a month for most plants. The soil around the growing plants should be loosened up and tilled to oxygenate them at least once a week.
Benefits of food and beyond
Caring for an urban garden has more than the gastronomic benefit of providing supplementary food to our table. It is also therapeutic and provides psychological release from stress in daily life. Everyday, my wife, daughter, and I wake up eagerly in the morning to visit the garden. It gives us so much pleasure seeing the seedlings grow from seeds, grow leaves, climb up the trellis, and bear fruits. There is an element of anticipation and pleasant surprise as to what we see in the garden everytime we visit. The garden has brought us closer together and made us care more for each other in the manner we treat the plants as part of our living family. We care for them and they provide us with happiness and food in return in a sort of symbiotic relationship.
Most of the produce I harvest from my garden is for personal consumption. I never sell them as they are not in commercial quantities. Oftentimes I give some to my relatives and friends. We know how expensive fresh vegetables and fruits are in the market today. Growing and harvesting my own vegetables and fruits have gone a long way to reduce our budget for food expenses.
It was hard to set up a garden that could provide fruits and vegetables for our dining table, but all the sweat and hard work has paid off for many years. I never regretted having one and will keep it the rest of my life. I cannot imagine myself living without a garden. (Photos courtesy of Ginny Mata-Ignacio)
This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s February 2020 issue.