By Jayvee Fernandez

Greetings, dear reader! Like many men taking up new hobbies in their midlife crisis, I have followed the flock. However, unlike most men who end up buying a motorcycle or taking up extreme CrossFit in their 40s, I have decided to start a backyard farm, partly because last year’s executive check-up explicitly said “to eat healthier.”

But hold up. “Me” five years ago wouldn’t even think about growing food in my backyard. That’s what the grocery is for. But I guess age does things to you. That, and the societal trend to “make farming great again” really spoke to me, albeit slowly.

I had some requirements if I was to make this endeavor a success:

First – growing food in my backyard should be an easy and relaxing hobby. If it was daunting or too complex, I wouldn’t be able to sustain it and knowing myself, lose interest quickly.

Rocket arugula is definitely the most rewarding leaf to
grow for the impatient.

Second – it should contribute to geek cred. Knowing me, I tend to stay interested in a hobby if there’s some sort of gimmick behind it all. In the past, all my hobbies had some form of leveling up with the support of a local community of likeminded people. I spent years in specialty coffee (and bought an espresso machine). I am a licensed SCUBA diver (and bought a BCD, regulator and underwater photography equipment). I was not a huge fan of plants and gardening until I discovered carnivorous plants. After a year of growing into the novelty (and not killing them all) I figured farming would be the next big step. It has to have novelty!

Third – I will eat what I grow. This sounds obvious. But what it really means is that I wouldn’t want to grow things just for the heck of it. Being fully invested means consumption (and not commercial selling). The goal is a lifestyle shift. I’m not a big fan
of vegetables, with the exception of leafy greens. So leafy greens it is! I’m basically growing a salad bar.

Once I had that decided, it was time to look for the backyard farm set up. My “el-cheapo” peg was to just use planters and potting soil with vermicast (worm poop which you can buy from many garden fairs, online shopping portals, and agriculture websites). But after a lot of research (which was really just me using Google a lot) and dropping by garden fairs, I found two solutions that looked rather interesting. The first was a vertical garden solution from Down To Earth. It looks like a tall plant vase with holes for plants  (warning: trypophobia trigger!) and the middle part contains a cylinder where you can throw away your biodegradable waste, which in turn are broken down by the worms into organic fertilizer (yes you read it right – it has worms!). The second option was the Vegepod, a raised garden solution that became popular in the show Shark Tank. Having seen one at the garden fair (or you can check vegepod.ph), I opted for it for two reasons, (1) I was still uncomfortable with the notion of composting (today I realized that I should not be, but I really can’t blame my 2019 self for that) and (2) it was the easier solution as the Vegepod is raised and closed, out of the box. No contamination from external threats like insects!

We maximized the use of the drain by putting herbs underneath. I read
somewhere that “vermicast tea,” or the excess water that drains from
vermicast, is still loaded with nutrients so it would be best to recycle them
back to the plants. In this case we use it to grow herbs and other garden plants.

I want to make it clear that I’m not a Vegepod brand ambassador – after studying the set up at home (their local team came to assemble it), you can technically make your own version at home with three considerations – (1) your containers have to be food grade, (2) it needs to have a reservoir and a drain for water (3) it should have a cover/enclosure to keep away pests. The Vegepod comes with a spray system for water but it is completely optional if you want to use it. A standard hose adapter will work. You can buy one in Handyman, Ace Hardware or True Value. Again, I opted not to make my own system because I wanted convenience.

Since we have a lot of space in the backyard, we got the biggest option, which is essentially four pods put together. Each pod needs 100 kg of soil filled to the brim, so I had almost half a ton of vermicast with soil delivered using Lalamove from Down To Earth. I got soil from them because of high praises from Daphne Oseña–Paez, who
also owns a Vegepod. If you own a smaller system, you can really just get from any garden shop or True Value (but with the latter case it will turn out more expensive by the kilo).

The team took about two hours to assemble the system. I placed the unit in the lanai where it gets direct sunlight for a few hours in the morning. It is a good idea to be sensitive to the area where you’re going to be setting up your system, especially when it comes to light. Since the pod comes with a canopy, it isn’t prone to leaf burn as long as you water.

After filling the system to the brim with vermicast and potting mix (mix it all up), I watered it down for about 5 minutes to let the soil settle. Then I added more soil because water makes the soil sink.

I bought a variety of seeds at a garden fair (you can also buy seeds online but really, any gardening store or grocery store has a section). I bought kale, rocket arugula, cherry tomatoes, and different types of lettuce. I started planting.

The canopy has a built in irrigation system. You can really just make
one yourself with materials from Handyman or True Value but this was
pleasantly convenient.

I had wanted to follow the 2 to 4 inch rule of planting and measuring between spaces but when I let my youngest son help (he’s three), he just threw the seeds all over the place. Oh well. That was funny.

The rocket arugula grew the fastest. Within three days I could see microgreens! But I
also found other species of plants growing. It seems like I should have waited before
planting to see if the soil I got had seeds from other plants. In the end, I was able
to weed them out when they were much bigger. I read that some backyard farmers
microwave their soil to kill off these strays. But I can’t do that with 400 kg of soil!

Here’s what I learned based on the 90 days that I’ve been maintaining a backyard farm:

1. Rocket arugula is the easiest to grow! You can harvest microgreens in less than a week. Or turn it into a salad after two weeks. Fresh arugula is the best! I’ll never go back to store-bought arugula and you’re going to become that guy at the restaurant criticizing how your greens taste better than the house salad.

2. Do not transplant anything from outside to inside your closed system. It might contaminate your closed system.

3. Do not try to grow cherry tomatoes or anything that vines out inside a Vegepod. It gets really messy. Or if you do grow these, transplant them outside before it gets out of hand.

4. Google is your best friend. This was the hobby that really made good use of my Google skills as I had to cross check growing techniques, but applied to the local climate (kale, for instance, gets sweeter at colder temperatures).

Arugula house salad

House salad made with arugula freshly picked from the garden.

Preparation time: 5 minutes

• Cut backyard grown arugula from the stem (older arugula acquires a more bitter taste so be warned)

• Rinse leaves inside a white bowl with water. A white bowl will make the dirt more
visible.

Dressing:
1. One part apple cider vinegar
2. One part soy sauce
3. Honey (Optional)
4. Salt and pepper
* Top salad with parmesan cheese or feta cheese.

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s February 2020 issue.