by Vina Medenilla

The crisis that COVID-19 has brought to the world has made more individuals see the importance of nature and environment. But this is not a new trend. Many people have already realized the joys of tending plants and growing their own food even before the global health emergency has occurred.

One such person is Sharon Julie Evangelista, a cancer survivor who has been gardening since her elementary days in Albay. In 2002, their family moved to Manila after she graduated from college, but this didn’t hinder Evangelista from continuing her passion for taking care of plants.

Evangelista poses with her harvested taro or gabi leaves.

After four years of living in the metro, she was diagnosed with Stage IV uterine cancer and Stage III cervical cancer. A former operations manager in a multinational company, she realized that her working environment was a contributing factor to her sickness. Aside from being stressed, pressured, and exposed to pollution caused by chemicals, she was also accustomed to an unhealthy lifestyle brought about by eating processed food.

Evangelista loves growing different flowers in her garden, including this rose.

Despite her condition, she still managed to maintain her garden. This was Evangelista’s way to divert her away from the pain that she felt. As per the gardener, smelling the flowers and singing songs of praise and worship while gardening helped her to heal and recover fast. She added that gardening gives her physical and emotional strength.

Her plants became a reliable partner during her recovery stage. It took two years for the cancer cells in her body to disappear and for new cells to develop. During this time, Evangelista also had to completely change her lifestyle; she avoided stress and began to eat healthy.

She had to observe a strict diet that contained raw fruits and vegetables without any meat, sweet, and salty food. Her garden played a big part in providing her fresh, healthy produce. Fast forward to now, Evangelista has been clinically declared cancer-free and continues to live her life healthily.

Growing fruits and vegetables at home came in handy, particularly the year she got diagnosed with cancer as they gave her healthy, chemical-free food without her having to buy them at the market.

A major life influence

This cancer survivor is also a proud daughter of farmers; growing up with them made her realize the crucial role of farmers in growing food. She said, “Without farmers, we wouldn’t have food served on our tables. I consider [farming] as a noble job.”

Their farm in the province, which consists of rice fields, a coconut plantation, and livestock, was the only source of their family’s income when Evangelista and her siblings were growing up. The farm was the reason why Evangelista and her 11 siblings were able to graduate from college. Their farm still stands today, now under the care of her brother. 

Lessons from the past apply in the present

Evangelista gets to apply the lessons that she got from her parents in her urban garden. Every day, she allots three to four hours for gardening. Evangelista has three gardens at home; a roof deck garden measures 80sqm, a terrace garden is about six sqm, and a front yard garden that measures 14sqm.

To maximize her space, she also does vertical gardening. Presently, Evangelista grows fruit-bearing plants such as dragon fruit, banana, sweet tamarind, star apple, and pomelo; veggies like camote tops, squash, and eggplant; as well as some ornamentals like orchids, and other indoor plants.

She waters them every morning except on rainy days. She also creates her own pesticide out of fruit, veggies, and herbs’ extracts. For instance, Evangelista immerses onion and garlic leaves in one liter of water with a tablespoon of baking soda and lets it sit for three to four days. She sprays this solution twice a month to kill aphids, ants, and worms. For her fertilizer, she uses kitchen waste, vermicast, and animal manure.

In growing flowering plants and ornamentals, she usually starts with one plant and multiplies them through propagating cuttings from mother plants. For orchids, she grows them from seedlings.

On her roof deck, she cultivates some bromeliads (Bromeliaceae) and dona aurora (Mussaenda philippica).

Harvested fruits and vegetables are for personal consumption, but if there’s more than what their family needs, she shares them with their neighbor who is a senior citizen. She also sells ornamental and indoor plants online and inside their village. She sometimes gets to sell about P5,000 to P9,000 a month. Through her garden, she also saves P4000 to P5000 in terms of food costs.

Like any other gardener, pests can be a problem. To kill ants, she sprays leaves with a mixture of dishwashing liquid with vinegar and baking soda. For rats, she uses traps, while for birds, she covers her plants with nets.

Every day, this gardener spends three to four hours a day in her garden. As per her, plants give her positive energy and help a lot in reducing her stress.

Indeed, this gardener is proof that no circumstances can halt one’s passion for growing plants, even sickness. In fact, gardening was, and continues to be, a big factor in Evangelista’s health and wellbeing. 

Photos by Sharon Evangelista.