By Vina Medenilla
After over six months of being in quarantine ensued by COVID-19, more and more individuals are itching to immerse themselves in nature. And to cope with the current situation, they look for alternative ways to be surrounded by nature and greens even inside their homes.
In celebration of mental health awareness month, Forest Lake holds a webinar series called “Creating Better Days” that advocates mental health and well-being. The second part of the series called ‘The Plantita Project’ comprises techniques on growing an edible home garden plus nutrition tips to prevent and manage common lifestyle diseases.
Growing crops and knowing their needs
The first thing that growers must learn in food production is the basic plant needs. “If you know what your plants’ needs are, you are likely to grow them well,” said Olive Medina, co-founder of Lorenzo Miguel’s Sanctuary Eco-Farm. Aside from sunlight and water, these plant essentials refer to three things: Nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium or so-called NPK. These nutrients are responsible for the plant’s overall growth. Nitrogen is particularly responsible for the leaves, phosphorus for the root growth as well as for flower and fruit development, and potassium is in-charge of the overall plant performance. Scarcity of these nutrients will lead to hampered growth and low yields.
To determine the NPK’s deficiency, carefully observe the plants, and look for signs. If the leaves start to turn yellow, most likely, it lacks nitrogen. If this happens, Medina says to put a lot of greens that are rich in nitrogen like kakawate leaves in the soil. Otherwise, you may apply coffee grinds as an alternative. And to know if your plants lack phosphorus, you’ll see black or white spots in your produce. A calcium phosphate (calphos) fertilizer will help you address this concern. In cases of unusually wrinkled crops, this might mean that your plant lacks potassium, too. Apply banana tea fertilizer to solve this. To create your own fertilizer, mix banana peels with molasses and rice water, ferment it for seven to 21 days, and then apply the solution to the plants.
Before anything else, the initial step in growing food is to prepare the land or soil. Medina shares that when they started their farm, she realizes that “It’s not more of your [green] thumb, but more of your soil.” And that the plants’ growth greatly depends on the soil condition.
Before you transplant your seedlings into the ground, prepare your soil 15 days beforehand by applying EMAS fertilizer (effective microorganism activated solution) or by doing compost. Transplant your seedlings if they are two inches high with at least three leaves. Move them with care as their roots are still fragile. Perform this in the morning and not too often to avoid them from getting stressed. Transfer where you plan to permanently grow and harvest them so you won’t have to move your plants repeatedly.
In terms of maintenance, Medina said that the best time for watering the plants is six to nine in the morning and three to six in the evening. To nourish them with more nutrients, reuse and pour your rice water into the plants instead of throwing them away.
Feeding your soil with natural fertilizers
After you’ve set up the land, practice composting and making your own natural fertilizer to reduce your expenses.
A natural fertilizer you can create is calphos. To make calphos, roast eggshells in a pan until they turn into three colors: brown and black that will be the source of phosphorus and white that would be the plant’s source of calcium. Get one cup of the roasted powdered eggshells and combine this with coconut vinegar that’s five times the amount of the eggshells. Once fermented, get one tablespoon of calphos, mix it with distilled water, and spray them into the soil.
For fermentation, Medina says that the use of recycled plastic is preferred since putting the solution into a glass might cause the glass to explode or to break due to gas formation. For safety reasons, she added that when you see bubbles building up in your fertilizer, loosen up the bottle lids and close it once the bubbles have disappeared.
Two types of composting
Nourish your plants with NPK by composting organic substances. If you’re growing your food naturally, composting is crucial to practice in your garden because this will be the source of nutrients for your soil. There are wastes that are fit and that are not suitable on your compost piles hence, you must distinguish them to keep your compost safe and effective. In Medina’s farm, they mainly use animal manure.
There are two types of composting. First is brown and green compost where you alternately add brown and green materials into your compost bins or containers. Plain brown bags, dried leaves, sawdust, and wood chips are some of the samples of brown materials, while coffee grinds, fruit and vegetable peels (except citrus as it contains too much acid), and green leaves are considered green composts. In this type of composting, fish, meat, bones, dairy goods, diseased plants, and human and pet manure are not allowed to add to your compost pit. This can be performed directly to the ground or in a container.
The second type is a Japanese composting method called bokashi. Growers can easily purchase bokashi sets in agriculture stores or garden shops.
Marketing your produce
Once you get the hang of tending the crops, it’s nice to learn more about the business side of growing food. Based on Medina’s experience, networking is an important aspect in the sector, she says, “It is a non-competitive industry. This is what I like in this community.” For her, it’s a cycle of learning from other producers whom you share your interest with.
Secondly, if you are an aspiring grower, start within your community, said Medina. Create an online group where you can post your available plants or harvests. Invite your friends or the people in your village to join the group so co-growers and other interested parties would be aware of the products or services that you offer. When posting, make sure to add enough details including the name and benefits of the plants. “Some people do not know the benefits of a plant or veggies, but when they learn about it, they’re likely to buy them.” You can also support your post by adding unusual recipes for the produce so they would be encouraged to buy produce from you.
In terms of pricing, naturally-grown products are normally priced 30% higher than those conventionally grown because it takes longer to cultivate compared to producing them using the conventional way. People nowadays are more health-conscious and putting your products in the market could help your business to grow bigger. “Focus on the value rather than the price,” Medina added.
Partnerships are also an important element in marketing your harvests. Tie up with established farm businesses so you could widen your connections. Partnering with other growers will not limit you within your base and allows your brand to be recognized by other resellers and buyers.
When there’s insufficient supply due to the increasing demand on Medina’s farm, they buy extra produce from neighboring partner farms. This way, they attain the needed supply while helping other smallholder farmers in their area. It’s also best to directly transact with customers or businesses. Lastly, adjust according to your customers’ feedback and needs for improvement and manage customer expectations so it won’t be hard to adapt when unexpected circumstances happen.
“It’s not just COVID-19 that we’re fighting, but a lot more other diseases,” says Doctor Beverly Ho from the Department of Health referring to mental health and other illnesses. Apart from growing your own healthy food at home, Samantha Morales, a Licensed Nutritionist-Dietitian, has also added five nutrition tips on how to prevent and manage common lifestyle diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and cancer. According to Morales, eating real food, choosing your carbs wisely, eating good fats and oil, and stretching from time to time are five things that can contribute to keeping one’s body strong.
Check out the webinar here:
“Be conscious that what we are doing to our body is contributing to what our mental health is,” says Ho. Whether it may be through gardening or other physical activities like exercising, always find an outlet to cope with stress and anxiety and most importantly, to stay healthy, especially amid this challenging season.