By Vina Medenilla
A parcel of land can mean countless opportunities, may it be for commercial or residential purposes. For a couple named Cristina and Carlo Guerrero, a biologist and visual artist respectively, an idle family property is something that they can transform into a beautiful creation.
From an initial plan of cleaning up their neglected city lot, the Guerreros decided to turn it into an urban garden instead. “The house was not visible from the outside and had been in severe despair for over a decade before we took on a project of restoring it,” says the Guerreros.
They rehabilitated and transformed the untended land into a garden using fostering natural farming and environmental rehabilitation through bioremediation, a process of cleaning contaminated environments without the use of harmful chemicals and by utilizing microorganisms, plants, and other living organisms.
Athena’s Garden is a 1100sqm space found in San Juan City, Metro Manila that serves as “an urban renewal and botanical conservation project” of the Guerreros. In hopes of creating a beyond beautiful and creative garden concept, the couple named it after Athena, the Greek goddess of war, art, and practical reason. Since Athena is a goddess of war, and coincidentally, they are the Guerreros, which translates to warriors, they feel that they are taking up the cause of Mother Nature.
“We [both] have been raised believing in the nourishing and healing power of nature so we always had fruit trees, vegetables, and medicinal plants around our home. We love beautiful landscapes and we dreamed of designing a garden and creating our little piece of paradise in the city,” says the duo. For them, Athena’s garden serves as an oasis from the hustle and bustle of city life. It is open for students and visitors who are looking for a green space in town. However, due to the pandemic, the garden is temporarily closed for safety reasons.
Inside Athena’s garden
In their garden, you’ll find a heritage home. The Guerreros shared that at first, the lot was overgrown to the point that the weeds and trees almost covered the two-story house. The said property has been passed through different generations of Carlo’s family since the 1930s. After being untended for years, the Guerreros decided to transform it into a productive space that their family can also use for events and gatherings.
The Guerreros started with an aloe vera plant from Carlo’s mother that has been thriving for over 40 years now. “Offshoots were shared, sold, or used at home as medicine and moisturizer. The aloes have multiplied over a thousand-fold in the 12 years that we have been tending in the garden together.”
Over the years, their plant collection grew into massive amounts and to date, they grow several varieties and species of coleuses (Plectranthus scutellarioides), pothoses (Epipremnum aureum), philodendrons, ferns, spiderworts (Tradescantia), Chinese evergreens (Aglaonema), prayer plants (Maranta leuconeura), dumb canes (Dieffenbachia), peace lilies (Spathiphyllum), Syngoniums, palms (Arecaceae), dracaenas, and fig trees (Ficus carica). They also have succulents like sansevierias, euphorbias, echeverias, sedums, kalanchoes, and agaves, as well as flowering plants including sampaguita (Jasminum sambac), several varieties of bougainvillea, hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis), moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora), birds of paradise (Strelitzia reginae), and periwinkle (Vinca). Athena’s garden grows annual plants from seed for flower display, too, which includes marigold (Tagetes erecta), petunia (Petunia atkinsiana), zinnia (Zinnia elegans), chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum morifolium), and daisy (Bellis perennis).
Among the wide range of their plant collection, their favorites at present are their mature butterfly pea plants (Clitoria ternatea) that they sowed from seed, covering about 12sqm of the garden. Other than these, they also love collecting different varieties of coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides), basil, mint, sweet potatoes, sansevierias, and echeverias.
The Guerreros also produce food crops for their personal consumption. These include vegetables such as alugbati, arugula, amaranth, kale, upland kangkong, lettuce, eggplant, okra, tomato, cucumber, bell pepper, and chili pepper, and fruit-bearing trees which includes rambutan, guava, avocado, and banana. For their herbs, they also have basil, thyme, and rosemary, to name a few.
As a family of three, the garden provides sufficient food for the Guerreros. As per them, they acquire a big portion of their meals from the garden. They also consume fresh herbal teas using the flowers that they cultivate like sampaguita (Jasminum sambac). Each month, the Guerreros save about P5000 to P6000 just by producing their food in their home’s front yard. They also get to avail of the flowers they tend as centerpieces and decorations for special occasions.
Maintaining the 1100sqm garden themselves
Despite having day jobs, the couple says that they’re very hands-on in tending Athena’s garden. “We maintain our garden ourselves. We don’t have maids nor in-house helpers so we have been very deliberate with the design of our garden to be low maintenance and sustainable. It has been our habit for many years to visit the garden first thing in the morning to check the health of the plants, de-weed, and do daily tidying up.”
To lighten their garden activities, they’ve installed a drip irrigation system and lawn sprinkler. Kitchen scraps and leaf molds are also used for composting. They make foliar fertilizer out of the compost added with grass clippings and malunggay leaves. One of the garden pests that leaves major infestations to their plants is hawk moth caterpillars. They drive them away by spraying natural insecticides that don’t necessarily harm beneficial organisms in their garden.
Some for selling, mostly for collection
Although the majority of their plants are for collection, Athena’s garden still offers offshoots and cuttings from the existing plants. “Plants sold in our shop are all acclimated and stabilized for urban outdoor or indoor environments. We have avoided overpricing our plants and stuck to pre-pandemic prices.” Marketing their plants has gone from events and bazaars to selling them in an online marketplace and their neighborhood due to the current crisis. The prices of the plants range from P50 to P5,000 each depending on rarity, maturity, and size.
Cristina shares that when the issue of plant overpricing emerged, she started promoting the barter method, or the process of sharing plants or any gardening-related materials in exchange for other plant varieties or garden items. “I have been giving cuttings, seeds, off-shoots, and gardening advice for free, bartering instead of selling for cash, and encouraging members to do [this] as well. This way, only serious gardeners who can sustain habits and real appreciation for the art and science of gardening will refine their knowledge and techniques in growing and keeping different plants,” she expounds. During this quarantine period, she says that they focused on selling their service, pots, and potting medium more than the plants.
When the situation gets better, the couple plans to reopen their garden to guests, to enhance their facilities, and to add garden features including a seedling nursery, aquaponics tanks, and a poultry house. The couple also began the expansion of their operations by building an urban garden design studio with a greenhouse on a separate property in Quezon City.
With the initiative to educate more buyers and aspiring gardeners about the art and science behind plants, Cristina has initiated an online community hashtag that goes, #Pinoyurbangardeners, an online group called Ideal Gardening Club on Facebook, and a Viber group where she can answer customers queries about plant care and share her knowledge about plants.
In the continuation of this article, Guerrero will be sharing several tips on the proper care of plants.
Photos courtesy of Athena’s Garden.
To check out Athena’s garden, visit them on Facebook.
This article appeared in Agriculture Magazine’s July to August 2021 issue.