BY VINA MEDENILLA

Society always taught us not to give up. But sometimes, giving up something important allows one to move forward and find their own happiness. 

Such is the case of Helen Joy Icogo Cejar, 57, a full-time agripreneur in Davao Del Sur. In 2017, Cejar decided to close her school supply store to look after her 94-year-old mother and to start an edible garden that can provide healthy meals for her family. 

Not only did she give up a business, but she also stopped getting projects as an on-call research consultant in a non-governmental organization (NGO).

Cejar mainly grows plants for the purpose of selling them. Only 20 percent of the garden is devoted to her collection.

Although it was a tough call, Cejar remained faithful as she entered a new season in her midlife. Her decision to close a business eventually led to the birth of another, which she now calls ‘The Farmacy by Helen.’ 

The Farmacy by Helen is a 52 sqm urban garden split into two areas: 32 sqm rooftop and 20 sqm front yard in Digos City, Davao del Sur. 

Born and raised by farmers, Cejar considers farming as part of her identity. Patience and resilience are two traits that she learned from farming at a young age. 

She hones her skills and knowledge in growing plants by learning the latest urban gardening techniques. She reads agricultural books and magazines, attends training, visits farms, and uses the online platform to research and learn from experienced farmers. 

Helen Cejar harvesting sweet basil on her rooftop.

Home, livelihood, and source of good food in one 

“I started composting in a container and sacks due to limited space. I started planting common vegetables like alugbati, kamatis, camote tops, kangkong, pechay, talong, saluyot, malunggay, sibuyas dahon, sili, and [fruits like] watermelon.”

It was in 2018 when she began selling her produce on social media. She started supplying to customers from Cotabato City, Gensan, Davao, and a few from her town. Now, she also gets orders from clients in Metro Manila and more. In 2019, this gardener expanded to more crops like herbs, lettuce, basil, and flowering plants like roses and hibiscus.

Cejar grows lettuce in styrofoam and wooden boxes.

At present, Cejar specializes in growing lettuce and kale. She was unfamiliar with kale until when her sister-in-law taught her how to grow them. 

Kale varieties that she grows are Curly, Premier, Red Chinese, Dwarf Blue Curled, Siberian, Red Russian, and Lacinato or Tuscan. As per Cejar, Curly and Lacinato kale are more in demand than the other types. 

This curly kale variety is more in demand compared to other kale varieties.

For the lettuce, she cultivates rapid curly, matt green, romaine, red leaf or Lollo Rossa, and more. Cejar also produces herbs like mint and basil, strawberry, cherry tomatoes, vanilla, bay laurel, chili pepper, and ornamentals like rose and orchids.

The work behind the thriving small business

Cejar maximizes her limited garden space by practicing vertical and horizontal gardening methods.

This urban gardener wants to show others that limited growing space and resources aren’t hindrances to pursue your gardening dream. In a 20 sqm front yard, she reused materials like old racks and boxes to maximize the area.

She waters the plants early in the morning, at noon, and in the afternoon. Her medium is composed of 60 percent vermicast and 40 percent rice hull, cocopeat, plus silt. She also processes her natural fertilizers and pesticides like fish amino acid (FAA), lactic acid bacteria serum (LABS), and calphos (calcium phosphate). She fertilizes plants twice a week and applies calphos once a month. 

READ: Make your own natural fertilizer at home

The garden is Cejar’s main source of income. She makes a gross sales of at least P15,000 a month. The Farmacy by Helen offers vegetable seedlings with prices that range from five pesos to P250 per pot and ornamentals that cost from P50 to P5,000 each. Customers can also buy and pick fresh produce from the garden.

The Farmacy by Helen sells naturally-grown lettuce (P250 per kilo), kale (P400 per kilo), basil, and other herbs (P500 per kilo).

Three years of Cejar’s hard work in developing her garden from scratch has made the garden self-sustaining. She believes that one thing that plants all have in common is the need to have a good medium, sufficient sunlight, and proper gardening practices. 

Cejar is currently saving up for garden expansion so she can build a greenhouse that can accommodate more plants. 

When she recently got a high-paying job offer, Cejar still chose to become a gardener. Her rationale? The Farmacy by Helen has been an inspiration and venue for learning that allows her to be happy and fulfilled. 

Photos from Helen Joy Icogo Cejar.

For more information, visit The Farmacy by Helen.