On the rooftop of one of the condominiums in Poblacion, Makati is a lush garden that has been a special refuge for the building’s residents especially during the pandemic. Little do they know that their little oasis in the city would not have been possible without the efforts of one of the building’s maintenance staff.

Rene Pajutro started the garden in 2009–the same year he started his job as a janitor—with permission from the building’s management. The rooftop already had a few plants when he started the garden, but he continued to add to the collection, taking near-dead plants thrown out by the building’s residents and nursing them back to life. “It’s kind of like adopting them,” he says in Tagalog.

Pajutro, who is part of the building’s live-in staff, grew up on a farm in Mindoro where his parents grew rice and vegetables. He’s carried his love for plants to his job in the city, and everyone in the building is lucky to be benefiting from it.

Rescued plants

The small rooftop, measuring maybe less than 100sqm, is filled with plants in different kinds of containers, from big clay pots to paint buckets to planters made from mineral water bottles and lined with coal and wood scraps. Different kinds of orchids hang from the interior wall, which is lined with various ornamental shrubs. There is a roofed area, part of which has been used as a trellis for passion fruit vine.

Orchids hang on the inner wall of the building rooftop, growing from containers made from upcycled five gallon mineral water bottles.

The walls are lined with plants that include begonias and snake plants, and there are also greens set in a central area so that visitors can walk around the garden and enjoy all the greenery. Pajutro doesn’t know all the names of the plants he grows, but he rattles off the ones that he does: “Sepentina, turmeric, ginger, lychee, lemon, avocado, pineapple, atis, calamansi, grapes, bougainvillea.”

There are also small sampaloc trees, as well as a tall ornamental money tree. He’s also managed to grow an apple tree from seed. “It’s still tiny—about two years old,” he says.

There are also grapes, which, as of the interview, have fruited twice already. He prunes the grapes regularly to encourage the plants to flower. “If I know it’s going to rain, I cover the flowers with plastic so they don’t get wet and so they turn into berries,” he says.

Pajutro has managed to grow grapes in Makati.

Cost-free farming practices

When he knows that there is a storm coming, he lays all the big pots on their side to prevent the plants from getting damaged by the wind and rain. “It’s a mess here when a storm is about to arrive,” he says.

Pajutro practices natural farming, partly because it’s what he’s used to, but mostly because it costs very little to create farming input. He soaks garlic cloves overnight in rice water (water used to wash rice) and waters the orchids with this mixture to encourage them to flower. He also composts fruit peel and vegetable scraps to use on the plants.

All of the containers that house the plants are also rescued from the trash or upcycled from waste materials.

Because most of the plants are rescued (they’ve been thrown away because they’re dead or dying), not all of them survive. An example is the malunggay tree, which Pajutro says was, “nabati,” a folk belief where calling attention to something, even with good intentions, can cause spirits to notice it and lead its health to suffer.

A respite for residents and staff

Though Pajutro considers gardening part of his daily chores, it’s the one he looks forward to the most. He especially loves the feeling when he realizes that a rescued plant is going to make it. “It’s always 50-50 when you take them in, so when you see them growing, you’re happy,” he says.

One of the plants in the centre of the garden is a pineapple.

The garden is popular among building residents, many of whom have told Pajutro that they like hanging out there because “it feels like the province.” “Your stress goes away, and there’s a clean breeze,” Pajutro says. “It’s nice to spend time here among the plants.”

Pajutro is happy that the building management encourages the cultivation of the rooftop garden. The small harvests from the fruit trees are enjoyed by the staff, and sometimes, visitors are able to take home cuttings for their own gardens.

Bougainvillea is one of the flowers that beautify this rooftop garden.

An inspiration to others

The maintenance man doesn’t believe in the myth of the black thumb. “They say if you have ‘hot’ hands, plants will die. That’s not true,” he says. “It’s how you care for your plants. If they lack care [or are cared for in the wrong way], they’ll die.”

Pajutro also talks to the plants. “I’ll say things like, ‘you look so beautiful,’ or ‘you’ve grown so big,’” he says, adding that making sure that the plants get ample sunlight and water is very important, especially since their access to nutrition is limited by the containers they’re grown in.

Rene Pajutro rescues dying plants from the trash and brings them to life on the rooftop of the building where he is employed as a janitor.

The rooftop garden has become such a popular spot that two nearby condominiums have followed suit. It goes to show that even city people are hungry for greenery, and even the smallest of green spaces can provide a respite from the urban jungle.

Photos by Yvette Tan