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Manila resident’s rooftop garden feeds both body and soul

Victorious harvest of galangal.

The pandemic has forced many people to see how fragile the current food system is. Many have started growing their own food, mostly to help feed their families during a time of lack, but also to help address possible mental health issues brought about by current global difficulties.

For Marilyn Abella, who left her tech job in August 2021, cultivating a rooftop garden was a way to figure out what her next chapter in life would be. “I would love to transition to a regenerative livelihood but I haven’t quite figured out what that looks like,” she says.

Putting theory into practice

Abella had been interested in growing her own food even before the pandemic started. In fact, when community quarantine was imposed on the entire country in March 2020, she was stuck on a farm in Antique where she was learning about regenerative agriculture! “My two week trip became a three month stay on the farm,” she recounts. “By the time I came back from the lockdown stay-in, I decided to put into application what I learned in the permaculture course.”

Being forced to stay home during the pandemic gave her the time to cultivate an urban garden on the top floor of the building she lives in. It has about 14 sqm devoted to plants and around 2 sqm as a compost area that includes bokashi and vermiculture.

“I tried to explore the end to end process where I start with sowing seeds,” she says, adding that as much as possible, she upcycled containers, such as using toilet rolls for growing seedlings. She also makes her own fertilizers such as fish amino acids and other concoctions.

She set up trellises, built raised beds, and created a rainwater catchment system using bamboo and old PVC roofing “because part of the concept of permaculture is to catch and store energy.”

She’s since been able to grow “tomatoes, basil, eggplant (up to a certain size), lima beans, mung beans, sitaw, chili, and kangkong” from seed, and kangkong, alugbati, lemongrass, and kamote tops from cuttings. “We would harvest alugbati, camote tops, kangkong and basil. I made some pesto pasta with malunggay leaves. It’s really connecting the sowing of seeds and growing them, composting them and also cooking them.”

She’s also particularly proud of the progress of a malunggay tree she got from a friend. “I was able to witness the progress of the malunggay,” she says. “I got to harvest the malunggay leaves on a constant basis. We use it for cooking.”

Growing alugbati from cuttings.

 

Growing food to help one’s health

Abella’s interest in transitioning to a regenerative lifestyle started around 2015. She was living a work-centric lifestyle that had a negative effect on her health. A friend introduced her to a life force nutrition teacher and a plant-based chef, who introduced her to the notion of healing through food. “it gave me hope that if I changed my nutrition… it’s possible for me to have longevity,” she shares.

Ironically, her past lifestyle resulted from witnessing her father pass away at a young age for virtually the same reasons. “When I was 20 years old, my dad passed away due to health issues and, I think, poor diet, and also being overworked with our family business,” she shares. “It was a blow to my life. I felt he wasn’t able to live his life to the fullest, so I vowed to myself that (I wouldn’t do the same thing). And somehow, my idea of living life to the fullest was to jam pack my schedule.…”

Living a continuously busy life took its toll. “While I did experience a lot of things… my health suffered and my finances got drained… I felt like I was in a degenerative state,”Abella shares. “I started attending movement workshops to bring my health back, and eventually progressed to being introduced to plant-based life force nutrition courses, which eventually opened my world to permaculture, which eventually opened my world to ecovillage design.”

She decided to use the pandemic-induced pause to restart her relationship with herself. “I think it’s experiencing the farm to table idea that made me want to grow food in our rooftop garden.”

Harvested blue ternate, talinum, and dill from rooftop garden.

 

A change for a lifestyle change

As of the interview, Abella’s harvests have been minimal (she’s since been able to cultivate and harvest more), but quantity was never the point of the exercise. “It’s not about cost savings but being empowered to grow my own food,” she says. “It’s (also about gaining) the confidence of being able to grow my own food because before, this was not a possibility for me.”

Like many gardeners, Abella had to go through a lot of trial and error before finally reaching success. “There were many plants dying before I got to this (point) where (I’m experiencing) greater success in growing.”

Abella’s intentions don’t just revolve around planting and harvesting, but aim to encompass the whole of her existence. “My daily home regeneration adventure really is about having a regenerative lifestyle where it’s life force enhancing. It entails maintaining my garden, doing the composting, eating more plant-based meals and whole grains and incorporating mediation, breathwork, and movement to my daily routine,” she explains.

“I want my regeneration to be experienced at the home level because if I can do it at home, it makes it easier to bring it out to the world. I realized that if there’s something I want to change in the world, it has to come from within, and my immediate community is my family.”

Her family needed some convincing to get on board, but are generally supportive of her endeavors. “They appreciate that when we do our morning walks or afternoon walks, there’s the fresh air and there’s the greenery,” she says. “I think it contributes to mental and physical wellbeing. I also got my mom to engage in watering the garden and she sometimes asks if it’s time to maintain the compost.”

Victorious harvest of galangal.

 

Benefits outweigh challenges

Maintaining a garden, even a small one, requires work. After surmounting the challenge of successfully growing something, now Abella is challenged with maintaining her rooftop garden.

“It entails watering the garden in the morning and afternoon, especially during the warm season,” she says. “Bokashi composting is a challenge because it entails transferring from small collection tubs to bigger buckets.”

She does as much as she can by herself, but has had to train the household help to do some tasks out of necessity, such as when Abella contracted COVID-19 and had to undergo mandatory isolation.

“When I got COVID in late August to mid-September (2021) and was in home isolation, the rooftop garden was my salvation. I stayed in my room for almost a month. When I was given the go-signal to visit our rooftop garden for at least 30 mins everyday, it really helped that there’s a little patch of nature in our house. It inspires and enlightens me to see plants growing.”

Abella’s regenerative lifestyle journey is meticulously documented in her social media account, which is currentlyset to private. The lessons she has learned from this journey far exceeds planting and harvesting.

“I take inspiration from nature. Nature is healing for me. Nature is my teacher. When I see the flowers, they can just be. I can take a lesson or two from the flowers,” she says.

 

“When I tend to the garden, it’s really like me looking at my inner garden.  When I have to do some weeding or mulching for protecting plants, I reflect back and I also need to protect some things like my boundaries. It’s really the internal lessons that I glean from doing the external work of gardening.”

But of course, the best thing about gardening is getting to enjoy the sometimes literal fruits of one’s labor. As Abella says, “I think one of the good things about growing food in our garden is that I get the chance to bring the farm to our home, especially in a time of lockdown.”

Photos courtesy of Marilyn Abella

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Yvette Tan
Yvette Tan is Agriculture magazine's managing editor Agriculture.com.ph’s web editor. She is an award-winning writer who likes to eat, travel, and listen to stories about the strange and supernatural. She is dedicated to encouraging people to push for sustainable food sources and is an advocate of food security, food sovereignty, and the preservation of community foodways.

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