Text and Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio
In these days of the dreaded coronavirus diseases 2019 (COVID-19), people are staying at home. Aside from doing exercises, watching television, playing videogames, and checking their social media accounts, people are eating more – and cooking.
As a result, prices of luscious fruits and fresh vegetables have gone up. To ensure that there would be continued supply of adequate food at reasonable prices to Filipino consumers throughout the country, the Department of Agriculture has launched the Plant, Plant, Plant Program or Ahon, Pagkaing Sapat (ALPAS) Laban sa COVID-19.
“The threat of hunger is as real as the threat of COVID-19,” said Agriculture Secretary William Dar in a press statement. Aside from adequately addressing food security, the initiative also tackles on efficient food processing, marketing and distribution to major consumption centers.
Most of those who are deeply affected with the scarcity of supply and higher prices of vegetables are people from the cities. After all, most of the farmers are living in the rural areas. But still, urbanites can still grow vegetables.
It’s not a new thing that people in the urban areas are growing vegetables. In the 1990s, the Beijing government decided that urban agriculture was an important way to meet the city’s food needs. Today, farming in, around, and near Beijing not only provides residents with safer, healthier food, it also keeps farmers in business.
“Urban agriculture refers not merely to the growing of food crops and fruit trees but that it also encompasses the raising of animals, poultry, fish, bees, rabbits, guinea pigs, or other livestock considered edible locally,” explains Dr. Irene Tinker, an American professor in the department of city and regional planning at the University of California.
In the Philippines, there is a presidential decree which obliged owners – or entitled others with owners’ permission – to cultivate unused private lands and some public lands adjoining streets or highways in Metro Manila. In Davao City, the “Gulayan sa Barangay” pushes for the growth and propagation of organically-grown vegetables.
Early this month, the regional office of the agriculture department has established 384 “gulayan sa barangay” in Davao City, particularly in Anggalan, Balingaeng, Manuel Guinga, New Valencia, Tacunan, and Talandang all in Tugbok District.
The New York-based United Nations Development Program estimates that 800 million people are involved in urban farming around the world, with the majority in Asian cities. Of these, 200 million produce food primarily for the market, but the great majority raise food for their own families.
“Urban agriculture can be one of the most important factors in improving childhood nutrition, by increasing both access to food and nutrition,” wrote Brian Halweil and Danielle Nierenberg in their collaborative report published by Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute.
Another advantage: farms in the city can often supply markets on a more regular basis than distant rural farms can, particularly when refrigeration is scarce or during a rainy season when roads are bad.
Beyond providing jobs and good nutrition, urban farming can have a whole range of other health benefits. Research has connected gardening to reducing risks of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and occupational injuries. For urban folks especially, working with plants and being in the outdoors can both prevent illness and help with healing.
Wayne Roberts of the Toronto Food Policy Council sees urban agriculture as the “new frontier in public health,” benefiting health twice: first, by supplying urbanites with more foods and, second, by affording them the exercise involved in raising food.
You don’t need a bigger area to plant vegetables. In fact, all you need to have is a space of 100 square meters and you can have vegetables throughout the year. The Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC) Foundation, Inc. in Kinuskusan, Bansalan, Davao del Sur has been promoting a sustainable vegetable gardening scheme since the 1970s.
MBRLC calls it Food Always In The Home, or FAITH for short. The recommended garden size is only 6 x 16 meters. “With that miniscule space, you can harvest pesticide-free fresh vegetables throughout 365 days,” assures Jethro P. Adang, the center’s director.
“We want people to know the importance of consuming vegetables to protect them from malnutrition,” explains Adang of why the center came up with such kind of vegetable gardening. “With minimum capital and lots of native enterprise, a family can be assured of a steady supply of nutritious food – and even extra income.”
The most fertile area in the backyard should be selected for this type of garden, Adang says. It should contain humus, a form of plant food. The types of soil needed for vegetable gardening are loam, silt-loam, or clay loam.
“Establish the garden on a light slope to provide drainage, especially during rainy season,” Adang suggests. “If the area is flat, dig drainage channels or ditches around the planting site. The garden site must also receive sunshine throughout the day as growing plants need sunshine to manufacture food.”
In addition, the garden site should be located near water sources. “Water is very important particularly during the dry season,” Adang adds. “During rainy season, however, canals must be built to drain the water out from the garden plots.”
The garden is divided equally into three sections, with half of each section held in reserve for replanting. One section is planted with short-term vegetables that will be ready for use in two to four months such as soybeans, tomatoes, pechay, cowpeas, string beans, radish, and sweet corn.
The second section is for crops which can produce vegetables for six to nine months such as ampalaya, okra, onions, garlic, eggplant, winged beans, golden squash, alugbati, and ginger. Vegetables that will produce for 11 to 12 months are grown on the third section like patani, kulitis, sayote, kangkong, sweet potato, gabi, and kadios.
Aside from vegetables, you can also have a supply of fresh fruits. Along the boundary of the garden, Adang suggests planting of permanent and semi-permanent crops. Among these are malunggay, papaya, pineapple, calamansi, and guava.
For fencing purposes, nitrogen-fixing species like Flemingia macrophylla, Desmodium rensonii, Gliricidia sepium (kakawate), and Indigofera anil are planted; these can also be used as sources of fertilizer as green manure.
FAITH garden has what other vegetable gardens don’t have: basket composts. It is a series of raised garden beds set with bamboo baskets, about one foot in diameter and depth. The baskets are filled with little animal manure and some decomposed organic garbage and packed with leaves of leguminous trees and shrubs. If basket composts are too laborious to do, you can also make trench composts.
If animal manure is not available, the leaves of leguminous trees and shrubs that are planted as fence may do the trick. These are stuffed into the basket or trench composts to provide nitrogen and other nutrients needed by growing crops. “You can immediately use the composts without waiting for the usual three- to four-month period as is necessary in the old method of composting,” Adang says.
However, the time to plant seeds or seedlings around the basket or trench composts depends on the state of decomposition of materials inside the compost. “If the materials at the bottom part are nearly decomposed, seeds and/or seedlings can be planted right away,” Adang says. “But if most of the materials are still fresh, planting may be done two to three weeks later.”
Like most gardening, good management is necessary. The reserved areas should be planted in time so that there would be continuous supply of vegetables throughout the year. Since sweet potato, alugbati, and kangkong are crawling plants, these should be planted in separate beds one meter wide and 6 meters long with a distance of 50 centimeters between beds. The plants should be set 20 centimeters apart.
For patani and winged beans, two to three seeds per hill are planted around the composts. These two legumes are the main providers of proteins. Other plants which are good sources of protein are soybeans and string beans.
Some crawling vegetables like cucumber, ampalaya, and patola (should be provided with trellis; otherwise the vines will become a problem later on.
In Silang, Cavite, the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR) has also come-up with bio-intensive gardening (BIG). Bio-intensive is an umbrella term used to describe several methods of growing vegetables in a small space.
“The BIG intensive approach to small-scale household level food production differs considerably from the conventional gardening systems because of its stress on deep bed preparation, nutrient recycling, building up of the soil’s biological base, diversified cropping, use of indigenous cultivars or locally adapted varieties and its emphasis on a balanced and integrated ecosystem,” explains Julian F. Gonsalves, who promoted the scheme in the 1980s yet.
When BIG was introduced in Negros Occidental in 1986, the rate of malnutrition dropped from 40% to 25% two years later.
Like FAITH, BIG requires a small lot – 200 to 500 square feet. “A variety of vegetables and crops can be grown in a surprisingly small area, allowing for year-round harvests,” Gonsalves says.
Meanwhile, the number of hungry people living in cities is growing at alarming rate, according to a recent report released by the UN Food and Agriculture. While malnutrition in rural areas is still a big problem in terms of actual numbers of people – of the 852 million people worldwide who are undernourished, 75% live in rural areas – urban residents, particularly children, also suffer from food shortages as well as micronutrient deficiencies.
With COVID-19 still rampaging around the world, it is high time for urban residents to grow their own vegetables.