A woman turns to rooftop gardening to ease her loneliness from being away from her family.

By Randy V. Urlanda

Humans have grown plants atop structures since antiquity. Remember the “Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, which was built in 600 BC in Mesopotamia (now Iraq)?

Although not as extensive and beautiful, modern roof gardens are most often found in urban environments. Spending time in a garden, whether in your backyard or on a rooftop, has been shown to positively affect people’s emotions and improve their sense of well-being.

A pastoral environment in a laid-back town can also be an ideal location for a rooftop garden—that is, if you live in a three-story concrete house with a flat rooftop.

Martonito also plants lemon pummelo in her rooftop garden.

Belen Papa-Martonito, a 51-year-old entrepreneur in the bustling university town of Indang in the highlands of Cavite—renowned for its exotic (albeit expensive) alamid (civet) coffee and kaong (sugar palm) brown sugar—has been separated from half of her family for quite some time.

Her husband, Maximo, a mechanical maintenance supervisor in an aluminum factory in Dubai in the UAE, has been shuttling back and forth yearly for the last 13 years from there to Indang. Her two daughters—Joy Belen, 30, a nurse who works in a clinic, and Roxanne, 27, who is employed in a private company—both also earn their living in Dubai. It is only her youngest and only son, Dennis, 22, who is a student at an I.T. school in Dasmarinas, Cavite, and Roxanne’s son who live with her.

With a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture, major in Agronomy, from the Cavite State University in Indang, Belen turned to the student dormitory business like countless other Indang residents, to cater to many of the university’s 17,000 students who live off-campus. Belen converted half of her big three-story residence in her tree-lined neighborhood into a dormitory with well-appointed rooms good for 32 boarders.

But, at night when everybody is sound asleep, Belen can’t help feeling lonely for her husband and two daughters toiling in a faraway land.

Martonito also pummelo in her rooftop garden.

Suddenly, Belen thought of turning her 148-square-meter bare concrete rooftop into a fruit and vegetable garden. “One very hot day in 2013, I converted my bare rooftop into a roof garden to lessen the heat,” says Belen, who lives in her air-conditioned third floor residence with curtained windows, while handing this writer a giant six-inch yellow lemon fruit that she harvested from her micro farm above her dormitory. “I first planted, in big pots and wooden plant beds, six-inch high marcotted fruit trees like pomelo, chico, guava, avocado, mangosteen, atis, rambutan, guayabano, calamansi, and lemon—[and these] are now taller than me,” continues Belen while proudly showing the ripening fruits of her labor.

“Aside from these fruit trees, I also built a small wooden shed where I grow mushrooms,” says the petite rooftop farmer. “The other half of my rooftop farm is planted to all the vegetables mentioned in the folk song “Bahay Kubo,” [except for] mani at linga (peanuts and sesame seeds). My next plan is to grow kitchen herbs, spices, herbal plants, singkamas, and blueberries under the shade of these fruit trees.”

To ease her loneliness and relieve stress, all Belen has to do is climb to the rooftop at night and count and smell and feel the ripening fruits in her micro fruit orchard as she looks up at the dark sky and tallies the number of passing planes overhead, imagining that she is in one of them on her way to Dubai to be with her family.

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Belen Martonito among her fruiting chico.

Nature has been shown to be beneficial for our overall health and well-being. We are all connected to nature and it is important to maintain this vital connection. Just like what micro rooftop farmer Belen is doing, for her health and happiness.

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s October 2015 issue.