By Vina Medenilla
Grocery stores, markets, and restaurants have made buying food easy, which is why many people tend to take food for granted. The current pandemic has shed light on the issues of food insecurity, encouraging more individuals to engage in securing nutritious, good, and fair food.
This is partly why a millennial in Pasig decided to grow crops seven years ago. Nicole Obligacion, 30, is a condo dweller whose urban garden is located on an L-shaped balcony measuring 36 feet long, two feet wide, and three feet deep.
Obligacion is behind the Facebook account Anyone Can Garden, where she describes herself as, “An urban gardener from Manila who shares her gardening highlights and hurdles to help others grow a green thumb, too.”
Gardening for self-development
Back in 2013, Obligacion spontaneously sowed broccoli and cherry tomato seeds without any initial plans to develop a full-fledged garden. Her goal back then was to do something for the sake of her personal growth. Little did she know that that particular gardening experience would be the source of a new passion and hobby.
At that time, she also began to love using basil for the Italian dishes she prepared. But upon realizing that buying produce from the grocery store was impractical due to their short storage life, she decided to grow her own herbs and veggies at home. “Ever since I harvested my first broccoli, cherry tomatoes, and basil at home, my love for gardening kept growing! I was amazed by the whole journey of planting, growing, and harvesting.”
Fascinated by the idea of cultivating more crops on her balcony, Obligacion kept experimenting until such time that her balcony became home to several herbs, veggies, and leafy greens.
The 30-year-old gardener had developed a higher appreciation for food and food producers after experiencing how to grow food by herself. She says, “I used to take vegetables or herbs for granted whenever I saw them at the market.”
A curiosity that led to new skills and interests
Now that she raises her food, she doesn’t have to worry about running out of ingredients as she can easily obtain them at home. “I enjoy being able to harvest herbs and vegetables at home without worrying about their lifespan at the pantry or in the refrigerator.” Moreover, growing her food gives her a chance to witness the different stages of plants, as well as to be resourceful, given her home’s limited space.
Crops in the balcony
Since 2013, her garden has flourished from a few herbs to several varieties of crops. At present, she mainly grows sweet and Thai basil, cherry tomatoes, okra, ginger, pechay, and chili pepper. Other crops include eggplant, tarragon, onion chives, oregano, calamansi, carrots, peanuts, arugula, lettuce, spinach, parsley, lemongrass, garlic, purple beans, kangkong, aloe vera, and marigold. For her seasonal crops, she also cultivates cherry tomatoes, broccoli, sweet corn, melon, and sweet peas. Like plants, Obligacion continues to grow as a gardener by learning to raise new crops that are harder to maintain. She explained, “I wanted to improve my gardening skills and knowledge.”
Balcony gardening requirements and practices
Despite a condo garden’s limitations, Obligacion makes sure to provide enough food and needs for her plants.
Sunlight. Except for her ornamental plants that she tends indoors, she places most of the crops where there is direct sunlight. “I maximize the space I have and try to squeeze in as many plants as I can under the sun,” she explained.
Water. Due to Manila’s hot weather, Obligacion waters her plants using tap and rice water (the latter is the water used to wash rice) every morning at around 7 o’clock, except during the rainy days.
Containers and soil mix. She tends her crops in plastic pots that are circular and rectangular in shape, as well as in raised beds made of cement and stones. She has about four raised beds measuring six feet in height, two feet in length, and three feet in depth. For the soil mix of her plants in plastic pots, she uses cocopeat, carbonized rice hull, and vermicast mixed with loam soil. While a mixture of garden soil and loam soil are used for her raised beds.
Fertilizer. Obligacion notes that she naturally fertilizes her crops using organic chicken manure, vermicast, and fish or kelp liquid fertilizer. She’s planning to work on making composts, too.
Pesticides. To control pests like spider mites, aphids, and leafminers in her garden, she uses neem oil solution spray and diatomaceous earth (DE) food grade powder.
Propagation. When plants have matured and developed flowers, she collects their seeds for future propagation. So far, she’s performed this practice with her basil and marigold plants. “This helps me save money since I don’t buy some seeds anymore,” said the gardener. In cultivating herbs like basil and tarragon, she grows their roots in water and transfers them to pots with soil once roots are visible.
Pruning. For the basil, she regularly prunes them every two to three weeks. Instead of harvesting her kangkong in one go, she also prunes their stems and “leaves at least two leaf nodes, so new shoots can grow,” she said. Obligacion also cuts her leafy greens. “Instead of uprooting the whole pechay or lettuce plants, I harvest the outer leaves first and leave the rest of the plant to continue growing more leaves,” she adds, “This helps me maximize the seeds’ potential.”
Harvesting. To date, her harvests are only for personal consumption, which she also shares with her relatives and friends. Every week, she can gather about 25 pieces of small labuyo and 20 pieces of cherry tomatoes that last for one to two months during its season. For basil, she reaps about six to eight cups of their leaves every two weeks, while for her kangkong, a bundle of stalks can be collected per month.
In the future, she plans to use the hydroponics system and add grow lights to further enhance her balcony garden.
Gardening is something that has been part of her daily life since then. Yet, for her, there’s still so much to learn and discover.
In the continuation of this article, Obligacion tackles the challenges she had gone through over the past seven years, as well as some gardening techniques she has learned from them.
Photos courtesy of Nicole Obligacion.
For more information, visit Anyone Can Garden.
This article appeared in Agriculture Magazine’s March to April 2022 issue.