Grow Your Food: An Ilonggo’s Short Guide to Kitchen Gardening

By marc belloni

Planting local herbs and vegetables like basil, malunggay, lemongrass, peppers and the like in family homes and gardens are just one of the perks of provincial life. Despite the urban development of Iloilo City, the local knowledge behind these methods have proven to be easily transmissible to the next generation of Ilonggos.

Of course, we have proof of it: I had the opportunity to observe a successful Ilonggo organic farming project before, so it would be interesting to zoom in at a smaller-scale method for Ilonggos to grow vegetables in a, say, typical house lot space: kitchen gardening.

In the quest to discover this practice, I would meet a young Ilonggo who’s doing exactly that: Clem Tan. He made a presentation of his ‘Herbs & Pots’ project during the first official Iloilo Pechakucha Night. Considering how Project Iloilo also wrote about an independently funded organic farm a few months ago, it was certainly interesting to see how a similar venture could be done on a smaller scale.

Grow Your Food: Kitchen Gardening - Project Iloilo
The reason why Tan started his project was also one that could be said as “typically” Ilonggo, too: he is a fan of local and international cuisine, but he found it difficult to get his hands on a variety of good ingredients that would allow him to cook the dishes he liked. So, like any self-sufficient Ilonggo, he decided to grow his herbs at home.

Similar to the origins of Orchard Valley above, Tan also had to learn from scratch: he attended a seminar held by the Department of Agriculture when he first tried growing mushrooms. After realizing that farming mushrooms would have been more expensive than what he bargained for, he turned to growing aromatic herbs. So, without any sufficient knowledge of knowing how to do so, he planted his first Italian basil, coriander and arugula, using an egg tray and a humidifier as makeshift pots.

“At first, both plants grew well,” Tan noted. “Then, in a matter of two weeks, the coriander died. My questioning started: why did it die? Then after the first month, the basil wilted too. Another question about it. This triggered my research on the internet.”

Tan certainly became tenacious with his research. “Apart from it, I also looked for books, getting any of those I could put my hands on,” he said. “I discovered I used the wrong soil and that the plants were too shaded.” He came to realize that plants, being the living things that they are, eventually die; that’s the reason why all of them are noted to be “annual” or “perennial”. Noting down every new step and discovery made, he wrote all of it down on a white board.

“I had to do a lot of things in order to have them grow well,” Tan continued. “I experimented (with) different types of soil. Some soil drain very fast; others can be waterlogged for two days. Each plant would then require refining the soil combination.”

It did not take long before the basil and coriander he was cultivating started to grow well. “I felt rewarded for the effort,” Tan beamed. However, he felt he could do more than just growing these herbs. “I immediately challenged myself: why don’t I try hydroponics?”

Grow Your Food: Kitchen Gardening - Project Iloilo

For those who may not have encountered the word in passing, “hydroponics” is basically an agricultural method that does not use soil, but is only reliant in water and nutrient solution. Even better: a hydroponic course called the Simple Nutrient Addition Program (SNAP) was created by two Filipino researchers, Drs. Primitivo Santos and Eureka Teresa Ocampo of UP Los Baños. SNAP was designed to reduce water used by local farmers for their crops. In other words, it’s a perfect program for any small-scale gardening project like what Tan had in mind.

With the help of a Cebuana friend who sold him his first hydroponic starter kit, Tan began cultivating basil before eventually moving on to more common vegetable fare like lettuce, peppers, and cherry tomatoes.

Now, Tan is at the point where he said “the plants are everywhere” at his house. “As I have a reduced space, I experiment where I can, although I have a dedicated area of around 1.5 meters by 5 meters,” he said. “(From) there, I start experimenting on companion planting, this technique of planting two plants that grow well in close proximity, like basil with tomato (for example). Second, the different requirements in pH and soil composition for each plant needed to have them in different pots.”

Of course, to reduce hydroponics to simply knowing which plants you could group together in a pot does not take into account the complexity of looking out for soil quality and sun exposure. For instance, Tan explained how he uses vermicast, which is a fancier term for “worm’s manure”, to balance the soil acidity because of its neutral properties: “The issue is that, when too wet, the vermicast gets waterlogged. In a case, I had to mix vermicast with sand and a bit of lime to increase the alkalinity of the soil.” As for exposing the plants to sunlight, he simply moved the pots according to which ones would need more hours of sunlight.

To hear him describe the processes above seem a lot of work. Indeed, Tan admitted that self-sufficiency is difficult to reach on a yearly basis since there are so many factors to consider in the Philippines. Here is just one example of how he would cultivate basil: he would start planting it between October and December because of the cooler weather. When March pass, he would gradually decrease the frequency of planting basil and would instead shift his energies to cultivating plants that could live on minimal water like rosemary.

Grow Your Food: Kitchen Gardening - Project Iloilo

Although Tan has not computed the quantity of aromatics needed for regular family consumption yet, it appeared to him that that won’t be too much. The challenging part is applying the method to everyday vegetables that are inherently local to the region. However, he argued that kitchen gardening should become a necessity for Ilonggos today. He made a point of it by describing one of his usual routines to Project Iloilo: “(Here’s) a simple example: (It’s) to make breakfast, getting eggs and picking basil to put on. Or (if you want) to have a salad for lunch, get some arugula, mustard leaves, seasoning and here it is. It just need space to have a rectangular area, grow some usual herbs and have them available.”

Kitchen gardening is DIY applied at its purest form. I hope that this testimony will show to younger generations that even in an urban Iloilo, it is possible to start your own organic kitchen garden.

So, what “kitchen plants” are you looking forward to plant in your household? Tell us in the comments section below!

Photos by the author

Marc Belloni is a writer for Project Iloilo.