“Gourd-geous” Garden

By Michelle Domocol

Back to Inflourish: Cebu

May is all about starting those gorgeous and versatile gourds. They are relatively easy to grow and a fun project to start with your students or kids at home.

In Cebu, vining gourds like ampalaya (bittermelon), kalabasa (squash), sikwa (luffa), and kalabasang puti (aka kalubay/ bottle gourd) are hardy options.

You can cultivate one type of gourd or experiment with a combination of different gourds. The flowers, leaves and dramatic vegetable shapes are a joy to observe as they grow. And if your efforts yield large gourds, you’re guaranteed a source of pride.

Here are 7 strategies for a successful, Gourd-geous harvest:

1. Select a site with at leat 6 hours of sunshine and well-draining soil.

2. Add around 4 inches of organic matter (like compost or vermicompost) into a raised bed or large garden pot. Ideally the pot is 15 inches high and about 15 inches wide.

3. Start planting with healthy seedlings to make it easier. If you have seeds, plant them 1 inch deep and 2 feet apart. Depending on the variety, your calabasa may require more space (like 4 feet) between each seedling.

4. Apply organic fertilizer like vermicompost or compost tea to the soil at least once a month

Photo 1. A trellised kalabasa (squash) in Healing Present’s gourd garden. Nylon netting and reed poles were used as the trellis.

5. Use a trellis (Photo 1) to prop up the growing gourds and leaves. This helps ventilate your plants and prevent any rotting or moldy growth. Remember to remove any dead leaves and damaged young gourds.

6. Remove any weeds trying to compete with your young gourd plants. Use mulch like coconut fiber/coco coir, dried leaves, rice straw, rice hulls, or chopped dry palm fronds to suppress weed growth. Continue to remove weeds as your gourd plants mature.

7. Every week, water your gourd plants. Make sure the water is percolating the soil and reaching the roots. Well-draining soil absorbs the water and allows it to travel to the roots. You can provide water through a watering can, drip irrigation, soaker hose or underground ollas.

Happy Planting! And hopefully your harvest will add home-grown flavor to your delicious lunches, dinners and desserts. Check out our cookbooks for recipe ideas featuring yummy squashes and gourds.

Starter Citrus Garden

By Michelle Domocol

Back to Inflourish: Cebu

In a previous article, Bees and Belonging, I suggested a ‘Citrus Home Garden’ as a potential design for a beautiful pollinator garden. The Citrus Home Garden featured fragrant potted dwarf citrus trees that provide delicious fruits and nourished native butterflies and stingless bees.

In this post, I’ll provide growing recommendations for dwarf citrus varieties that are easy to grow.

1. Starter Citrus. Limonsito (calamansi), Makrut Lime, and Kumquat are great for beginner gardeners (Photo 1). Dwarf varieties can be placed in containers and easier to manage.

Photo 1. (Clockwise from top right) Kumquat; Variegated Limonsito; Makrut Lime

They also require less space. In general, they can grow to 6 feet and can be easily pruned. The best part is that your shorter citrus produce fruits with the same size and flavor as their standard, taller counterparts. Nothing is sacrificed. Dwarf lime, limonsito, and other dwarf varieties also produce the same leaves, flowers, and signature aromas.

2. Well-lit Location. Dwarf citrus can easily adorn a small apartment patio, balcony, terrace, or cozy backyard. They just need a well-ventilated space with at least 6 hours of sunshine.

3. Cozy Container. I like to plant young, dwarf-citrus tree saplings in a 1-foot diameter pot. As the mature, I transfer them to containers that 2 feet wide around 20 inches tall. Light-weight containers made of resin or fiberglass with ample drainage are great choices. Store a mini cart or platform with wheels in your tool shed. With this, you can easily move your container plants when re-decorating or re-arranging your garden.

4. Soil Mix Savvy. If you’ve read my previous articles, you’ll notice I usually recommend “well-draining soil”. Same goes for citrus trees in pots. They thrive in soil that absorbs the water well. Their roots suffer in soggy soil that lacks drainage. In general, I mix garden soil with vermicompost to make sure the citrus trees have enough micronutrients. You can also choose a special organic fertilizer that may be available in the plant nursery.

If all goes well and you’ve successfully cared for your citrus garden, you can expect amazing fruits and fragrant blossoms for the pollinators (Photo 1):

  • Limonsito (calamansi) can produce bright yellow, green or orange fruits. Their leaves can be glossy green or variegated with white pigment (Photo 1). Limonsito is a common flavor in the Philippines. In any Filipino kitchen or restaurant menu, limonsito juice is squeezed into sauces, entrees, dessert drinks, herbal teas, and more.
  • Makrut lime trees produce aromatic leaves perfect for soups and curries. The limes are wrinkled and bumpy with a thick, zesty rind. The rind can be grated into your favorite noodle and stir-fry meals as well.
  • Kumquats are tangy fruit snacks to pop in your mouth. They also make perfect jams and marmalades. The entire fruit, including the thin skin, is edible.

Who knows? After a few years of successful harvests and feeling confident with these easygoing citrus varieties, you may want to venture into more demanding citrus trees like pomelo and mandarin.

Related Articles with Citrus Trees

Binignit Garden

By Michelle Domocol

Back to Inflourish: Cebu

For many in Cebu, April is a time for family meals, Binignit, and Easter festivities. It’s also a great month to start planning a Binignit Garden.

Binignit (Photo 1) is a hearty, delectable dessert that features sweet root crops and fruits. Gabi (taro), camote, ube, cassava, kardaba bananas, landang, and nangka (jackfruit) are some of the natural sweeteners of Binignit. My extended family in Cebu proudly served delicious, homemade binignit during Holy Week meals. Honestly, outside of Easter, binignit is an eagerly welcomed dessert at any office party, birthday, or special celebration.

Planning & Growing a Binignit Garden

If your garden or farm has moist soil or a water body (like a pond), this can be a great site to plant some of the water-loving ingredients in Binignit. If you start planning in April, you’ll have time to gather healthy planting material like gabi roots and cassava cuttings. You can also prepare any soil amendments like vermicompost or mulch. With ample time for preparation, planting can start in May. You can design a waterside garden with gabi, ube, cassava, and camote. These sweet root crops adapt to partial and full sun exposure.

In portions of your garden with more well-draining soil, you can grow other Binignit-themed plants like nangka, kardaba, buli palm (aka landang tree). As these trees mature and grow taller, they can provide partial shade to the low-growing root crops. If you need ideas for more shade-providing agroforestry trees, check out “A for Agroforestry”.

Here are some more tips for your Binignit garden:

Photo 1. (Clockwise from top left) Binignit, gabi, kardaba, ube, landang, cassava

Gabi (aka taro) thrives in partial sun with constant soil moisture. In Cebu, you can plant gabi from May to July. Gabi prefers a waterside garden, pond border or site with wet soil. Make sure the soil is fertile. If your soil needs nutrients, amend it with vermicompost. You can plant the entire root or small sections of the gabi root. I like to plant gabi 5 inches deep. Then I cover the root with about about 2 inches of soil. If you have multiple root sections, you can arrange them 2 feet apart so they have room to flourish. Make sure to regularly remove weeds that compete for space and nutrients. They can ruin the development of young gabi.

Ube is another bountiful addition to your waterside Binignit garden. Like gabi, it loves the constant moisture and fertile, composted soil. I like to add mulch over the soil to increase organic matter and suppress weeds. You can mulch with dried leaves from surrounding trees, old palm leaves, or rice hulls. You can also adorn your waterside garden with decorative trellises to lift the trailing ube vines.

Cassava can be planted from May to June. Unlike gabi and ube planting methods, I plant cassava from cuttings. Cassavas thrive in a wide range of soils including moist soil. So they can accompany your ube and gabi. Ensure cassava is surrounded with at least 3 feet of space. They also enjoy full sun exposure cutting. If you’d like tips on growing camote, check out “Camote, February’s Featured Crop”.

Hope you enjoy your Binignit this weekend and Happy Planting!

Resilience and Recovery after Typhoon Odette

By Michelle Domocol

Back to Inflourish: Cebu

At Healing Present, we continue to rebuild and recover from the destruction and aftermath of Typhoon Odette (Photo 1). Luckily with amazing supervision from the founder and the farm operations crew, we are making progress. We have deep gratitude for the Healing Present staff who continue to repair, rebuild, and replant the portions of the farm/forest that were damaged. Sylvia, Mario, Ariel, Jaime, Jerry, Marvin and Yeng Yeng all  rebuild and adapt Healing Present to this era of more severe storms and lethal wind velocities.

Photo 1. Building re-construction and repair after the typhoon. Photos from Sylvia Suson.

Typhoon Odette left us with detached roofing, broken windows, fallen vegetation and disrepair that results from 189-mph winds. The damage was extensive and heartbreaking. The damage also prompted us to refine our strategies to mitigate typhoons.

It would be misguided to rebuild and revegetate the farm without considering the new characteristics of this past typhoon.

Here are some of the overarching management questions that help guide our typhoon recovery:

  • How do we rebuild while considering the new severity of typhoons?
  • Is there anything we can improve our current mitigation systems?
  • How do we cultivate trees near our facilities will not fall and cause damage?
  • Are our trees still resistant to these new, stronger typhoons?
  • Is it possible to manage a forest patch that can withstand the next storm, flood?

In this article, I share an excerpt of our post-typhoon evaluation. This excerpt focuses on tree management and windbreak systems. Improving our tree care and windbreak is one of the many important land management strategies to strengthen our typhoon preparedness.

Photo 2. Periodic tree and windbreak evaluations at Healing Present
Tree care & Windbreak Evaluation

At Healing Present, we plant feature trees, forest patches and agroforestry windbreaks to protect crops and reduce wind damage to our facilities (Photo 2 and 3). As mentioned in a previous article, windbreaks are an agroforestry technique that:

  • create favorable microclimates,
  • decrease wind erosion,
  • increase biodiversity,
  • stabilize soil,
  • buffer noise, and
  • screen undesirable views.

Windbreaks are also a living combination of trees, shrubs and groundcover that may need refinement or improvement to suit our changing environmental challenges.

Here are 5 questions to help evaluate the effectiveness of our windbreaks and other trees:

1) Are the trees and shrubs in our windbreaks planted too densely? Sometimes when windbreak plants are too close together, they block incoming winds. This block can cause too much wind turbulence in the areas you’d like to protect. A protected area can include a building or vegetable beds. Effective windbreaks are more permeable and reduce windspeed; rather than stopping it entirely.

2) Are we giving the trees near our buildings enough rooting space? In general, large and small trees with enough room to grow a wide and deep fan of roots can be less vulnerable to high winds.

3) Are the trees near our buildings healthy and possess good structure? Perhaps Healing Present can decrease the amount of uprooted vegetation by paying more attention to the large trees that are planted close to structures. Ideally, these should have healthy trunks and central leaders. This can be managed with a consistent pruning program. This includes trees that survived the typhoon. Broken branches must be pruned so they don’t fall or cause further damage in a future storm.

4) Are there any isolated or potentially hazardous still standing near the existing buildings? If so, we need to monitor them. Isolated trees could be planted with more vegetation so they buffered from future wind events. Do any trees that survived the typhoon show signs of decay? Old trees showing signs of decay, disease or damaged roots may need to be monitored or removed if hazardous.

Photo 3. Evaluation and care for forest patches and featured trees near buildings.

5) Are we still planting the best wind-resistant species? Some of our trees had medium levels of wind-resistance because it suited storm pressure.  Perhaps we need to integrate some more high wind-resistance species to match the new, supertyphoon characteristics in our area.

When selecting windbreak species, a variety of species, ages, and layers of vegetation is preferred. Local observation is key to effective selection. We can check our property as well as neighbors’ properties to observe which species withstood the storm. Online lists of wind-resistant trees are great, but not always helpful. These recommendations don’t always match your specific climate and soil conditions. At Healing Present, if we notice a species that consistently withstood the typhoon, they may be a great candidate for windbreak re-plantings.

Photo 4. Forest fragments, denuded hillsides, and mixed agricultural areas of the Cebu uplands. Photo taken prior to Typhoon Odette.

Undoubtedly, systemic disaster preparedness is much more complex than evaluating windbreaks and planting wind-resistant vegetation. But it is a significant component to our recovery and repair. On a broader scale, disaster mitigation would be more effective with broader, structural forces like a cohesive national preparedness strategy.

Recovery would be exponentially easier if the Cebu uplands (Photo 4) and urban lowlands were strategically forested or designed to reduce the wind velocity of torrential rains and typhoons. If the upland forests contained continuous stretches of healthy, strongly rooted vegetation, residents could be more protected from typhoon winds. If we, as a global community were more adept at battling climate change, the severity of our storms would be less lethal. The “if only’s” are numerous and layered. And I lament the inactive collective.

Nevertheless, Healing Present is grateful for our operations team and the landscape management strategies that could help us recover from future typhoons.

Bees & Belonging

By Michelle Domocol

Back to Inflourish: Cebu

Growing up, I always thought it was delightful when a person’s last name echoed their interest in nature. It seemed reminiscent of an quaint scene in folktales. Like “Mr. Green worked in his garden next to Señora Flores’ floral shop after they received produce from the farmer, John Boom”. These namesakes connoted an inherited path towards a desirable, verdant destiny.

Don’t get me wrong. I am proud of the life paths I independently laid.

Fortunately, all of us, with or without a floristic name, belong to an ecological heritage we can protect. This can be everyone’s legacy. 

But I understand the power and cultural influence of a namesake or a family narrative. For some, it can summon perseverance when hurdles seem insurmountable. Sometimes a simple last name or the mythical origin of an ancestor can offer a stronger sense of direction. It can feed an imagined belief that you are guided towards the right choices. I’ve found this angst and search for guidance re-emerging in my friends; especially as their senses of self were shaken by the pandemic.

Nearly 40, with solid self-knowledge, I recently discovered my family does bear a nature-based last name: Abella. This article celebrates the Iberian etymology of my grandma’s family name. “Abella” was historically related to a nickname for a busy bee (a buzzing, active person) or a beekeeper. It’s a charming extension of my well-established love of ecology.

So, onto our Bee-utiful environmental heritage and my design chat: Pollinators in Pollinator Gardens. 
5 of the 9 species of honeybees in the world are native to Philippines. At least 7 species of stingless bee species are found in the Philippines.

Globally and especially in the Philippines, pollinator gardens are vital to the health of our ecosystems, economies, and our food security. Pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, and certain flies are the ecological foundation to farms, mangroves, and every type of forest in the Philippines. They enable plants to reproduce or bear seeds, nuts, berries, and fruits. Their massive impact on the health of our world is mind-boggling. Unfortunately, pollinators, like most of our vulnerable wildlife, face population destruction from agricultural chemicals, pollution, climate change, and habitat loss.

Below are design ideas to start a pollinator garden in your school, community garden, or home. Please note my design illustrations for this article emphasize the vegetation by muting the colors of the hardscaping (constructed areas and furniture).

Photo 1. Features in the Butterfly Yoga Garden.

1) Butterfly Yoga Garden. Build a shade house or sunroom that immerses you in a pollinator’s habitat (Photo 1 & 2).  The shade house is like a greenhouse with plants but usually built with green shade netting. If you’re in an area that does boil in the summer, consider building a sunroom. This building can have large windows or a clear PVC plastic sheeting roof like a traditional greenhouse. Alternatively, you can use white shade netting. Your flooring can be composted, mulched or covered with gravel. A portion of the flooring can be tiled so that you have add seating or yoga mats. This can be a peaceful place to meet friends, exercise, or meditate. The pollinator plants can be installed into the mulched or graveled flooring, raised beds, or other containers. Keep the greenhouse windows open so pollinators can visit and use your garden.

Photo 2. A closer look at the shade house or sunroom.

Some of the plants can be cannas, coreopsis, mint, or basil. Outside the shade house or sunroom, plant a pollinator-attracting fruit tree like mango, guyabano, jackfruit, or atis.

2) Pollinator Garden Party. Pollinator gardens are enriching opportunities to teach students about insect life cycles and plant-pollinator relationships. They are especially attractive to teachers, parents, and caregivers averse to “butterfly kits” or any learning tools that capture wild animals. Instead, you can build a mini-environment like an outdoor garden classroom to exhibit natural cycles.  Observation decks and educational signs are additional tools that can help you facilitate outdoor engagement with nature (Photo 3).

Photo 3. Learning tools in the Pollinator Garden Party.

Some pollinator plants you can cultivate with your class are katmon, pili, native orchids, gardenias, magnolia trees (like champaka), cinnamon tree (Cinnamomum camphora) or flowering varieties of passionfruit.

There are numerous activities you can host in a pollinator garden. Here are some sample activities:

  • Ask garden visitors and students to wear, pink or yellow at the garden. These colors attract pollinators. This can lead to a class conversation about floral color and insect vision.
  • Create an outdoor gallery sculptures or photos taken in the garden with your class to study the phases of butterfly life cycle.
  • Conduct “treasure hunts” or a “bio blitz” to help children identify and discover different pollinator plants and evidence of a pollinator’s activity (like insect bites on a leaf)

3) Citrus Home Garden. At home, you can create a garden that attracts beautiful native butterflies and stingless bees. Start building a collection of potted dwarf citrus trees or venture into a back yard citrus orchard (Photo 4). Pollinators love the blossoms of lemon, lime, kumquat, pomelo, mandarin, and limonsito (calamansi) trees. You’ll have a delicious harvest. And you’ll create a needed haven for our diverse pollinator friends.

Photo 4. Citrus Home Garden concept.
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