Uphill Garden Solutions

By Michelle Domocol

Back to Inflourish: Cebu

When you drive through Healing Present’s farm gate, you’ll immediately notice sets of stone stairways and terraced gardens (Photo 1). A lush mix of vines, fruit trees, ferns, kitchen gardens and other tropical vegetation grow on these multi-level gardens. The mosaic and terrazo stone steps lead to a payag and guest houses (Photo 2). Each house door opens to a terrace with greenery, lounges and café tables (Photo 3).

Today’s terraced garden is a far cry from its original landscape. Before the outdoor lounging areas, stairs and gardens, the area was rough, steep terrain. The hill was originally embedded with large boulders, some ferns, and weeds.

Photo 1. Multi-level terraced garden in Healing Present with series of vegetable gardens, fruit trees, ferns and stone wall edging.
Photo 2. High stone retaining walls and mosaic tile stairways in Healimg Present.

The hillside was completely transformed with retaining walls, stairs and terraces. The terrace edging and steps were constructed were stones and soil directly from the property (Photo 2 & 3). This reduced costs and the volume of raw materials transported into the farm.

Photo 3. Comfortable lounging & play areas in flat areas of Healing Present’s terraces.

In general, terraced gardening is an effective way to transform a steep, eroding hillside. With terraces, the steep angle can become an easy-to-maintain garden with multiple levels of flat spaces. Then, you don’t need to worry about falling debris, mini landslides, or tripping down a dangerous slope.

If you have a slope or hilly area you’re trying to transform, here are some encouraging reminders:

1. Retaining walls can be customizable, affordable and made of local materials. In my travels, I’ve seen creative retaining walls made from locally sourced materials like:

  • limestone,
  • recycled plastic bottle bricks,
  • concrete,
  • quartz,
  • pruned tree trunks,
  • scrap lumber,
  • adobe clay,
  • old tires, and
  • bamboo

Make sure you use durable materials that suit your site conditions. In Healing Present, we are prone to termite infestations, so we don’t use wood for our retaining walls.

2. Always consult an engineer to determine the slope of your hill. They will help you determine how much material you need to form the steps, garden beds, retaining walls and edging for your terraces.

3. Your sloped garden is unique to the characteristics of your hillside. Consider your soil type, water drainage, and hill angles.

4. You will also have to determine how much weight your terrace to hold. This will help determine your construction materials and stairway style. This will also help you identify the appropriate depth, width and height of your terraces.

5. Make sure your terraces suit you and your visitors. If you have elderly visitors or children, create stairs with railings and other safeguards. Add features that appeal to you and your visitors. When you create more flat areas and multiple levels in your terraced garden, you can plant more themed decorative gardens vegetable beds, play areas or even water features.

Below are 3 different terrace garden concepts I made for you (Photo 4 to 6). They have different features to inspire you.

Photo 4. Vibrant, edible fragrant garden beds wth multiple stairways & a central landing.
Photo 5. A limited variety of plants for a calmer, unified aesthetic with two main terrace levels connected by small set of stairs. Bottom level has seating built into terrace edging.
Photo 6. A formal, low-maintenance decorative border garden with central, open terraces.


When you find the best solution for difficult terrain like a steep slope, it’s incredibly rewarding. Make sure you take the time to plan your sloped landscape. Hasty decisions can make wasteful results like worsened soil erosion. So enjoy the uphill planning process to your hillside solutions.

June’s Easy Leafy Greens

By Michelle Domocol

Back to Inflourish:Cebu

June is a great time to plant fool-proof leafy greens like mustasa, petsay, and spinach. In Cebu, these are leafy greens are essential ingredients in delicious stir-fries, pickled side dishes, adobos, fish entrees, chicken stews, and more.

Luckily, mustasa (mustard greens), petsay (pechay) and spinach have similar growing requirements. In Healing Present, we like to plant rows of these veggies in the same area. Here are some quick reminders to help you start your own leafy green garden plot:

  • Prepare a raised bed or pot of well-draining soil. Amend your soil with vermicast, compost, or rice hulls to increase the nutrient content. Some gardeners make a special mix with all three of these amendments. Spread a layer of leafy green seeds over the soil. Then, cover the seeds with a thin layer of soil.
  • Water the seeds thoroughly. As they grow, increase the frequency of watering to 3 times a week.
  • Regularly check the garden for any hungry insect pests or invasive weeds. Be sure to remove them. For added protection, you can make a permeable, rectangular tent to protect the seeds. The tent can be made of shade netting to repel any pests. It can also shade young seedlings. As the seedlings grow, you can remove the tent to increase light exposure.
  • In Healing Present, we make the rectangular frame for the tent. All sides except the bottom of the frame are covered in green or white shade netting. The frame is simply made of dried reeds, bamboo, or wood.

Happy June gardening! Remember to stay on schedule and get your own Cebu planting calendar here.

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Growing Children’s Creativity

By Michelle Domocol

Back to Inflourish: Cebu

For families with children or teachers with young students, a garden can be an opportunity to create and celebrate fictional stories, characters and fantastical worlds. A garden can be reminiscent of a child’s favorite book characters, cartoon scenes, or computer game landscapes.

Children (with the aid of adults) can sketch gardens with plants, sculptures, and visual art inspired by their favorite fiction. Teachers can also use a themed garden design to engage students with new literature.

While planning, children’s garden ideas can reflect the character’s personality or a landscape depicted in their favorite book, movie, cartoon or video game. Here are some sample prompts to launch the child-designer’s brainstorm:

  • What adventures did your favorite character go through?
  • Does your favorite character have favorite colors or favorite foods?
  • In the video game, what are some amazing worlds you experience as a player?
  • Does your favorite cartoon character say funny things or do funny activities?
  • Do any of your favorite movie characters live on other planets or fantasy worlds that amaze you? Describe or draw them.

Based on the responses, you and the children can choose plants, sketch designs, plan murals, build mini sculptures, or paint quotes from literature or media. The plants can be ingredients to the characters’ favorite foods. The mural can replicate a scene from the character’s adventure. The flowers can be the favorite color of the computer game character. A character’s funny quotes can be painted in large letters across a garden fence or on the plank of a raised bed. If the child’s favorite story has notable architecture like a castle bridge, a treacherous maze, or magical doorway, you can integrate a small version of this feature in the garden. The possibilities are boundless.

As you brainstorm, be open to children’s creativity and expression. The more exciting the garden planning, the more they may feel connected to the resulting garden.

Growing up, I would have loved to grow a fruit garden adorned with art from Filipino folk tales. The legendary origins of makopa, piña, and manga would be great reference material. Or maybe I would have designed a mini terrarium inspired by Miss Honey’s cottage in Roald Dahl’s book, Matilda. Or maybe my classmates and I would have planted raised beds with pickling cucumbers in honor of Shel Silverstein’s poem Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too. We would have filled it with other edible plants you could pickle and flowering groundcovers that tickled.

Literary gardens are long-beloved destinations. Many botanical gardens around the world construct themed gardens inspired by historic literature like a Shakespearean play, a Dr. Seuss bestseller, or a classic like Alice in Wonderland.

I suggest you and your children (or students) plan a garden that directly connects to their contemporary literary or media interests. The contemporary stories may be a better channel to facilitate children’s creativity and engagement.

After the designs and brainstorming, the resultant garden can start out as a modest landscape. At the start, you can hang a gallery of framed artwork from your child’s planning process in the garden.

With more time, resources, and creativity, you may even build features from your children’s sketches. You may find the children increase their time playing and creating in the garden.

If children sustain their connection to the garden, you can further celebrate their passion for literature and storytelling. Maybe add tables for an outdoor art studio. Include a mini platform for stage plays. Perhaps more comfy seating can create calm reading nooks. As the children grow, the garden can continue to evolve and foster creativity for many years to come.

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“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.

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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