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.

Related Articles about Children’s Gardens

“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.
Related Articles about Pollinators & School Gardens:

Can’t Contain my Joy

By Michelle Domocol

Inflourish: Cebu Blog

I can never contain my joy for a radiant and flourishing container garden. Container gardens are one of the foundational landscaping techniques used in Healing Present. Container gardening is the technique behind our beautiful azotea greenery, sunken gardens (Photo 1), vertical walls and gate plantings (Photo 3 & 4).

Photo 1. Container gardens in our sunken garden (top) and azotea areas (bottom).

In previous articles, we’ve focused on container gardens like raised beds. We’d like to share inspiration and more possibilities you can apply with container gardening techniques.

Below is a potted sanseveria plant Ariel (one of the gifted farm staff) prepared. In this particular project, he adorned the pot with dried fern fronds from the farm. Staghorn ferns are common epiphytes that self-propagate around the farm and forest. Dried jackfruit, taro, and breadfruit leaves are also wonderful options we have at Healing Present. When their leaves drop and naturally dry, they become gorgeous material to decorate furnishings and garden pots.

Photo 2. Ariel planting a sanseveria in a plastic pot decorated with dried fern fronds.

Here are seven lessons Ariel and the rest of Healing Present crew learned from our container planting adventures:

1) Suitable Soil Level. Make sure your container is large enough to provide room for soils and roots. Make sure the soil is at least 1 inch from the top of the container. Don’t fill a container all the way to the top of the container.

2) Well-Drained Soil. Does you container have drainage holes at the bottom? When you water your containerized plants, you want excess water to drain out of the soil. If not, the plant roots can rot from too much stagnant moisture.

3) Strong Containers. At Healing Present, the containers chosen for the garden are planned. They are suited to the environmental conditions and style we want. We use a range of containers, but we ensure they are strong. For us, durable containers can withstand our site’s level of rain, wind, humidity, pests and other factors that can degrade or break down a container. What are the specific site conditions in your backyard or balcony that may affect the durability of an outdoor container?

If you have a sheltered patio garden with little wind, maybe your containers can be ceramic pots & gorgeous glass terrariums. At Healing Present, we’ve used coconut shells in our gate gardens (Photo 3). And we’ve reused thick plastic water bottles for our wall gardens (Photo 4). In other parts of the farm, we’ve used terra cotta, stone, and plastic composite.

Photo 3. Vertical pots adorn our farm gates. Containers are coconut husks and decorated plastic pots in various sizes and shapes.
Photo 4. In our vertical gardens, we used thick plastic Evian bottles and green netting to hold soil and roots.

4) Stylish designs. To achieve a certain style, sometimes we use plastic pots and then insert them in a larger decorative reed or fiberglass container. Sometimes, we embellish an ordinary pot with dried leaves or other natural materials from the farm (Photo 5). Since we have weather that ranges from high humidity, torrential rain, and blasting dry heat, we don’t choose heat-conducting aluminum or brass containers. Over the years, we also learned hungry termites occupy our site. So we don’t use containers made of untreated wood.

Photo 5. A common black plastic pot is decorated with a reed shell to match the decor.

5) De-stress Roots & Repot. Repotting means transferring your containerized plant into a larger container with new fertilized soil. Not all of our container gardens are repotted. We only do this when we notice roots are expanding outside the container. Or sometimes the roots are wrapping around the inside of the pot. Sometimes we repot when the plant’s soil is drying out faster than usual. We also try to repot when the container is no longer half the height of the container.

For instance, one time we neglected a ginger plant that grew 3 times taller than the height of the pot! It was hidden with a group of other container plants, so we didn’t notice it at first. The roots were stressed and needed more room to expand. Instead, the roots were cracking the sides of the terra cotta pot. So it really needed a larger pot and new soil to thrive. Make sure your new pot is at least 2 inches larger in diameter than the current pot. It should also be at least half the height of the current plant.

6) Organically fertilize. With our container plants, we use a soil mix that is mostly made of vermicast. This is a great fertilizer and helps nourish the new roots before and after repotting.

7) Weed Control. Monitor your container plants on a daily or weekly basis. For many, this is a meditative and relaxing exercise. Observe your plants’ growth. If you notice any weeds in your potted plant, pull them out. Don’t let them mature and grow large roots. Get them when they’re young. Weeds can steal water, sun, and nutrients from the plant you want to cultivate. If you have a larger container with a lot of exposed soil, you can add a groundcover plant to suppress any weed growth (Photo 6).

Photo 6. Low growing groudcovers & trailing vines are planted to suppress weeds and create visual interest.

In an upcoming article, I’ll share techniques for creating new container gardens through a technique plant division. See you then.

If you need ideas for plant combinations for your container garden, check out these articles from last month:

March: Food x Flower Gardens

By Michelle Domocol

Back to Inflourish: Cebu Blog

In Cebu, March is a great time to start or expand your Food x Flower gardens. These seeds or young plants can be arranged in containers or beautiful borders around a walkway. Photo 1 (top) shows a welcoming border garden in Healing Present. In March, you can start planting gotu kola, heliconia, basil varieties, and celosia. Photo 1 (bottom) shows what these colorful additions look like when they bloom and mature.

Photo 1. (top) Healing Present’s border garden; (bottom Right to Left) Gotu Kola, Heliconia, Basil Varieties, Celosia

When we held workshops and retreats in Healing Present, we had many visitors, supporters and retreat participants from Bohol. To celebrate their Healing Present advocacy, I want to feature some vegetables and groundcovers you can plant in Bohol. Some of these featured vegetables are

  • eggplant,
  • ampalaya,
  • lettuce,
  • tomato,
  • bok choy,
  • mani-mani (peanut grass groundcover)

Below is a garden design that includes the featured vegetables. Photo 2 shows a planting map with raised beds. Each raised bed has vegetables, flowers, or groundcovers that are grouped by their similar nutrient needs. For instance, eggplants and tomatoes absorb lots of nitrogen and similar micronutrients from the soil so they are placed in the same raised bed. These groups in Photo 2 are designed for crop rotation.

Photo 2. Planting Map and Crop Rotation Diagram of Raised Beds with featured vegetables

The arrows in Photo 2 show each group will be planted in a new raised bed each season.  This diagram shows how  planting design changes from one season to the next. So in Season 1 Tomatoes and Eggplants are grown in the Top Left raised bed.  The next growing season they are planted in the Top Right raised bed.

Crop rotation is a method to ensure your soil provides the nutrients your vegetables need to grow well. When gardeners and farmers plant the same vegetables in the same place every season, the soil loses its minerals and nutrients. They have been absorbed by plants that were previously planted and harvested.  Instead of depleting the soil quality, you can rotate crops.  After you harvest your vegetables in one area, the soil can sustain a second group of plants with its a different unique set of nutrient needs.

But how do we know what plants have similar nutrient needs? This is only a brief introduction to crop rotation. More details and examples will be highlighted in upcoming articles and downloadable info sheets.

There are nuanced techniques in crop rotation.  For example, after two seasons of rotating crops, some gardeners let a raised bed or farm plot rest. They add layers of vermicompost to the resting plot.  They may also plant green manure or leguminous groundcovers like mani-mani into the resting plot. These plants do not heavily absorb nutrients. They can actually add nitrogen into the soil. 

Crop rotation one of the many  organic methods to manage soil quality.  Rotated crops can ensure tomatoes have a vital supply of calcium and manganese from their soil. As a result, we get luscious and disease-free tomatoes. Nutrient-rich soil also produces large, green leaves in bok choy and lettuce. In short, better soil quality means thriving plants and a nutritious harvest.