Lovely, Leafy Lagoons

By Michelle Domocol

Back to Inflourish: Cebu Blog

Lush lagoons are a wonderful site to relax. Sitting beside a pond or dipping your feet into a leafy lake has a restorative power for some. After an agitating day, watching water flow can slow down rattling thoughts and help you escape. You can lengthen you inhale and just concentrate on the wind pass through the waterside palms.

With some sturdy construction and consistent maintainance, a flourishing pond can provide an ample amount of respite. Sound appealing? Well here are some basic elements you can consider as you brainstorm your oasis.

  • Lagoon location. Choose a spot that has partial or full shade. This inhibits annoying green algal and mosquito growth and keeps your pond healthy.

In Healing Present, our main pool is shaded by tall palms, bamboo, vines, ferns, and a variety of low growing vegetation (Photo 1). The shade also keeps the water cool and refreshing during the dry, hot seasons. Healing Present also added fun fountains and mini-waterfalls to increase water circulation (Photo 1, C). That means less stagnant water eliminates mosquito infestations.

Photo 1. Healing Present’s lagoon: The partial shade, vegetation, & mini-waterfalls create optimal conditions for a healthy lagoon.
  • Details & Depth. The depth of your pond is up to you. It really depends on the intended function of your pond. Will it be decorative and part of a beautiful vista? Do you intend to swim in it? Would you look like to keep fish in the pond? Or would you like a mini local water habitat for your respite as well as for local fauna?

Research the appropriate depths for your pond’s intended purpose. Or consult a landscape professional for suggested pond depths.

Photo 2. Stone & concrete ledges in Healing Present Lagoon

In Healing Present, the lagoon is used for respite, swimming, and a local habitat (Photo 2). We also added sitting areas, lush vegetation, and stairs to achieve these functions. So we decided to build graded ledges around and inside the lagoon (Photo 2).

The deepest part of the lagoon is 1.2m (4 feet). This depth safely accomodates our youth and adult swimmers (Photo 2, B). Ledges within the pool provide built-in seating and steps (Photo 2, A) for swimmers. Terracing or graded areas around the pool make plant and water maintenance accessible and easy.

  • Leafy & Lush. For me, plant planning is best phase of a waterside project. When we add the right plants, a boring cement pool or fancy puddle comes alive. In the Philippines, a variety of:
    • water-loving lilies,
    • irises,
    • water reeds,
    • moisture-tolerant palms,
    • flowering gingers, and
    • colorful crotons

are commonly available.

Luckily, the tropics gift us with an impressive range of water-loving plants. Remember, with planning, your can choose plants that help you achieve your water garden’s intended purpose.

Perhaps you want specific floating plants for your fish’s food and protection. Or maybe you want low-maintenance, fast growing plants that grow all year-round so you can easily and shade your swimming spot. Or you may want native, moisture-tolerant palms and grasses that songbirds will like.

  • Illuminated evenings. Consider adding lights to your lovely water feature. Solar-powered LEDs or halogen lights extend the use of your pond into the night. With recessed lights or spotlights, you can enjoy the pond without tripping or accidently falling in.

Visitors can sit waterside or swim under the stars. You can add recessed lighting to garden steps or decks around the pond. Or you can add underwater lighting on the lagoon floor or in the pond walls. Alternatively, spotlights can also amongst the vegetation bordering the pond.

  • In-ground or Above ground. Many who’d dream of grand, flowing water feature get turned off by the construction process and investment. One way to install a pond or lagoon without digging holes is an above ground option. There are a variety of materials and designs for an above ground water feature.

You can create a beautiful no-dig, container pond. Your raised pond’s exterior can be gorgeous limestone bricks, stained concrete, treated timber, bamboo, or other weather-resistant local materials. Some even use re-usable exteriors like wine barrels and bathtubs. Photo 2 shows Healing Present’s above ground pond with a gray flagstone exterior.

Photo 2. Healing Present’s above ground pond; the fountain bubbler and aquatic plants increased water aeration.

Whatever decorative exterior you choose, make sure your pondliner is sealed and water-tight. Small pumps, fountains or pond bubbles also help the water aerated. This reduces unwanted mosquito and algae growth. A combination of shade, pumps, filters, and/or added vegetation keep you pond (Photo 2) easy to clean and maintain.

In many cases, above ground options are easier to construct and require less time. Plus smaller, preformed ponds or other types of container ponds can be dismantled or transferred easily. So if you’re planning to move in the future, you can transport the pond with you.

Thanks for browsing these 5 considerations. If you need more inspiration, here are more examples on waterside planting and garden stair lighting.

Atis: The Ice Cream growing on Trees

By Michelle Domocol

Back to Inflourish: Cebu

This September, atis is available at most fruit markets around the Philippines. I know most people associate atis with its custardy consistency. But I like to freeze fresh atis. Scooping out the smooth, creamy sweetness of frozen atis is second to none.

As farmers harvest ripe atis fruits, the trees continue to sprout new shoots. New atis leaves unfurl. Young fruits ripen till the next harvest (Photo 1). Under the best conditions, atis carry on  producing fruits from July to late November. Since September is part of the dry season, farmers continue to water and fertilize these precious ice cream trees.

Photo 1. Atis fruit maturing in the Healing Present agroforest. (Photo by S. Suson)

In celebration of Atis, I’ll share some cultivation tips (Photo 2):

  • Atis seedlings thrive in open, sunny spots with well-draining environments like limestone-based soils. Choose an areas with any obstructions like nearby buildings or powerlines (Photo 2). If an atis tree’s roots are crowded, obstructed, or rotting in wet soils, you will not produce healthy fruits. So be sure to give atis trees ample space and well-draining soil.
Photo 2. Main cultivation techniques for Atis tree
  • Make sure to weed around your atis trees. Ideally, 3 feet around the atis trunk should be weed-free (Photo 2).. Weeds include crab grass and common herbaceous growth around trees.
  • Atis don’t like competition from small weeds or other trees. Give at least 15 feet between atis and it’s neighboring trees (Photo 2). Many agroforests grow atis with mango trees and vegetable gardens. If you choose this mixed-crop planting technique, be sure to provide adequate spacing.
  • A 4-inch layer of vermicompost can be added around the base of the atis trunk (Photo 2). You can spread the layer 5 inches away from the trunk.
  • Atis trees are also periodically pruned to 8-12 foot high. If the grow taller, they may not get adequate air ventelation and sunlight throughout their branches (Photo 2).
  • Atis fruits are considered ripe when the segments on their greenish skin turn creamy-yellow. If they ripen on the tree, local birds and bats feast on the delicious fruit (Photo 3).  Sometimes, overmature fruits burst while attached to the branch.
Photo 3. Damaged, overmature atis may have burst or been partially eaten by a bat
(Photo by S. Suson)

Thanks for reading about my appreciation for Nature’s ice cream trees. Enjoy the rest of your week. And I hope you get to sweeten your weekend with some fresh atis.

Tropical, Tactile Gardens for Children

By Michelle Domocol
Back to Inflourish Cebu

In previous posts, I’ve introduced ways to initiate a children’s garden. Whether you’re a teacher, caregiver, or designer, you can find numerous ways promote plant appreciation in young gardeners. Trust me, it’s all worth the effort. There’s nothing like seeing younger gardeners cultivate their curiosity for the Earth.

The trick is engaging children’s sensory powers. We can build:

And what’s left? What other senses can we amplify with a magical garden? How about our human tactile powers…our sense of Touch?

Luckily, we live in the tropics. In our tropical humidity, we can grow a spectacular range of plants with prickly, feathery, furry, sticky and other peculiar textures.

For this initial introduction into plant textures, I’ll share a garden path design with smooth exteriors. This garden walkway is designed with touchable, tropical plants.

After the garden is built, you and your young investigators can learn how these smooth, durable plants get nutrients. This garden design features shiny, smooth Bromeliads, Succulents, and Philodendrons (Photo 1). They all possess specific ways of storing water and collecting nutrients. Luckily, these plants aren’t fragile and can withstand the tactile pressure of curious explorers.

Photo 1. Garden paths (Right) and planted stairways (Left) with tactile tropical plants can be fun outdoor learning spaces

Here’s a sample activity to help you how you and younger generation explore tropical plant textures. Remember you can adjust this activity to suit your specific budget, timeline, students’ learning preferences, and resources. You can always start with a small garden and then expand later when more resources are available.

Puzzling Paths with Tropical Touchables (Photo 1)

  • Choose a humid, sunny spot in your garden with space for a walkway. You can also adapt this project for stairs as well. The garden site can be in your home, at school, or in a community space. This will be the site of your tactile garden, the Puzzling Path with Tropical Touchables.
  • Tell your students about your special Puzzling Path project.
  • With your students or children, introduce each other to plant textures with selection of bromeliads, philodendrons, and succulents. You can explore outside in a park, at a plant nursery, or do a group internet search. You can gauge their level of involvement. For instance, 2nd graders may want to lead the plant research and design process.
  • If possible, let them choose bromeliads, philodendrons and succulents that are commonly available. Allow them to choose varieties that spark enthusiasm. Maybe they are attracted to the plants with the brightest colors, coolest shapes, and/or the plumpest appearance.
  • When you are planning your path, make sure you have gaps around each stepping stone. The gaps will be planting space for the small succulents. You can have additional planting space by adding a row of planting space on both sides of the stone walkway. See illustration below for a sample design (Photo 2).
Photo 2. (Left to Right): An illustrated closeup of a Puzzling Path; My suggested layout for the Puzzling Path design.
  • The path should be wide enough for you and the children. I suggest you make the path wide enough for at least 2 children to pass through comfortably (Photo 2). You and the children can also determine the space between each stepping stone. Mark the path outline with flags or strings. You and your youthful garden crew can customize the design.
  • Once you’ve determined the dimensions and layout of your walkway, choose a set of stepping stones. You can go to a rockery or hardware store to choose limestone, plastic, concrete, brick or other low-cost flat stones (Photo 3). I recommend choosing stepping stones with a 3-inch thickness. You can add a few medium boulders on the outer border, next to your bromeliads. This adds more textures and height (Photo 3).
  • With the help of a professional construction crew or landscaping professionals, dig out a flat path that is 5 inches deep. You will excavate the existing terrain to install the paving stones and plants. Make sure the construction crew uses layers of landscape fabric or plastic to suppress weeds. They should also add a layer of sand and soil to ensure the stepping stones are level and sitting at the same height.
  • Go to a plant nursery or farm and pick young, small plants to fill the space around your stepping stones. Choose locally available bromeliads, succulents and low-maintenance philodendrons. These young plants will grow bigger after you’ve inserted them into your garden path design (Photo 3). As they grow, the will fill in the gaps in your garden path.
  • Here’s a sample plant list for your puzzling path (Photo 3):
    • Bromeliads like Neoregelia spp.
    • Jade plant groundcovers from Crassula spp.
    • Small, clumping Echeveria spp.
    • Philodendron cordatum
    • Aloe vera
Photo 3. In my illustration, I feature jade plants and echeverias around limestone stepping stones. Purslane and hardy sedum succulents are also included.
  • Now for the botanical magic. You and the children can now plant and insert the succulents in between the stepping stones. The planting space beside the walkway is reserved for the larger bromeliads, philodendrons and succulents.
  • Make sure all your plants’ roots are covered by soil. Supervise your beginner gardeners to make sure each plant is not damaged while planting. Water the plants after the intial planting. Monitor the plants weekly. If you or your young explorers notice dry soil, water your Puzzling Path. In general, these tropical touchables are hardy and don’t need frequent watering.

I hope you enjoyed my ideas for engaging sensory gardens. I look forward to sharing more outdoor learning inspiration. Happy exploring!

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Terrific AgroforesTrees

By Michelle Domocol

Inflourish: Cebu Blog

In previous articles, I described the environmental recovery and reforestation techniques practiced at Healing Present. In this post, I’d like to continue our chat about agroforestry and forest restoration.

We select a variety of indigenous trees that will survive the current conditions of Healing Present’s site. We also choose them for the ecological benefits. Generally, all of the species chosen for reforestation enrich the land by:

  • increasing soil fertility,
  • supporting native wildlife,
  • feeding food pollinators like bees and butterflies, and
  • controling soil erosion
Photo 1. Healing Present crew grow, plant, and monitor the health of the native agroforest trees.

Healing Present’s crew cultivates hundreds of tree species (Photo 1). Many of these species are already established or waiting to be planted. The current rainy season and typhoon repairs delay our progress sometimes. But I want to highlight 5 indigenous trees and the important roles they play in our restoration:

1. Toog (Petersianthus quadrialatus)

When respected and left alone, this towering giant can grow to 65 meters. As part of an agroforest and restoration site, Toog has the ability to repel pests like destructive woodboring beetles. Toog are homes to important wildlife and mitigate the loss of tropical forest biodiversity.

2. Dakit (Ficus benjamina)

On a sunny day, you’d want rest against a Dakit’s trunk and under its canopy. On average, its leaves and branches spread to a 21-meter crown. The canopy provides the best shade for people, shade-loving plants, and animals. Thankfully, the shade also suppresses sun-loving weeds. On top of that, Dakit attracts vital seed-spreading wildlife like birds and bats. It can endure degraded soil and quickly occupy abandoned areas that need reforestation.

3. Kapok (Bombax ceiba)

Traditionally, Kapok’s seeds and pink blossoms were used for food and medicine. In Healing Present, kapok is primarily planted for its ecological functions. Like Dakit, it can quickly occupy barren woodland. Its fragrant flowers also attract key pollinators like bees and birds. In addition, a 25-meter tall Kapok tree can serve as a boundary marker. A group of Kapok can also form a living fence.

4. Banaba (Lagerstroemia speciosa)

Banaba (Photo 1) is more than the gorgeous purple flowers. Agroforesters treasure banabas and their ability repair unstable soils, control erosion, and add nutrients to formerly degraded forests. Beyond those incredible qualities, banaba can be pruned. The pruned leaves, fruit, and branches can be food for livestock and medicine.

5. Kamagong (Diospyrus blancoi)

Finally, we arrived at the beloved Kamagong. With its reddish, velvety mabolo fruit, Kamagong has so much more to offer than furniture timber. Kamagong in restoration projects are amazing partners in soil erosion control and wind-resistance. Wind-breaks and wind-resistant trees are like environmental guardians in a country so vulnerable to typhoons.

There you have it…5 rockstars in Healing Present’s growing reforestation project. I hope you get inspired to learn more about our precious environmental heritage and the various ways to protect it.

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Summer Sweetness

By Michelle Domocol

Back to Inflourish: Cebu Blog

I went to elementary and highschool on the east coast of the US. But almost every summer was spent in the Philippines. Summers meant trips around Cebu, Negros Oriental, Bohol, and Mindanao. I treasure those summers meeting extended family and making new friends.

Summers also meant FOOD—specifically feasting on fruit I never ate in the US. Those vacations imprinted enduring, flavorful memories.

I still remember the sheer volume and variety of saging and mangga piled in the back of my grandpa’s pick-up truck. And the pink plastic bags of santol hanging off my uncle’s motorbike’s handlebars. Of course, I still recall the food preparation for beach outings. Truly epic. We would fill the back of multiple cars with bukags of mangosteen, rambutan and lansones. Even though we had a caravan of cooked meals and fresh fruit, we stopped at streetside fruit stands on the way to the beach. How could we resist the golden yellows, deep purples, dark reds, bright oranges of ripe summer fruits (Photo 1)?

Summers feasts introduced me to new tastes, textures, and distinct methods of opening fruit. Most american kids never needed a precise or unique way to open common grapes, apples, and pears. So it was marvelous to watch vendors remove pineapple eyes and decoratively cut mango cheeks with such finesse. Or it was wonderous to learn how my cousins ate mangosteen, marang, and santol. I recall Lola sharing her special technique for opening pomelo. She didn’t pierce the bitter skin with a knife. Instead, she used her hands to open the pomelo. This way, the skin’s bitter juice wouldn’t escape and ruin the sweetness inside.

I hope you too have precious and remarkable memories of fruits and summer fun.

In celebration of fruity sweetness, I’d like to share how summer mangosteen is grown. Depending on your location in the Philippines, mangosteen fruits may already be available this month. I hope you feel inspired to to grow your own backyard fruits. Or maybe you’re urged to interview local farmers about their fruit cultivation techniques. Either way, below are some fun techniques for mangosteen cultivation.

Marvelous Mangosteen

Photo 1. Summer fruits like (clockwise from top) mangosteen, durian, santol, marang, and mangga.

When I was younger, most of the mangosteen sold in Cebu came from Mindanao. Through the years, I learned farmers in Luzon and Negros Oriental also cultivate mangosteen. Here are a few mangosteen techniques:

  • Soil health is vital for a successful mangosteen harvest. They thrive in soil that is regularly watered. However, the soil should drain well so many amend it with sand or silt. Otherwise, mangosteen roots suffer in from standing water or waterlogged soil. A layer of mulch is also added above the topsoil. Many farmers add a layer of compost, rice hulls, and/or coco coir as a mulch. As a fertilizer, compost is mixed with the tree’s topsoil to improve the texture and nutrition.
  • Since mangosteen takes up to 15 years to produce fruit, many farmers add fast-growing crops in between the mangosteen trees. Mangosteens can be grown with fast-growing beans, peanuts, and other legumes.
Photo 2. Diagram with young mangosteens grown in fruit tree agroforest.
  • Other fruit farmers may want to build an agroforest with multiple types of fruit trees (Photo 2). So they may add young mangosteen trees to an orchard with mature trees like banana, durian, marang, papaya and/or lanzones. The taller, older trees can provide partial shade and protect young mangosteen from damaging winds. The variety of fruits ensures farmers can profit from fast-growing fruits while they wait for slower-growing fruits like mangosteen. For instance, in 7 months, papaya starts to bear fruit. And you wait for less than 2 years (around 22 months) to produce bananas.