Many Filipinos have become plant aficionados during the quarantine, but lifestyle blogger Marjorie Pineda-Uy, or “Marj” to her friends, started urban farming way back before it became the big thing that it is today.
“Sometime in 2011, I was invited to visit Costales Nature Farms in Majayjay, Laguna. Out of curiosity, I accepted the invitation without any expectations, except to experience a ‘buhay probinsya’ kind of weekend,” Marj recalled.
The trip eventually turned out to be an educational experience for her, even playing a huge part in her lifestyle change.
“Back then, I was a picky eater. For some reason, I found fruits and vegetables weird in texture and flavor. The farm immersion had a great impact in my lifestyle change, most especially after having a major abdominal surgery in 2014,” she shared.
“It was eye-opening when I learned how some farms use pesticides and chemicals in their crops. No wonder why we have significant cases of cancer and lifestyle diseases. That’s when my husband and I decided to buy organic produce as much as possible,” she continued.
The shift to organic was not easy for Marj and her husband with the expensive prices of organic produce and its availability being limited to few supermarkets and weekend markets. This is when Marj decided to grow their own food.
“In 2016, I started with herbs like basil, tarragon, mint, and rosemary. Back then, I still had limited knowledge in growing herbs, so they all died. I stopped for a while, but we would still buy organic vegetables whenever we find them in the supermarket. From time to time, I would buy seedling plants in a garden shop near us,” she said.
In that time, Marj got to take part in the exploratory tours organized for bloggers and media partners by the Agricultural Training Institute (ATI) in selected partner farms in the country to promote organic agriculture. This deepened her interest in organic farming and taught her about the basics of square-foot and container gardening.
“It gave me an idea on how to start my own vegetable garden at home. In July 2019, I bought more seeds and pots, and ordered loam soil. I also tried to plant seeds on the garden soil, but they all died. So I did my research, watched videos on how to care for a specific plant,” Marj recounted.
In the small space that they have at home, Marj re-used empty water bottles collected from the neighbors and recycled milk cartons and ice cream containers as pots. She also makes her own compost in a small container.
Now, she has about 20 different plants at home such as eggplant, pechay, mustasa, bush sitao, chili, siling makopa, kale, lettuce, kangkong, calamansi, and talinum. She also has a wide array of herbs including oregano, basil, lemongrass, blue ternate, mint, and pansit-pansitan.
“[My favorites are] eggplant, mustasa, oregano, talinum, and lemongrass. They are easy to grow and versatile. You can easily whip up a healthy dish with these veggies,” she said.
“I am also trying to grow atsuete (annatto) from atsuete seeds, as well as lemon. I find it hard to grow arugula, tomatoes, and celery but I don’t give up. I keep on trying,” she added.
Marj considers her garden her own space for learning and discovering things about farming. Her research and experiments have indeed enriched her knowledge about plants.
“Plants need adequate sunlight and water. I thought watering them more often will make them grow faster. I was wrong! Plants need balance—enough water, sunlight, not too crowded [space]. If you want organic fruits and vegetables, avoid using any [harmful] chemicals and pesticides in your crops,” she explained.
To enhance the growth of the plants, Marj uses vermicast, fermented fruit juice, and water that had been used to wash rice and vegetables. She also makes compost from kitchen scraps and adds it to regular soil as source of nourishment. She, likewise, practices and recommends companion planting or planting different crops in proximity of each other for pest control, pollination, and as a way to maximize the land.
These are only some of the things that she learned from her trips to the organic farms supported by the ATI. Another important thing that plants need according to Marj? Time, which has been a challenge for her to manage as she works as a freelancer/blogger, financial advisor, and housewife.
However, for Marj, the benefits of having a backyard farm far outweigh this problem. When the pandemic started and there was a scarce supply of vegetables, Marj said that they had enough for the two of them at home and was even able to share some of her harvests to her family and neighbors. Urban gardening has also helped her cope with the stress brought about by the ongoing health crisis.
“I’m happy every time I see my plants. It became an interesting topic among friends. Sometimes I would receive messages asking for help and tips on how to grow vegetables,” she mused.
As a blogger, Marj sees the power in using her platform to influence more people to start urban farming. In fact, she regularly posts photos and videos of her garden and how she makes use of available resources to grow food without spending a lot.
“You don’t lead people by what you say to them, you lead them by what they see you do. People love to see videos and photos of my harvest and they would message me on how I do things, then it becomes an opportunity to introduce urban gardening. You give insights, tips, and techniques so that they will be inspired,” she stressed.
Now, her sister, aunt, and cousins have started growing vegetables like okra, pechay, and eggplant. She also shared seeds and cuttings from her own garden to her friends who are also now into urban gardening.
“I've been traveling around the country visiting organic farms, but I never felt happiness until I started growing and harvesting my own food. With the pandemic, urban gardening is the way to a healthier environment and a more food-secure future,” Marj said.
Follow Marj in her journey as an urban farmer through her blog (www.livingmarjorney.com) and on Instagram (@livingmarjorney).