Flor's garden of life in the wilds of Antipolo

PASSAGE - Ed Maranan () - June 4, 2012 - 12:00am

I cannot imagine a better way of spending Saturday than visiting Flor’s Garden in a hidden corner of what remains of Antipolo’s verdant highlands. Months ago, after having reestablished contact by e-mail (I had wanted to offer my condolences on the passing of her mother, and I’d also wanted to inquire about her fantastic website I had stumbled upon), my former UP classmate Florencia Gozon Tarriela invited me to visit her organic farm and forest sanctuary in Antipolo.

She suggested a Saturday in May, when Dr. Jaime Galvez Tan — former UP student activist, Health Secretary, and well-known advocate of alternative and indigenous medicine — was going to give a one-day orientation and lecture on the secret to “living healthy, feeling happy, and looking young,” mainly through the wonders of healing concoctions and medicinal plants that promote wellness. That come-on was simply irresistible to any senior citizen troubled by a host of ailments and rising medical bills.

So a couple of weeks ago, my sister and I drove up to what I remembered used to be a wilderness of mountains and valleys. From the Batasan hills, we traveled down to Marikina and on to Sumulong Highway, past Masinag and Cogeo, then towards Boso-Boso. The narrow trail that used to lead to the undeveloped highlands of Rizal province has become a wide highway, and some old junctions are now bustling commercial places. Parts of the highway were undergoing repairs and concreting, with signs proclaiming that the citizens’ taxes were being put to good use. The ongoing road works is the project of Antipolo’s incumbent Congressman, former police general Romeo Acop, my fellow graduate of St. Louis High School in Baguio, Class of ’63. This Cordilleran must be feeling so much at home now in the cool mountains of Antipolo.

We almost missed the small sign showing the way to Flor’s Garden. We turned right from the highway to a barrio road that was crying out for at least a coating of asphalt. The trail was rutty, rocky and muddy all the way to our destination. But come to think of it, the road to Flor’s Garden seemed to complement the rural, rather bucolic setting of the lush expanse of trees, undergrowth and bamboo. The green gate opened to welcome us in. There had been traffic due to the road works and we were an hour late. When we arrived, a big group of gardening and wellness enthusiasts were already gathered in the Hardin ng Buhay, the “garden of life” planted to several kinds of medicinal and culinary herbs, edible flowers and other plants unfamiliar to most of us urbanites. It was Flor’s coordinator Fely Sadio who was giving a lecture to the crowd, leading them around the pathway between clumps of talinum, takip-kuhol, stevia (sweet as sugar and better than chemical substitutes), kadok, wansoy, blue ternate, sage, pandan, beds of cosmos flowers and “edible weeds,” after which Dr. Jaime Galvez Tan took over. For much of the morning session and during the whole afternoon, Jimmy would take the group on a fascinating journey into the world of indigenous fruits, vegetables and plants with medicinal properties, and generally “how to stay healthy and prevent sickness” by using time-tested, traditional healing practices that cost next to nothing, compared with standard prescription drugs and medical procedures.

The last time I saw Jimmy was about 20 years ago, when he was still an official of Unicef-Philippines and I headed a field research project for the agency. For some time now, I have been tuned in every morning to his daily radio program on DWWW from 7:30 to 8:30, Doctor’s Orders, on which he dispenses medical advice — together with a specialist doctor — on just about any kind of ailment or disease. Trained in conventional western medicine, Jimmy is also one of the country’s foremost authorities on alternative or traditional healing (including herbal preparations, acupuncture, and Ayurvedic medicine).

One of his trademark “free prescriptions” is now a mantra for the thousands who have listened to his radio talks and his live lectures. Have your daily dose of KKMSS and live longer. The letters stand for kangkong, kamote, malunggay, sili and saluyot. Other recommended potent and natural medicines include yellow ginger, green tea and sesame seeds. If laughter is supposedly the best medicine, Jimmy brings on gales of it through his humorous anecdotes and witticisms. One way of avoiding stress, he said, was to avoid watching Filipino telenovelas (sampalan, murahan, patayan) and the news on TV. And just as important as natural remedies is his code for living summed up in SELF — eight hours of Sleep, regular Exercise, Love and be loved, Forgive and be forgiven. (That set off an alarm in my mind — I can only manage one of the four.)

Before lunch, an elderly lady in a red dress took over the microphone, and gave an absorbing lecture on gardening, particularly on the proper methods of planting and propagation. Remy Enriquez Fabia is a public school teacher and former PNB officer who loves plants and gardening, and in fact has lectured on fruit trees at the Makati Garden Club where she and Flor are members. She helped Flor grow the pomelo trees at the Antipolo farm, using vermicompost to fertilize them, which made the trees very fruitful. She comes to the garden whenever Flor has guests, to give a demonstration on how to plant. On that Saturday, she gave us a quick tour of the sprawling farm, explaining the process of producing vermicompost — the leavings of worms which feed on banana trunks, vegetable scraps, coir dust, and other biodegradables — and other sound organic practices.

Apart from the wealth of knowledge gained in one day, we also had our fill of nutritious food. For morning snacks we had camote fritters and pandan juice. Lunch started off with a salad of lettuce, flowers (blue ternate, cadena de amor, katuray, and cosmos) and fruits (duhat and aratiles) with yogurt dressing, while the main course consisted of blue rice (‘azuriced’, to coin a word, with blue ternate flowers), vegetarian spring rolls, tofu, fried maya-maya, rellenong bangus, fruit juices, topped by a dessert of ssorted tropical fruits in coconut milk, finishing with strong native coffee. For afternoon merienda, we helped ourselves to ginataang camote at gabi and deep-fried kadok leaves dipped in yoghurt (resembles, and tastes like, crispy spinach).

Many years ago, Flor inherited these five hectares of forest and farmland from her parents, with her other siblings also getting their own share of the sprawling property. (Right beside her farm is her sister Kay’s Carolina Bamboo Garden, which is famous for its bamboo house and for the native as well as foreign species of bamboo that abound.) Flor goes up to the garden-farm as often as possible, but it has to be weekends most of the time now because of her day job. A few days ago, she was reelected Chairman of the Philippine National Bank. Before joining PNB, she was with Citibank for 28 years, and became the first Filipina vice-president of this multinational bank. She has two former bankers helping her out in running the garden, which hosts weekend seminars, family outings and other events (like having more than 300 Miriam College pupils recently running about the place, learning about nature). Mercy Gamboa, formerly with Citibank as VP, ABN AMRO and PNB, lived at the garden for seven months under all weather conditions, and designed the Kiddie Garden and the Kiddie Farm. Then there’s Gil Castro (VP at Deustche and Citibank) who assists her in operations and acts as chef for all occasions. Running the farm on a daily basis are Fely Sadio and staff assistants Emma and Girlie. The Garden also employs some people who live around the area (members of the Prayer Mountain community for instance), and sometimes Flor and her people tap the services of students from nearby Care Philippines to act as tour guides.

Oh, and Flor’s Garden is not only for gardening and farming enthusiasts. It is also a mountain resort with comfortable accommodations and a swimming pool (think serenity rather than infinity) that overlooks the crowns of trees and bamboo tops stretching out as far as the eye can see from the garden’s heights. (I had thoughts of proposing the place as a venue for a writers’ workshop next summer.)

With my lifelong interest in farming and fascination for nature, that Saturday was quite an experience for me. Together with the other people who took the trouble of searching for Flor’s Garden tucked away in the Antipolo wilds, I learned a lot about edible flowers, herbs and weeds, organic farming, health diets and general wellness. I also brought home two books, Dr. Jaime Galvez Tan’s Medicinal Fruits & Vegetables, co-authored with his wife Rebecca, and Flor Gozon Tarriela’s The Secret is in the Soil: a beginner’s guide to natural gardening, co-authored with Gidget Roceles Jimenez, illustrated and designed by Liza Flores.

* * *

For information, news, and photos, here’s the website: www.florsgarden.com.

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