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Modern Living

Loren Legarda, the original plantita: Try to plant something edible or medicinal

WILL SOON FLOURISH - Wilson Lee Flores - The Philippine Star
Loren Legarda, the original plantita: Try to plant something edible or medicinal
Loren Legarda, three-term Senator and now Antique Congresswoman and environmental champ: “Remember the song Bahay Kubo? I love the vegetables and fruits that I grow in my food garden.”
STAR/ File

Multi-awarded environmentalist and House of Representatives Deputy Speaker Loren Legarda is a passionate nature lover, the original “plantita” before the global pandemic made planting at home a popular pastime.

We asked her for some planting tips, and here are excerpts of our exclusive interview:

The Philippine Star: I heard that there is a portion of the roof in your house where you planted vegetables, not only to help cool the house down but also to have an additional organic food source.

Loren Legarda: Yes. I have installed vertical towers on my roof.  These are towers made from recycled water bins that can carry 50 plants and run on food waste. The towers also have a vermicomposting unit.  I have harvested quite a bounty of vegetables from the towers.  Imagine, the vertical garden only needs three square meters of space.  For me, not only does it give me food, it is also a biodegradable waste solution.  I feed the tower my food waste, and any biodegradable waste such as brown paper and newspapers. The waste is then converted into compost and food for worms.  The vertical food garden and composter is a closed-loop system.  And so, I feed into the bin, and the waste is decomposed by worms.  The worm castings then produce nutrient-rich soil in the containers.  This soil is the same soil to grow leafy vegetables and fruit-bearing plants.

How did you get into planting? Who inspired and taught you?

I have always been a lover of nature. When I was a kid, I would play in our ancestral home with the insects in our garden. I also love the sound of nature, the sound of crickets and the birds, and I think I was inspired by my late mother Bessie and my Nanay Fely.

You plant the vegetables and fruits that you eat. How do you do this?

Yes. I have started a backyard farm in my house.  I have also utilized a small parcel of land to grow fruit trees and shrubs, and installed vegetable beds to grow herbs, edible flowers and vegetables.

From small farm to table: “I love pinakbet, dinengdeng, anything that is boiled. I prepare simple salads, using arugula from my backyard and add blue ternate flowers.”

A few years ago I attended a backyard-farming workshop.  That workshop showed me how we can convert our lawns into food gardens. I attended it with my Nanay Fely. After that, we started to make compost from biodegradable waste, and then slowly built our soil.  One thing I really remember is that: You don’t feed the plants. You feed the soil. The key to having vibrant plants would be to have fertile soil. And feeding the soil means that you enrich it with organic matter or compost. This is why I really do the 3Rs and do not waste any food.

We then tried to find the best vegetables to plant, given our climate and topography. You really have to have a sense of what varieties are best for your soil, and also how they thrive with compost, or sunlight or water.  Once you have learned the language of gardens as ecosystems, and have had a taste of your first produce, it becomes a passion.  I even save my seeds now.  My small farm has even started a seed bank.

Some of us live in small houses, apartments, condominiums or townhouses. Can you give us practical tips on how to get started with planting?

Yes, of course. If you have no access to soil, grow your food in containers, by the patio, on the roof, your balcony or even indoors where there is enough light.  If you have a patio or balcony, maximize all spaces (in all directions) by combining low plants and those that creep like beans.  You can even grow plants in hanging pots.

One way to do it is container gardening. If you have little or no access to soil, you can grow vegetables in containers. You can put the containers on patios, roofs or balconies, even indoors. Just make sure they get enough sun. Make sure your container is big enough for a full-grown plant. You will also have to always water, as containers dry out quickly. Make sure the containers have good drainage. Use potting soil, which has to be constantly fertilized with compost. In my patio, I grow some of my vegetables in large pots.  I also have vertical towers on my rooftop.

For a small garden at home, should we grow flowering plants or vegetables or herbs? How important is it to balance the aesthetics and usefulness of plants?

Grow only useful things.  Since you don’t have lots of space, every plant should count.  Try to always plant something edible or medicinal.  Our rule of thumb: If you water it, you have to be able to eat it. Water, time and space are resources, and so don’t squander them on plants that look nice but have very little use.

Some of the easiest vegetables you can grow are string beans, leafy greens such as pechay, herbs such as La Buena mint, Thai and holy basil, Italian flat-leaf parsley, tarragon, Italian oregano, coriander, lemongrass, legumes such as monggo (it’s the easiest to grow and will make a great cover crop). Kadios is another legume you should plant for its nitrogen-fixing properties. Sweet potato is a good root crop for your multiple crop bed or small garden.  They grow well with the hot sun and have little need for water or fertilizer. They also are resistant to disease.  Not only that, you can use them as ground cover and mulching as well.

We see vacant lots in the neighborhood. What we can do to make those idle lands useful? What plants would you recommend?

I always recommend local and indigenous plants.  There are three things to best plant: ground cover, climbing plants, and bushes.  In empty spaces, the best to plant are perennial and tropical vegetables.  Ground cover can be your kamote and talinum. For your climbing plants: alugbati, sigarillas, patani and bataw. You can plant these near walls. And then plant bushes around the perimeter such as malunggay and kadios.  These plants will regenerate your soil. The ground cover will prevent the weeds.

When we travel to the provinces, we always see idle public lands in highways; any suggestions on how people can gain access to those public lands and be allowed to plant on them? Is there a law that allows an individual to make use of idle lands for planting or farming?

This needs a policy intervention.  LGUs can actually tax idle lands higher, and if there are ordinances that increase taxes for such lands, then owners are dis-incentivized from keeping their lands unproductive.  Especially in urban areas that are food-insecure, every square meter of idle land should be planted with food.  Letting people other than the owners plant on idle lands is not advisable unless there is government policy, intervention and management.  Otherwise, you will have chaos and conflict in a rush to be the ones to access and use.

During the Second World War, Europe and the Americas had idle urban lands allotted for planting to families.  They were called “victory gardens” but with clear agreements and under governing policies.  They were intended to address food shortage as well as to boost morale.

I know that you are an expert on trees. What kind of trees that are endemic to our country would you recommend to be planted in neighborhoods, sidewalks, parks, roadsides, and home gardens?

Much of what we have in our backyards unfortunately are not native. They were introduced either thousands of years ago or by the Spanish.  Coconut, malunggay, banana, papaya and guava, chesa and calamansi are all introduced but are okay for backyards as they are not invasive.  But imagine if we propagated and selected our native fruits like mabolo, marang, gumihan, pangi, berries like lipote, tagpo, bignay and sapinit. Nut trees are also perfect because they always will give you a harvest: kasoy or pili (in volcanic areas).

I read about how actress and environmentalist Chin Chin Gutierrez would talk to plants. Does this promote health of the plants? Is it true that when plants are exposed to rock music, they wilt and die? And when exposed to relaxing music like classical, they thrive and flourish? Is there a scientific basis to this?

While I am a big believer in evidence-based decision-making, I am not seeking solid evidence for these claims.  Why? I can do them based on what talking to the plants makes me feel and whether they grow better or not is beside the point.  Rock music is usually played loudly and they are in waves, so it might have a physical effect on the plant, but no need for me to test since music should also be contextual. Why would I play rock music in my garden? There are places for everything.  Recent findings, in fact, focus more on the vapors from plants if you walk among them, hence the prescriptions for forest bathing as therapy.

What are your favorite vegetables and fruits that you grow ?

Remember the song Bahay Kubo? I love sitaw, patola, upo, kalabasa. I also have lettuce, saluyot, blue ternate flowers (which I drink as tea), arugula, okra, kangkong, pechay and bokchoy. The Roselle flowers I also grow, which I turn into Roselle jam. I grow my own dragon fruit, suha, mangoes and even passion fruit.We do not have to buy our vegetables anymore from the market because we already have our own.

I heard about the coffee in Antique. How does it compare to the best coffees produced in the Philippines?

One potential industry in my home province of Antique is coffee.  Coffee in the municipality of Sibalom is abundant in the upland-adjacent barangays of Calooy, Tula-tula and Bulalacao, with about 113 hectares benefitting 212 marginalized farmers and indigenous peoples of Iraynon-Bukidnon. We also have coffee in Culasi.

Their products are Robusta green coffee beans, roasted beans and ground coffee. Several attempts have been made to develop the coffee into a mature industry.

In order to develop this industry, I was able to provide additional equipment for our coffee farmers. We gave them equipment through the Department of Trade and Industry’s Shared Services Facility Program, such as the coffee de-huller machine with bean sizer and polisher, coffee de-pulper machine, and grinding and roasting machines, among many others.

During the pandemic, when the demand for Antique coffee decreased, I wanted to make sure that the coffee beans of our Antique farmers would not go to waste, so I also partnered with Echo Store. They have helped us in packaging and roasting these beans and so far, I am excited to see how our coffee industry has started to take off.

What kind of indoor plants do you have in your home?

Talinum and gabi are vegetables that you can plant indoors.  The rest I would recommend that you plant are indoor air filters, like Peace lily, bamboo palm, Mother in Law’s Tongue, Draceana (fortune plant), rubber plant or the common Areca palm.

As a child, I saw people put eggshells in orchid pots and flowerpots. Does this really do anything for the plant?

It needs to decompose to make the calcium in the shell available to the plant.  One way to do this is to spread the crushed shells at the bottom of a pot you are only starting to put a plant in.  By the time your plant roots get at the calcium, it is readily available to the plant.  Otherwise, crush dried shells into powder form and compost it.  I have used it in calamansi and ferns that are not looking their best, and they do recover, but the faster the calcium is readily available to the plant to absorb, the better they get.

What natural fertilizers can you recommend for our home plants?

Compost. Anything biodegradable is a resource. If you throw them away, they will just spread disease, crowd your landfills and smell bad. But treated the right ways, through vermicomposting, bokashi, etc., they become rich and fertile soil.

In your travels nationwide, have you seen native flowers or plants that you love so much and decided to bring into your own garden?

I have to warn everyone here and now about the Wildlife Act. Flowers and plants you see in the wild are better appreciated where they are.  You never know what they need to thrive like they do in the wild and not only would you be disappointed; you could even get arrested for poaching.

If you see something in the wild, figure out what it is, take a photo, upload it for plant communities to ID without saying the exact location, and find a cultivated counterpart.  Poaching is a crime and a mortal sin, as well as a theft from the next generations.

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For more tips, follow  @iamlorenlegarda on Instagram. Thanks your feedback at [email protected] Follow @wilsonleeflores on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

LOREN LEGARDA

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