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Heart and soil: Sowing the seeds of urban gardening

Months ago, the uncertainty surrounding lockdown measures became more pressing, with hordes of shoppers storming supermarkets to stock up on essential goods. With customers loading an alarming amount of fresh produce in their carts, the unfolding scene eerily resembled a dystopian tale—but this growing fear of a food shortage was not completely baseless. Food security, after all, has been an issue in the Philippines even before the pandemic.

Although supermarkets have since reopened, individuals may also look to obtain food security by cultivating small vegetable farms at home. As the pandemic situation continues to make food and resources difficult to access, city-dwellers may well consider the advantages of urban gardening and agriculture.

Turning over a new leaf

With a food supply chain troubled by natural calamities, logistical hurdles, and now the pandemic, industry experts have been highlighting the potential of urban farming for households with the resources to do so. In a webinar facilitated by the Philippine-American Academy for Science and Engineering, Ralph Becker, founder and CEO of urban farming company Urban Greens, revealed how moving the production of food to urban centers can be a solution to the country’s persistent food problems.

“We can’t change the number of storms and typhoons [the country will face], but what we can do is [turn] to protected environments,” Becker put forward. The switch to urban farming, he explained, enables producers to have better control of the conditions for growing their crops, while also allowing them to skip logistical hurdles involved in bringing food from the farm to the dinner table.

The rise of urban gardening has also been gaining government support; the Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Agricultural Research has launched a series of urban farming campaigns, which include providing seeds and hosting online seminars for aspiring gardeners, aiming to encourage the public to take up the practice at home.

Can you dig it?

In recent times, gardening has charmed individuals living in the cities—the trend first emerged on Instagram, where influencers would post visually appealing photos of plants in their apartments. Since the lockdown, however, this simple hobby has adopted a more valuable role in the lives of urban gardeners.

“We were honestly fearing an extended quarantine and hence, food shortage. We realized that if we grew food in our own garden, we’d have something to eat even if we are not allowed to go outside,” says Anne Nepomuceno-Kaquilala, general manager of Frontier Power Technologies, who initially got into urban gardening because of her desire to eat pesticide-free vegetables.

Meanwhile, Nikole Chan, an associate software engineer who has been working remotely due to the pandemic, has always been into farming and agriculture as a kid. She relays, “It always starts out of curiosity, where the big question is, ‘Can we grow this at home?’” Throughout the quarantine, this hobby has helped her in various ways. Chan finds that the greenery can “soothe eye strain” and help her find a sense of calm, while also reducing her food-related expenses.

Just like any new hobby or undertaking, urban gardening begins with a few hits and misses. “I learned most of the things I know from reading online and joining Facebook groups for urban gardening [and] agriculture enthusiasts,” Chan admits. However, while planting tips may be accessible online, this does not necessarily guarantee that we will become expert gardeners overnight.

Many will likely run into several complicating factors when starting their own urban gardens—knowing which areas get the most sunlight, which plants would need more water or more fertilizer, and which plants one can actually get to fit in the available space.

Robert Young, a member of an urban gardening community on Viber, reminds aspiring urban gardeners to “be realistic” when starting their pursuits, expounding, “You want to plant a lettuce garden but you live in [a] studio unit…[the] most you can do is plant a few pots.” Experienced gardeners would still emphasize the importance of being willing to learn and to devote time to improving one’s skills in order for individuals to successfully cultivate their garden.

Sharing the fruits of labor

Pursuits like urban gardening carry the potential to incite meaningful change and become part of a “new normal” that calls for more careful consideration toward the effects of one’s actions. But beyond the earnest dedication of current practitioners, the future of urban gardening lies in its ability to draw in newcomers, as it will be vital to promote urban agriculture as a fruitful endeavor beyond being a simple hobby. 

While this may be especially useful in mitigating price increases and food shortages during these trying times, the lack of professional supervision may produce fruits and vegetables that are not safe for consumption. “Since people are growing produce at home, food and environmental safety precautions aren’t implemented. It’s possible [for] pest-infested or diseased [crops] to reach the table if not checked properly,” Chan warns.

Admittedly, urban farming is still a relatively foreign and undeveloped concept in the country. A caveat, Becker recognizes, is that urban farming requires a high capital investment, making it difficult to streamline vertical farming operations in the Philippines. Furthermore, cultivating a small garden at home requires an individual to have the necessary time, space, and financial resources to sustain the farm, making urban gardening something  easier said than done.

As such, Nepomuceno-Kaquilala urges the local governments to hold more webinars and give out urban garden starter kits in order to encourage more people to grow plants at home. She highlights, “Urban farming can only change the way of life of other people [or] society if it gets actively promoted and has the necessary ‘infrastructure’ to support those who will get into it.” If urban agriculture becomes more accessible, it can allow for more people to farm their own produce for consumption.

While urban farming is no stop-gap solution to our food issues, it can spark much-needed conversations on uplifting our farming tradition, reforming our consumption habits, and increasing ecological awareness among the public. “I hope that urban [gardening] helps society learn to appreciate their food and, in turn, lessen food waste,” Chan expresses. After all, it is through these firsthand experiences of the production process that people can learn to appreciate—and crucially extend greater support to—the often overlooked role of the agriculture industry in sustaining lives.

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