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My Rooftop Gardening Experience

Goyi Solis
18 June 2009

My morning office routine usually started with enjoying Divine’s freshly brewed coffee (with peanuts prepared by Ate Ish of Doc Susan’s Kitchen Clinic or yummy muffins from Planet Infinity!) while checking emails. That has changed! Now upon arrival, I leave my bag in the room and immediately go up to the building’s rooftop to say hello to our plants on the office building’s rooftop garden. I get a good morning sun and nice breeze as bonus. A very nice way to start a working day. Sometimes, one of the ways I end my day is to make another trip to the rooftop. The serenity, wind and sunset wrap up the day in a very calming way.

The rooftop garden has become for me another place of refuge here in the city, second to the UP campus in Diliman. As soon as I enter the university avenue, I feel happy, calm, comforted, rejuvenated, refreshed and inspired. I think it’s not only because of the intellectual energies of the people that envelop the campus but also because of the collective breathing of the century-old acacia trees.

I love plants, gardens and greens but I don’t have the knack for growing plants (or so I believed). I got involved in PRRM’s rooftop garden due to the call of responsibility – to give a hand to office projects that other busybodies in the office could not attend to. Or maybe deep inside there is a gardener in me?

It was Obet Verzola (our adviser on sustainable technologies who is currently on leave to focus on his studies and other involvements) and Tolits Gonzales (our area manager for Ifugao and concurrently chapter development coordinator) who initially pushed for an urban gardening project in the building sometime in 2007. The initial attempts didn’t pick up for a number of reasons but the idea and desire remained. There were also efforts to grow lettuce at the rooftop using the hydroponics method (initiated by Alvin Manalang, then PRRM asset management officer). Questions were raised on the consistency of the hydroponics method and inputs used with our sustainable agriculture principles. After a few harvests of big lettuce plants, the hydroponics experiment stopped (I’m not very familiar with what happened).

As part of the call to green the PRRM building, Jun Garde, our resident sustainable agriculture practitioner and trainer, took up the challenge of trying out urban agriculture by bringing seeds and seedlings from his farm, teaching and inspiring JR (our utility personnel who we discovered was also a gardener naturelle) to grow vegetables and herbs. I followed up by putting in more energy and providing them company (all I could give was company, ha! ha!). Initially, plants were grown in existing clay pots and plastic bags at the back of the penthouse and at the ground floor garden. Then we thought of moving to the rooftop to have more space.

Our first major harvest in late 2008 was basil. Oh my, the basil plants grew so fast and they didn’t want to stop. The more they were pruned, the faster they grew. We had a bountiful harvest. JR also planted lettuce (not the curly ones) and we were overwhelmed with too much produce. We got inspired and excited.

We sold our basil fresh, we made pesto sauce and packaged them for selling. We tried drying them inside the Office of the President (the basil leaves were placed on a hanging net) and we finally discovered that the best place to hang the net to dry the leaves faster was the space behind the CBIS and HAPP cubicles where the leaves were placed near the windows.

I can list down a lot of benefits from the rooftop garden: it insulates the building (the garden acts as a temperature moderator for the building below, cooling it down especially in the summer), puts fresh, organic/safe, locally sourced food on the table (shortening the food miles or the distance food travels from field to table), it gives opportunities for practical learning, and one can plant what she or he needs (or depending on demand).

The rooftop garden helps to beautify the building and create more natural green spaces in urban areas – for everyone, including the dragonflies! It creates a peaceful place to hang out or recharge. Rooftop gardens are places of fantasy and imagination.

In the beginning, I thought our aim was simply to produce vegetables, herbs and other plants, part of our greening the building thrust. And we left JR on his own to do the gardening, we just checked on the plants from time to time and waited for the harvest (parang landlord, ‘no?). OP and CAHRO with the assistance of MSO focused on processing the basil and marketing them.

In February this year, Jed Guinto (our consultant for sustainable village technologies) introduced a different design and method in gardening and put in a lot of energy and enthusiasm which brought our rooftop gardening to a different level. More staff became interested and involved in actual gardening. Thanks to Jed who showed us that getting our hands dirty (figuratively, because we still use gloves when we mash the coco peat needed for the potting mix/medium) can be fun.

We became more enthusiastic that May Pado and I tried planting basil (because we were already familiar with basil) on one side of the rooftop garden which we claimed to be our corner and called it our secret garden (now it’s not secret anymore).

The exciting news is, we already harvested basil from our secret garden (which was just one month after planting). Several days of strong wind and heavy rain tested our ‘babies’ but they withstood the challenge. All other plants in the garden are doing relatively well and there have been other harvests.

Gardening brings so many wonderful benefits. Rooftop gardening bring even more. We get to see the sunset, the horizon, feel the breeze, experience in full (no hindrance) the morning, noon, and afternoon sun, we get to see the view, appreciate a full moon. Interaction with growing things soothes and heals the mind and body while providing a reminder to urban dwellers divorced from nature of the ultimate source of human support, and of the ecological limits of that support.

The other day I saw a dragonfly perched on one of our plants. I got really excited. I read somewhere that dragonflies are good indicators of an improving environmental condition. Even just the sight of the dragonfly, without knowing what it stands for, is enough for me. My dream is to see butterflies, more dragonflies and other friendly insects (or even birds) in our garden.

Our rooftop garden faces several challenges: strong winds and heavy rains during typhoons, too much sun and heat during summer, roof load capacity (we are still awaiting advice from the building designers), proper drainage (to keep the soil and water from leaking into the building), harvesting rainwater to water the plants (and even for other building uses), and probably a lot more that we haven’t imagined yet.

We have the energy, enthusiasm and some knowhow, and we will overcome.

When somebody asks me now, what are you, I will say I’m a psychologist, a development manager and a rooftop gardener. Isn’t that interesting?


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