Clean, tasty, healthy plants for the table

Moje Ramos-Aquino, Fpm

Moje Ramos-Aquino, Fpm

I’ve always loved gardening ever since I was that young and spent my early childhood days in the farm of my Lolo Eugenio Fernandez in Daet, Camarines Norte. Here in Manila, all I could manage is a small garden in my front yard, a smaller one at the back, terrace and all over my house. I’ve indulged, got busy, back again to gardening, stopped, continued and finally went into food forest gardening in the past five years or so, more relentlessly and seriously this time.

My good friend Gigie Penalosa gave me this book and it is now my gardening bible. I’ve always enjoyed reading and rereading this piece from Kim Barnouin, author of Skinny Bitch: Home Beauty & Style. “It’s funny how our priorities shift with age. Yesterday all I wanted was a pair of bigger boobs, and today I’m perfectly happy sitting on the Itty Bitty Titty Committee as long as I got a spot to grow some damn tomatoes. Older and wiser.

“Three years ago, I got my big girl’s garden. So what if it was a patch of grass between a one-car garage and a litter box? A garden is a garden. Whether you have a small outdoor deck, a fire escape, or a backyard the size of an amusement park, homegrown fruits, veggies and herbs help ensure we eat healthier. We control how they are grown, nurtured, picked, and served up on a platter. You can’t get any closer to your food source than that.

“I don’t care what style of gardening you’re up for. It needs to make you happy. After all the long days at the office, wiping your kid’s ass, and taking care of everyone else but yourself, it’s a release to have something that’s just for you.”

Very convincing

Last column, we started to talk about composting, or how to recycle our food scraps to create healthy soil for our plants. This is how to do it, according to Kim and from my own experience:

Pick a place for your compost. It could be a hole in your big yard—best to keep away from big trees, walls, wooden fences, all of which tend to suck up moisture. It should be an area that is sheltered or shaded and offers good drainage. Composts do not want to be watery, just moist. The ideal space is around four to six square feet.

Or you could use a covered plastic container (big drum or trash bin or big pail or bucket) inside the confines of your yard or inside your home in a dark cool place (kitchen, laundry room or garage).

Start to build your compost bin. If you are making compost directly on the ground, you’ll need four wooden slabs or stakes (approximately three feet in length), or some chicken wire to build your compost pile. Either underground or above ground, the general rule is to keep your compost bin about three square feet for good aeration, but the size will really depend on your space constraints and how much compost you need to produce. Bind the four slabs or stakes or chicken wire together to form a square. Get a cover because we are in a humid environment and with the El Nino, it could get extremely hot later.

Prepare your compost. Create a moist underbelly for it to sit on. If it is on the ground, you will not have a problem, unless El Niño really becomes worst. If your compost bin is sitting on the pavement, lay down two to four inches of wet dirt or soil under the bin. If using a container, punch eight to10 holes at the bottom and eight to 10 holes on the cover for aeration and drainage. Moisture is key to turning over good compost.

Lay down the base. Cover the wet dirt or soil with roughly six inches of twigs, newspaper (be sure they use black ink or ink made from natural substance only) branches, and leaves. This layer will provide good air circulation for the compostable items and scraps that you will add on top of it. Add an additional three to six inches of soil. Then alternately lay thin layers of soil, and compostable materials (we listed them all last column) until the pile is about three feet high or a three-fourths of your plastic container. Let them all hang out with one another—this interaction between biodegradable materials promotes bacteria growth and produces the heat you need for everything to decompose.

Finally, nurture your compost. Composting is not a one-off affair. You need to keep on adding compostable materials over the following weeks, even months. Once a week, mix up the materials to let the pile get some air and allow the materials to heat and break down. You also need to water weekly to keep the compost from drying up. One way to gauge the moisture levels of compost is to smell it. It should give off an earthy scent; if not, add more water. If it smells awful, throw away your compost and start all over again. No plant will thrive in it.

When is our compost ready? That is why they say gardening teaches patience. Composting is a long-term endeavor. The length of time varies, but if you are using the right organic matter, it can take anywhere from six weeks to two years. You will know when it’s ready to harvest because none of the original matter you tossed into the compost will be identifiable anymore. In its place will only be dark, crumbly, full-of-nutrients-your-plants-will-need soil. Use them for your gardening and you will have the tastiest and cleanest and healthiest plants for your table. You don’t have to fertilize anymore. Just add more compost when you see them disappearing (probably eaten by your plants).

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