Friday, July 31, 2009

Underutilized Plants

I dream of a food revolution in this country. Of new tastes, old wisdom, practicality, and appropriateness to place.

I was previously growing less than half of the vegetables I eat (and I am vegetarian, so that means, all my food aside from rice), but since the discovery of edible weeds (kulitis, above, is one), it has gone up so drastically that I am smiling like a fool all the time. We don't really know what we've got, and we're so used to eating what the groceries (even wet markets) shove us, that we ignore what sprouts effortlessly from the ground.

I'm in a bit of constant study now (explaining less posts) of these wild plants, and learning something new everyday. Old books, interviews, historical text, listening for "Kinakain ito sa amin." ("Where I am from, we eat this.").

I am convinced this will help us, a country of colonization, Americanization, appropriation of dictated-by-other romanticized cultural associations, sweeping and empty "Pinoy ako" declarations, have an identity borne of our own land. How many of us actually know our own land? How can we know about the culture it informed-- and create a unique culture informed by it-- if we don't have the faintest clue what springs from it?

What "invasives" are naturalized and why? What do they like about our country and what can we learn from their adaptation? I have interest in this because ethnically, I carry the bloodlines of naturalized "invasives"-- a constant occurrence in nature.

I don't always get to type it out, but that is what interests me these days. Garden on.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Stinger Returns

And so we meet again, stinging little mofo. I was hacking leaves off as mulch from a madre de cacao tree, whistling along smiling about how much the higad population has subsided when I saw this fat, motionless, vicious little caterpillar. About the length of my thumbprint (and I do have quite the average size for an adult American, though I am not American), and with attractive green stripes.

I poked it around with a stick, its spines are quite tough and are not little hairs at all, but cold-hearted spines with black tips. These get left in your skin and produce a very unique pain that is associated with jellyfish-- beyond typical higad itch. This one looks so much like a marine animal that it makes sense to sting.

And it has four black dots on its ass, most probably dud eyes. I know it is the tail-end because as I was examining it, some "frass" or caterpillar poop came right out. It must be really juicy and tasty, to have all this protection.

Here are some similar types that I've found on the net. Not exactly it, but it has the spiny stuff which is so new to me. I look forward to discovering the nuances of the spiny family of stinging bastards. I mean this in the best way possible. I took the bugger and transferred it far off, so it may develop into a moth in peace.

Stinging Rose Caterpillar
Saddleback Caterpillar

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Flower Vendors in Old Manila

An old photo with flower vendors in front of an unidentified Manila church. Look closely! What are the pots made of? I'm guessing they are folded old layers of banana trunks or banana leaves, tied around the midsection to prevent them from falling apart.

(Photo was posted on the Old Manila group on Facebook.)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Anahaw Straws

Outside the length of the garden wall is a vibrant, dense community. This means we get a lot of things thrown, whether on purpose or by accident, over and into our lot. I should really document the lot of it: endless slippers (not pairs), doll parts, balls of all sizes, "ice water" plastic bags, and more.

Above is a quite beautiful but non-biodegradable formation made with drinking straws. It reminds me of an anahaw leaf. I wonder what it was made for, and how-- in distracted moments of conversation, or for some kind of purpose that I cannot fathom at the moment.

Monday, July 13, 2009

July Higads

During this time of the year, and somehow with the rains, come the onslaught of itchy, hairy caterpillars (higad) of many shapes and sizes. They are under leaves, over leaves. They are most bastardous when they are eating low plants (ankle-level) because your feet get itchy. This itch can persist until you are wearing shoes and sipping soup in some fancy restaurant. Or just wearing shoes in general.

Higad season is happening right about the same time as last year. Some suggested chickens would help, but they don't eat the crawlies. Someone told me that cows die from eating higad, but that sounded like speculation.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Luyang Itim: The Wonder Years

One piece of the luyang itim ("black ginger") I'd collected awhile back has now grown into a teenage specimen. I still do not have any information about it, though. I admit that while I planted some roots in places I do not remember, I left most in some corner of the house for a long time, and they grew a bit without being in soil. I was impressed by its will to live (and a bit guilty about the neglect), and planted it in a pot a couple of weeks ago, and now it is about two and a half feet tall (including leaves).

I removed it from the pot and the roots were screaming to be transplanted. I placed it by the gabi outside my bedroom window, because it seems to do well without much sun.

I still do not have any information about it, but will probably have a better chance at identifying it (scientific name and all the uses in other cultures) when the flowers come. One detail I've gathered is that it has a maroonish stroke down the middle of the leaf. I will probably try eating it one of these days.

One potential lead I found, on a recent trip to Anilao, Batangas: there is a factory, or some walled compound, with "Luyang Itim" painted in large letters on its gate. That is probably the name of the sitio/barangay. I will be sure to stop by next time I am in town to ask the folks about it.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Empty Lot Farming in Alabang

The upscale subdivision of Ayala Alabang is undergoing a wave of empty lot suburban farming. Rising food prices, resurging interest in home cooking/quality of life and media attention about gardening have no doubt contributed to this pretty delightful way things are going.

Ayala Alabang is a gated "village" covering 700 hectares of what used to be rice fields and rural areas on the fringes of Metro Manila. It has large lots and wide roads, and it is virtually impossible to live there if you do not own a car. There are many empty lots which could serve as mini-farms to provide food to its 27,000 residents. People are not allowed to have storefronts that serve the residents, which results in everyone leaving for outside malls and groceries, sometimes in other cities.

Over the years, I have seen increased farming of native and low-maintenance plants in empty lots or in small and odd spaces. These are usually tended to by the household help or drivers, who posess typical Filipino rural skills in diversified and organic backyard farming. I consider them as heroes who are gifting us ignorant city folk with knowledge of appropriate land use and indigenous plants. Our household helper was responsible for teaching me the basics of plant identification, propagation, and culinary use. I cannot stress enough how important this knowledge is, and that we are open to tapping into this vast resource base brought to us by urban migration. It will also make their lives better, having real conversations with the people they live with.

Anyhow, on to the gardens. Many plant easy-to-maintain herbs like lemongrass and basil. Greens like saluyot (jute) and alugbati (malabar spinach), and hardy okra, which thrive even in neglect, are common. Below is a beginning plot of green-stemmed alugbati:

It is interesting to note the spreading of seeds and plants through blocks, and you will observe patterns. Some blocks have kadyos, others do not.

To digress onto a somewhat related tangent (read on), in Alabang, it is usually only the household helpers and drivers who have any form of "neighborly interaction". The homeowners keep to themselves, for the most part. When the sun is not so hot (late in the afternoon, or after families leave in the morning), the helpers gather outside one or two homes, chatting with each other, sitting on the sidewalk or driveway. Other than these times, they talk to each other while opening the gate for their bosses' cars, throwing the garbage out.

(While I was walking around yesterday, there were two helpers talking loudly from opposite sides of the road, about dog troubles. Possibly he had eaten a poisonous insect, the older one speculated, maybe he should eat sugar. But he wouldn't eat anything, the other objected, and was then advised to mix sugar in water and let him drink it.)

It is probably during these idle times that helpers and drivers tend the non-gardens (I call them this because the green spaces inside the house are usually filled with ornamentals which they do not use for food or medicine), hence their choice of low-maintenance plants. Some have improvised watering devices such as old bleach (oh my) jugs with holes on the bottom for gradual release. It is probably also during their daily "helper community sessions" that they mention and exchange seeds/cuttings. Most of the plants do not have seeds available in the grocery and can be propagated only by buying a small plant or taking some for free from someone else.

Some lots are more openly and ambitiously farmed. The one below probably produces enough vegetables to feed one household, with a diversified lot of sweet potato, okra, corn, papaya, beans, and much more!

(I took some of the beans above for seed. I took lots of plants that day.)

If you are from Alabang or anywhere and want to start a little urban farm, you can email me at yapakyakap (sa) gmail (tuldok) com and we can get a little conversation going. I have given some advice to a few readers, and would be glad to meet up if you are close by to exchange ideas and seedlings.

Some posts on urban farming in my city (I would have actually name it suburban or peri-urban farming if I wrote it today.):

Urban Farming in Parañaque
Urban Farming in Parañaque, Part II

Living Post

A living post of malunggay supports a trellis in an Alabang empty lot. Nothing is climbing on the trellis. Cassava is poking through.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Transplants: Batanes Gabi and Mystery Stuff

Our web guy Omar's family is from the Ivatan ethnic group. Though he didn't grow up in beautiful Batanes, his family goes back and forth between the area.

We were meeting over crepes one day and we got to talking about gabi or taro, which is called sudi in their parts. Having what is one of the most windy, stormy and unwelcoming position on our archipelago, Ivatans traditionally used less vulnerable underground tubers such as yams and taro as their staple food. Both visitors and natives attest to a characteristically bland diet, one of the hazards of difficult terrains. (Check out this interesting article by Mol Fernandez by Batanes food in the Inquirer.)

I expressed intrigue over the Batanes gabi, which Omar said had more narrow leaves, probably for protection against the tearing that the large ones are likely to experience from the wind. Furthermore, they are supposed to taste better. Omar recounted buying a "regular" gabi from the grocery and testing it by cooking a Batanes variety at the same time, and by all counts, his native root crop was superior.

Omar so kindly requested his parents to bring home some plantable specimens, which were intercepted at the airport, or something like that! But I saw him last week and he handed me some that his cousin brought back, which were composed of the stems, and a portion of the tuber. I left it in my bag for a few days due to something hectic, and when I removed it, roots were growing quite encouragingly.

So I planted them in last night when I was making Oakley (dog) pee in the garden, and I can't wait to see how the leaves look, and better, how they taste (I actually have a book on Batanes plants, but I lent it to someone.). I put them in pots first until I figure out where the best place to plant them is.

I've also taken a bunch of baby trees from the side of the road. One of them is hopefully a little version of the berry tree (bignay) that was beside it. They are several different ones, none of which I am familiar with. Sometimes that's part of the fun, right? There is a tall dill snapped off from someone's house, which shall be poked into a random part of the garden.

(It's raining pretty good now.)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Guyabano Time

After the torrential rains, we started getting guyabano that tasted like absolutely nothing. Juicy, like cotton soaked in water.

Now, we are starting to get pretty ideal-tasting ones. I climbed a ladder yesterday morning to examine the tree by our side door, which must have at least 10 growing babies at the moment-- the most so far! We got two, about the size of infants' heads.

Recently the news has been abuzz about the health properties of the fruit. Here's an article from a regional newspaper.

Quick Raised Thingo From a Kaing

The kaing, or roughly woven bamboo container for fruit, is always in excess where I live, due to frequent fruit passage in and out of our home. They are basically disposable means to transport produce, and decompose pretty fast after a season or two. I decided to create a small raised plot of kadyos (pigeon pea), mayana (coleus), holy basil and tomato. Truth be told, I was running out of pots to plant things in, so I decided to plant a small bunch out into the soil.

I chopped off the bottom part of a kaing to make it short enough to be stable, and turned it over so the wider side is touching the ground. I placed the lopped off material inside the kaing so it can compost right into the soil.

Then I took cardboard and various pieces of paper that I save for mulch (old plane tickets, etc.). This kills off the grass under my little plot.

I then dump soil in. I've been collecting compost from the usual plots after the beautiful rains, and this bunch smells really good and is full of worms.

And I plant the stuff in! The first picture of this post shows a covered version. I stuck some branches in to deter the chickens from doing their plant-death dance here, and to hold palm leaves up to shade from the harsh Philippine sun. Eventually the kaing will rot away, which is just fine with me.