"The convent gardens: Nuns as urban farmers"
By: Marilou Guleb
Business Mirror



The seven healing gardens

IN Baguio City a quick turn from a main road to a hidden alley leads one to a trellis of moonflowers crowning the arched entrance to an unexpected sanctuary of quietude and? serenity away from the blaring city sounds.

It is known as the Seven Healing Gardens of Eden. In its midst sits the St. Scholastica’s Convent, a retirement haven for Benedictine nuns. Somewhere in this garden, Sister Alice Sobrevinas is often seen picking salad greens, puttering around the plants and pulling weeds from her vegetable plots. Past her mid-70s, Sister Alice exudes youthful energy, full of enthusiasm in explaining the concept of the garden she so lovingly tends with two young helpers.

The whiff of mint scents and fennel blossoms pleasantly welcomes a visitor, where parsley, oregano, tarragon, thyme, sage, rosemary and most every herb that can grow in this climate thrive in the herbal garden. Added to dishes or made into tea, like the yacon leaves that are lush in the garden, the plants manage the blood pressure of the nuns or help them sleep well, cure coughs and wounds.

There is the vegetable garden of pechay, mustard and other vegetables planted as fancied by the gardeners, all organically nourished. The nuns also constantly enjoy bowls of salad greens straight from the garden to the dining table. To keep dementia at bay, Sister Alice keeps rows and rows of several kinds of gota kola, also known as the wild plant takip kuhol, and adds three leaves of this a day to keep the nuns’ minds perky.

Sister Alice recommends that thorny cacti be kept close to computers as they are effective radiation absorbers. Passing through a line of aloe veras, she says this variety of the ancient secret of Brazilians helps cure cancer, and gives the tip that a book by a Franciscan priest, Fr. Romano Zago, talks of the small village that is the origin of the formula from time immemorial. Seven trees of atis, jackfruit, santol, lemon, star apple, and breadfruit are enclosed in seven small circles of stone.

Her seven gardens are planted in circles within the greater circle. Sister Alice says that this is so as not to hinder the flow of energies. Energies go in circles,” she explains.

Seven healing gardens correspond to the seven chakras. They are also called rainbow gardens as the chakras respond to the seven colors of the rainbow, both with an ephemeral connection to healing. Seven is a sacred number for some religions.

The flowers of all hues in the garden is the rainbow touch here, with yellow gold marigolds and bright cosmos dominant as they serve as natural pesticides.
In the center of her garden is her pool of spirulina corresponding to the strongest chakra or the?crown of the head. Shaped like a perfect spiral, a gram of this blue-green is equivalent to 1 kilogram of fresh or natural vegetables. The spirulina tablet contains 63 vitamins.

The garden provides the healing foods of the nuns.

“We grow what we can consume and give the surplus to friends,” Sister Alice says. It’s a complete healing garden as a walk through this mandala is also a repose for the soul. But beyond this, the garden is also a concrete response of the Benedictine nuns to nurture earth.

As time tells us, our modern-day nuns have ventured out of their cloistered walls and ventured into the concerns of the world. As such, they actively get involved in activities that relate to saving the environment, which eventually made Sister  Alice the president of the Baguio Vermi Growers (BVG).


Eugene, the african night crawler

While African night crawlers (ANCs) are largely used as soil fertilizers, the interest of the city stemmed from its decades-old garbage problem.

In February 2009 nine members of the Traditional Knowledge Network (TKN), sponsored by the Laguna Lake Development Authority, went to Laguna to train on various methods of waste management. The ANC excited them most as it was close to the indigenous value of “ayyew” which espouses zero waste, where every resource is used and re-used in a circle. Composting was a key practice in this value.?

In a few months, an ANC trainer was invited by the TKN. Laguna vermiculturist Michael Cagas, came with 30 bayong of ANC. A book titled Stories of Eugene, the Earthworm  tells of the stories of friendship the batch of trainees have fostered with the worm and how Eugene has crawled, so to speak, into the hearts, garbage bins and gardens of the community.

The African night crawler is scientifically called Eudrilus euginae, fondly nicknamed by the BVG as “Eugene.”

Eugene, unlike our native earthworms, is flat-bellied and does not burrow underground. One kilo of worms will eat one kilo of organic waste in a day and cast this out as vermicast, rich soil fertilizer. Sister Alice used natural agriculture methods but since the training has held a fascination and love for the worms and her garden has become the training ground for rearing ANCs. For Sister Alice the ANCs are the night angels of the ground who work with no salaries.


Eugene goes to convent

Sister Guadalupe of the Good Shepherd was introduced to Eugene by the invitation of Sister Alice for the first training. She sent two of her workers and from the first six kilos that they brought home, Sister  Guada says their Eugenes have grown from strength to strength. Known for many food products, the Good Shepherd Convent generates a lot of waste.Today its ANCs eat up their voluminous organic waste and give them 40 kg of vermicast every month from their many worm beds. In their grounds, there is now a covered and screened shed for their worms.

This is because ANCs can easily drown in water when it rains so homes that can drain are best, and here the rice or jute sacks, humorously called ‘sako technology,’ have been made the most popular garbage bins and home for these worms. Good Shepherd houses many student workers and vegetables raised here help to support their cause.

“We grow our vegetables and they have become very robust with our vermicompost,” she said.

They also now sell their worms per kilo, and so with vermicast and vermi-compost. They have also equipped themselves of a commercial brewer and a homemade one to make vermitea, which is great as an organic pesticide. Meanwhile, Sister Alice simply puts her worm sacks in a plastic pail to catch the liquid for her vermi-tea.

The Sta. Catalina Convent and the St. Francis Convent, among many organizations, individuals and organic farmers, nourish their gardens with compost from their ANCs.

Beddings for the worms are simple material that can maintain moisture and allow circulation of air such as banana stalks, twigs, horse manure, dry leaves, vegetable peelings or even rolled up cartons or newspaper. They can be fed with vegetable peels, food scraps, garden waste, egg shells, cardboard, paper and lots of other biodegradables. On very dry days their habitats must be watered.

Cagas reassures that there is no tendency for ANCs to become pests and, in fact they have to be protected from ants, birds, chickens, frogs, centipedes and white grubs. ANCs like to stay on the surface and such surface dwelling worms that feed on organic material are also called compost worms, with Eugene known to be the most voracious.

Beddings should not be densely packed to allow ventilation. In a week’s time the vermin bin will have eggs and baby worms.

At least every month or six weeks, the breeders are lifted on to another bed so as not to overpopulate the vermi bin. What is left also is the vermicast.

The vermicast and vermicompost can contain nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, calcium and magnesium. Per kilo of the worms can run up to P1,000 per kilo, but can easily be obtained for free from breeder friends and advocates. Vermicast can be bought for P500 per sack or P10 per kilo. One kilo of ANCs become 10 kilos in six weeks because the egg matures into a breeder in six weeks and each breeder lays more than eight eggs that becomes juveniles in as short as two weeks. Eugene may well be the best friend of hog raisers as hog manure proves to be one of the best food for them. This was proven by Bal Kiat-ong, whose pigpens he rid of foul smell with his worms. Among those who got their first two kilos of starter kits, Bal also multiplied his worms the fastest and generously gives them away in trainings.

Sister  Alice and the BVG have gone on giving seminars complete with starter kits with the cry, “There’s nothing to lose but your garbage!”  
(To be continued)


The Tuding nuns and their own way of farming
(Second of three parts)

THE order of sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary first based their home in Tuding, Itogon and were thereafter called the Tuding Sisters.

They were the first order of nuns who raised an organic garden and set up an organic market inviting farmers to bring their produce to the grounds of their convent.

It was Ed Guevara of the eco-village of Geo-Farms who helped the Tuding nuns set up their bio-digester tanks which filtered their waste water that they used to spray their soil for nourishment and also as a source of methane for their cooking needs.

The system no longer works but the interest in protecting the environment and planting organic vegetables the earlier nuns impressed on their congregation has evolved into simpler methods, and it works.

One rainy day, Sister Julie showed this writer her backyard garden in their Tuding convent. Dressed in red jogging pants and sneakers, she nimbly walked down the slippery stone steps down to the lower slopes of the hill within their grounds.

Despite the steady heavy downpour of several days, she had rows of robust green mustard and Chinese pechay among other leafy greens inside an improvised greenhouse made of bamboo slats and thick clear agricultural plastic sheets. Along the walk, she picked a few leaves from aragula plants lining the pathway. Here and there she would bend to gather some fallen passion fruits on the ground or pluck the ripe ones from the trellis. They were all the produce of her own labor.

“What we cannot consume here I bring to the organic store our nuns run at the Cathedral,” she said.

The interest of the Tuding  nuns for organically grown products have led them to many a seminar and workshops to learn the secrets of healthy happy agriculture and such knowledge derived from these they gladly share in training other women.

Stacked on Sister Julie’s table are her training materials from lectures given by organic farmer masters or awardees of? Gawad Magsasaka.

She tells of the first exposure she had with? Magsasakang Siyentista for Natural Farming Eric Tinoyan of Tuba, an engineer who wrote on producing indigenous microorganism. The process involves the storing of a kilo of cooked rice in a bamboo hollow, cooled before covering. The container is placed in a forest area where there is white hyphae, a cotton-like white fungal growth.

Made simpler, one can just place the container in a clean area, such as by a bamboo grove. After three or five days, white mold can be seen on the rice. The rice with the microbes can be transferred into a clay jar and mixed with one kilo of crude sugar. The mixture is then let to stand for seven days, covered with paper, in a cool place. The juice taken from here if mixed with one liter of water can be sprayed on plants or mixed with biodegradables to hasten composting, which can be ready in as short as two weeks. Sister Julie also learned about fermented plant juice microorganisms from Tinoyan. Interestingly, the oriental herbal nutrient uses ginger, beer, gin and crude sugar, and some laughingly joke that this must produce tipsy crops unless the farmer gets to the ingredients first.

Tinoyan encourages the use of indigenous or easily available material and cites quite a number. One of the easiest to obtain is the rice bran to produce lactic acid bacterial serum. The formula requires 1.5 liter first rice wash which carries a lot of good microorganism. This is let to stand for seven days by which time the bran floats. The rice bran is strained and only the Lacto Seed (LAS) water is used. Added to the jar are 10 liters of fresh milk, then it is covered with manila paper tied with string. After seven days the fat (white solids) floats to the top and a yellowish substance stays in the bottom which is the Lacto Seed without fat. A total of 10 kilos of crude sugar must be added so it does not spoil and after seven days of storage, the formula can be used much the same way for hastening composting.

Sister Julie had tried several of the procedures, displaying some of them stored in jars. But one of her constant formulas is the one she learned from another Gawad Magsasaka awardee for organic farming, Pat Acosta. After years of experimentation, Acosta discovered that all it takes is understanding how nature works and adding a bit of technology to speed up the natural process.

Acosta’s simple formula takes just one tablespoon of clean soil, one tablespoon of sugar or molasses and the mixture is cultured for seven days. Twenty-five milliliters of the culture is mixed to a liter of water and sprayed for composting plant cuttings. The mixture can rot one ton of biodegradables like garden debris in about two weeks. Acosta cautions that the compost heap must be covered as rain washes away the nutrients.

Molasses, or crude sugar, contains calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphate and sodium and thus increases the population of good microorganisms in the soil mixture.

Almost shyly,  Sister Julie adds her own concocted formula to the line of jars on the table and says this is liquid taken from sunflower extract. Following the formula of Tinoyan and Acosta, Sister Julie heaps up cuttings of sunflower bushes, leaves, stem and all, and puts them in a container. She collects the juice from the rotting heap and applies the same formula she learned from Acosta.

For the Tuding nuns, what can be more indigenous and available than sunflowers From November to February, the hills of this region are swathed with a golden carpet of sunflower blooms. For the rest of the year, they are considered as nuisance bushes by city dwellers.

But farmers know better. According to anthropologist and former director of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture Joachim Voss, sunflowers were used by the Mayans and were first introduced here as ornamentals. Mountain farmers in this region put cut sunflowers in irrigation canals so that the nutrients flow directly to the fields. Sunflowers are one of the richest sources of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium among the plants found in the region.
The Tuding nuns also run a farm in Tublay managed only by two nuns and in Tuba by one nun. Their produce is brought to their Mt. Grown Natural Foods store situated at the exit point of the Baguio Cathedral. Organic farmers who used to bring their goods to the Tuding convent now sell their produce here.  
(To be concluded)



Urban gardening has time and  again been a program of the city. But nothing has been more sustained than the gardens run by the nuns here. Even while these gardens that produce healthy food adhere to their spiritual commitments of integrity of creation for the Good Shepherd Nuns or caring for mother earth for the Benedictines and the Tuding nuns, their practice sets the premise for the city that urban gardening can be done with discipline and incentives given the community.

Urban gardens are in fact a part of eco-city designs. This is premised on factors like the need to minimize transportation costs of bringing farm goods from rural settings to city markets. There is also the need to have green patches within city spaces to minimize the heat-island effect a city with many concrete structures are beset with.

The School of Urban and Regional Planning (SURP) of the University of the Philippines  recommends a mix of rural and urban spaces in cities. Half of the world’s population live in urban areas and the growing sprawl poses a great deal of challenge to sustainability of resources.

In Baguio for instance, a great population is comprised of migrants from the interiors of the region. They come from agricultural areas and rather than add to the burden of feeding, Geraldine Cacho, head of  Ornus, an urban  poor organization believes that their rural values can serve as assets to the city. Like growing their own food in pots or otherwise throw away containers.

Mountain folk here have the value of ‘ayyew’ or reusing every resource and many of the rural poor trained at the St.Scholastica’s Convent have adapted the vermiculture kind of agriculture and growing their own food that are healthy and pesticide free. It is also a practice akin to ‘ayyew’.

The fragile nuns actively pursuing organic gardening here are able to manage their gardens with the minimum of extra help because of easier technologies. All it took for them to get going was an interest and commitment to go into healthier lifestyles.

According to Dr.Jose Balaoing, director of Cordillera Agriculture Development Center and project  leader of the Organic Demo Farm of  Benguet State University, there are enough resources for training those interested.  There simply is just a need for sustained and organized efforts to keep the interest of city dwellers in producing their own backyard gardens.

For one, awareness of the benefits of home gardening can be emphasized such as residents can be more ensured of the cleanliness of what they eat. With the worsening economy, raising one’s own food needs will help family budgets.

While the number of organic gardeners are growing in the city, the practitioners noticeably have in common a higher level of awareness and inclination for healthier lifestyles. Fast foods and ready-to-cook meals are symptoms of fast-paced  living in urban areas and most city dwellers have fallen into this routine without much thought. Studies show this has has a toll on health.

UP-SURP recommends revisiting  or returning  to the past, such as architecture that provide for roof gardens or container gardening. 

Dr. Steffen Lehmann, UNESCO Chair in Sustainable  Urban Development for Asia and the Pacific, captures the value of the endeavors of the nuns to bring about a new and healthier lifestyle for the community. He says, “A sustainable city makes provision for adequate food production, a return to the community and gardens of past days, where roof gardens  become an urban market garden. It is essential that we bridge the urban-rural disconnect and move cities towards models that deal in natural eco-systems and healthy food systems. Local food and short supply chain save on transport cost and includes eating local and slow food initiatives