“Square foot urban gardening: Saving space, saving water, saving effort, saving earth"
Ronde Alicaya
DXCC RMN, Cagayan de Oro


In everyday endeavor people need food.

Food is our body's fuel in order to accomplish tasks regardless of how small or big that task or project may be. But food is limited, and the situation may even aggravate for some issues, like the diminishing number of farmers, insufficiency of space for planting—especially in urban areas, lack of water supply and climate change.

Nowadays, most of the people who are living in urban areas are dependent on farm produce from upland agriculture, while other supplies are imported from other countries. As a result, the consumers become hostage to price fluctuation.

The good news is, there is farming system which can be done any time anywhere because it needs not wait for a planting season. Maybe people are now aware about urban agriculture and urban gardening. However, have they ever heard of "Square Foot Urban Gardening"?

AUDIO CLIP (Honorio Cervantes: "The Kangkong takes only 18 days to plant, and you can harvest it. In squarefoot gardening, in a single squarefoot, 36 'tudling' can be produced and one can harvest more than 500mgs of it, in 18 days. You see? It's easy".)

The squarefoot gardening is a farming system which was introduced not by an agriculturist but by an American civil engineer named Engr. Mel Bartolomew.

According to Engr. Bartolomew, he made squarefoot gardening system because of what he observed as wrong and wasteful system of farming and laborious way or method of farming.

AUDIO CLIP (Engr. Mel Bartolomew: "Now, this system is a very condensed, natural organic method. In fact, you can grow 100 percent of the harvest compared to regular single row gardening with only 50 percent of the cost, and 20 percent of the space, and then 10 percent of the water, and five percent of the seeds, and only two percent of the work. It's all that easy".)

Squarefoot gardening system has been here for a long time in America and other third world countries. In fact, they have now a worldwide foundation called Square Foot Gardening Foundation.

In the Philippines on the other hand, the adaptation was only recently and only a few individuals are practicing it even though the system is highly adaptable for urban dwellers.

One of the few who adapted the system is the 65 years old Cagayanon, a former Philippine Constabulary Colonel and an incumbent Councilor of Brgy. Pagatpat in Cagayan de Oro City in the person of Honorio Cervantes.

AUDIO CLIP (Honorio Cervantes: "When I started this last year, April 2014, I saw that I can share the system to my fellow farmers in Brgy. Pagatpat. I shared it to them that I have an advocacy in terms of a project that in my mind, I believe could held put food to the table of a family. Also, I notice that there is a lack of focus on the farming system that uses only a little space. Imagine, in a space of only three (3) or 4 by 4 squarefoot gardening, one can already produce vegetables instantly, if one chooses the right plant for the squarefoot gardening".)

When asked whether he has some worries or is there something that inspire or  urged him to advocate organic farming through squarefoot gardening, Cervantes said...

AUDIO CLIP (Honorio Cervantes: "If you look at the statistics now of the profile of our farmers, you will be alarmed. You will wonder because the profile of our farmers now are 54 years old and above. It is quite alarming; there is no more next generation of farmers. So, what shall we do? How should we address this since our younger generation are hooked to the internet, vices and nobody focuses on gardening anymore?").

            Honorio Cervantes is now active on propagating to the public the  squarefoot urban gardening system which he adapted from Mel Bartolomew. And to attest to Filipinos ingenuity in innovating things, he put in some innovations to the system so it would suit to Philippine setting. According to Cervantes, because of what he saw as the potential of squarefoot gardening, he now make it as a personal advocacy by teaching the technology to organizations and students, for free.

AUDIO CLIP (Honorio Cervantes: "I saw that one of the contributing factors on food sufficiency for the family is planting vegetables like, pinakbit, sinigang, etc that can be adapted in lowland agriculture. We are here in urban area so we have to plant vegetables that can be planted in lowland. Now, we also have climate change, that's a huge problem. How would we able to protect ourselves? And, one of my focuses also is the implementation of the Organic Act, agriculture in organic way to avoid eating food with pesticide").

Maybe some people are thinking now how good this technology really is and how big its impact to the country? However, In order to appreciate more about the technology, one should take a look at what problems the country is now facing?

First, the Philippines is now facing the problem of diminishing number of next generation of farmers and fishermen who would produce food for the rest of us. Based on the data presented by the Department of Agriculture during the senate budget hearing in 2012, the average age of farmers and fishermen is 57 years old. Meaning, few years from now we might have a worst food deficiency problem.

Second, starting next month, it is expected that El Ñino phenomenon will hit the entire world. According to experts abroad, this El Ñino phenomenon is worse compared to 1983 and 1997 El Ñino. And it might last a long time, that's why they called it a "Godzilla El Ñino".

This crisis is also expected by our local weather experts in Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical Astronomical Services Administration (PAG-ASA). According to PAG-ASA Weather Specialist Luz Mercado of El Salvador City, Misamis Oriental...

            AUDIO CLIP (Luz Mercado, weather specialist, PAG-ASA: "El Ñino is global phenomenon. Since last quarter last year—October last year, we already have signs of weak El Ñino and until now, even though we have some rains the phenomenon is still here. Currently, it is forecasted moderate, and for the last quarter of this year and until the first quarter next year, it was forecasted strong. The effect of the El Ñino until next year is strong then it would terminate by May 2016. So, we advise our farmers these days not to plant indiscriminately but to choose crops that are drought resistant, like root crops. So, expected or forecasted that the effect of this El Ñino phenomenon will be as strong as the 1983 and 1997 El Ñino, respectively".)

And since we might experience water supply deficiency, we have to conserve it.

Now the question is what the people can do specially those who are urban settlers with limited space, limited time—because they have to work hard due to higher prices of commodities? Even water is also a problem here because aside from the lack of supply, it is also expensive.

According to Honorio Cervantes, squarefoot urban gardening can possibly answer the food sufficiency problem.  Aside from that, it is proven an answer to laborious work in doing a single-row gardening because, first, it could be done easily with less time on land preparation. In fact, the land preparation can be done only in an hour. Also, it can be put beside the house, on the roof, on the backyard or from the ground up through vertical expansion. Or, indoor planting as long as it has fluorescent for lighting. Meaning it can be planted indoor or outdoor in residential areas and schools.

Third, this system and its design of gardening can be done by anybody, old young and even by persons with disabilities (PWDs).

AUDIO CLIP (Author: "Okay, let's say I have a box or a squarefoot space, can it be expanded into five or 10 storey?").

AUDIO CLIP (Honorio Cervantes: "Yes. As long as you put a "drift irrigation", you put a hose and empty bottle of mineral water, to feed water evenly").

AUDIO CLIP (Honorio Cervantes: "The secret on squarefoot gardening is soil. It has three components: light, soil, and water").

AUDIO CLIP (Author: So, your squarefoot gardening system now is already a mixture of foreign technology and your ingenuity?").

AUDIO CLIP (Honorio Cervantes: "Yes. It's like my guide and I add some innovations to it because, of course, what was taught here was an American style, they have their own mixture. They have three mixings there; they have vermiculite, peat moss and compost (Mel’s Mix, derived from Engr. Mel Bartolomew’s name). I did not follow it. For the soil mix (he called it "Cervantes’ Mix"), I use animals manure. I have cow's manure, goat manure, vermicast from chicken dung. Then, I use lime which was washed out during typhoon Sendong, sand and gravel, and bamboo charcoal").   

For now Honorio Cervantes have given free trainings about the technology to students in region 10 and Luzon, organizations, foundations and schools here and abroad like the Land Care University of Australia. All this can be found in his logbook at his office in Brgy. Pagatpat, Cagayan de Oro City inside his garden. A garden wherein a hidden fishpond is underneath which can be seen through a bamboo opening on the floor.

AUDIO CLIP (Author: "Your area here is 300 square meters, right? How many varieties have you planted here—aside from the tilapia under our feet?").

AUDIO CILP (Honorio Cervantes: "I have here 22 varieties all in all, vegetables and root crops. And this is only basic").

CLIP (Author: "We all know that every now and then prices of basic commodities fluctuates, like prices of vegetable. In some instances the increase in prices is artificial because of some alleged hording. But, most often than not, the adjustment of prices is up. What squarefoot gardening can do to combat this concern?").

AUDIO CLIP (Honorio Cervantes: "My answer to that is very simple, it's really simple: do it in squarefoot gardening so that you will not buy from the market anymore. Self-reliance, self sufficiency. You should start from your own. If everybody in the house plant vegetables, what would a family will be needing for?

For now, Honorio Cervantes plan is to continue spreading the information regarding squarefoot urban gardening system. This even, according to him, the government lacks support for this kind of project.

AUDIO CLIP (Honorio Cervantes: "When I studied about doing an all-organic seedling, I think it's difficult as of this time. So, we have instead semi-organic seedling because what we got now for organic farming is 30-70 or 50-50 combination. We cannot implement immediately a sudden change to all-organic to those who are using fertilizer but to nudge them little by little. I get my seed from local seed company. However, some local seedling grows improperly. We have supplies from the government but, sometimes it's also problematic. We cannot really blame the government entirely but maybe in the process of procurement and transportation because sometimes the seedlings do not grow").

In retrospect, in 2011, Senate Bill No. 2095 or Urban Agriculture and Vertical Farming Act were pushed. Also, in 2013, a similar Bill, House Bill No. 720 or the Urban Agriculture Act of 2013 was filed, purposely to address the food sufficiency concern in the country. However, until now the two House Bills was not enacted into law.

AUDIO CLIP (Honorio Cervantes: "In my age, I am already a senior citizen. For me these days, my concern is to focus on my advocacy, that I can share the method on saving spaces, to enable the people to plant right to reduce their problems, like; land preparation, pest control management. And we still have to face the climate change which is unpredictable. This (squarefoot urban gardening) is our defense. Squarefoot Urban Gardening is one of the methods in agriculture that can be done even in almost no space. It can be done in subdivisions, resettlements, and even in high-rise building. This is what we need so we can eat").

AUDIO CLIP (Honorio Cervantes: "My intention here is to impart to the public what I introduced to them and for them to realize its advantage. I don't want anything but to give free training, as long as I can").

Before he gives me a nod for an interview, Honorio Cervantes really made sure that the interview will be in his garden. "To see is to believe" is what he told me, and he proudly flaunts his entire place the entire course of my visit.

Finally, my on-site interview to Honorio Cervantes will not be complete if I cannot taste also his produce. Luckily, he joyfully offered a bunch of Chinese Kankong, Okra, and Kundol, fresh from the garden.

For the special report, Ronde Alicaya, Tatak RMN.