AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: Q&A with “The Backyard Farm” Author Paula Zayco Aberasturi

Anyone can venture into gardening. It may be done in a patio, backyard, or windowsill.

Lawyer and biodynamic farmer Paula Aberasturi shares her insights about farming and writing an easy-to-follow gardening book that will surely inspire you to get your hands dirty and grow your own food—no need to go far from the city.

ANVIL: How did you get started in farming and gardening? What are the vegetables and crops you grow?

PAULA: I grew up in Negros, where everyone had some sort of sugarcane plantation. My father was a farmer. Except I was embarrassed when I had to write “Farmer” under Father’s Occupation.  I wished then I could write something more lucrative, like lawyer or doctor, businessman or banker. I guess that’s why I became a lawyer and then only much later remembered to be a farmer again.

After I had my children, wholesome food became an obsession.  Since we lived in the city then, hours away from our flower farm in Bukidnon, I had to rummage about markets and buy expensive organic produce.  I went bonkers over the absurdity of buying expensive food that we could grow ourselves.  And so begun my venture into biodynamic vegetable farming.

I can’t say I was inspired to do farming. I see it more as someone up there conspiring to carry me exactly where I’m supposed to be, doing exactly what I am supposed to do.  And of course, it was that nagging feeling that I needed to see everything as a whole for my children, and that included what I fed them, and where we lived.

We have 50 chickens, 6 rabbits and 8 dogs, and are welcoming hosts to ladybugs, earthworms, butterflies, birds, all sorts of creepy crawlies, the village owl and even snakes.  We’ve even have turtles sometimes venturing into our front yard.

Our homestead has raised beds (600 square meters of food garden,) nurseries, worm bins, a chicken coop and chicken run, 2 compost piles, and a rainwater catchment we built (we are able to harvest and use 1000 liters of rainwater.) Our front yard, our garage, and our garden are planted to crops instead of ornamental plants.  Our canopies are of Passion Fruit, our hedges are Turmeric and Sambong, and our gate cover is of the climbing blue ternate flower, heirloom cherry tomatoes or sitaw. We have fruit trees surrounding the house such as Atis, Starapple, banana, papaya, jackfruit, Mango and Cacao. As hedges or bushes we have Kadios, malunggay, sili, calamansi and corn. The beds grow “Bahay Kubo” local vegetables, and herbs. Under the ground are root crops such as air potato and cassava, and our nurseries grow the micro greens. And of course, we have edible weeds everywhere (amaranth, pancit-pancitan, tawa-tawa.)

ANVIL: What are the similarities and differences between farming and gardening?

PAULA: When we say “gardening” we think of grandmas and housewives, tending well-kept beds of flowers and ornamental plants. When we say “farming,” we envision hectares of land, a tractor or carabao, labor, and crops to sell. However, with today’s trend of urban agriculture or kitchen gardens, the lines have been blurred. You can now say “gardening” and also mean the growing of crops, except that you do it in small spaces: your home, a patio, your backyard; and without economic benefit except that you can food from the garden or have a hand in helping Mother Nature.

ANVIL: What are the challenges in farming and gardening in a tropical country like the Philippines?

PAULA: They have winter. Winter does its own clearing of pests and disease. It also allows beds and the ground to rest, and thus regenerates the soil. We don’t have that. We have a wet and wetter season. Did you know that the Philippines has among the highest rainfall in the world? If we grow temperate vegetables, we need to do it under rain shelters, or we do it with back breaking labor and toil. Temperate crops, which are the crops Filipinos love to eat or have on their table, do not thrive well when wet. They drown. Wet weather brings you a host of other problems like pests and disease. This is why in a tropical setting, the planting of multiple crops or companion planting is crucial.

We also have to, without the help of winter sleep, build the soil’s fertility with composting and other methods. Lastly, during summer, we need to cover our beds and gardens with mulch, as the harsh sun dries up the soil.

ANVIL: What is your advice to those who want to venture into the farming business?

PAULA: When you grow up in the city, you tend to have an idealized notion of farming. It’s the man with a cowboy hat and, in our tropical world, wearing slippers. It’s a life of rolling plains, of sowing, of having nature take its course, and of one day harvesting a row of lettuce heads and rosemary. It is pastoral and slow paced. You read a book with a cup of coffee until your seeds germinate and the flowers wake up.

But it is neither pastoral nor slow. You’re not just reading a book with coffee, you’re trying to grasp every plant and why peppers won’t thrive where you live. Farming is abuzz and fierce. You have a trillion things thriving, multiplying and dying. And then intensify that with the mighty elements, the phases of the moon, the unrelenting rain, and humus that you need to keep alive. And so I think you must first truly want the life of humus, of tending plants and then growing food. And then you can start answering the practical questions: how much space; how much sun or water; and especially how much time am I willing to give? Lastly as I always say: start small, dare to make mistakes and let nature guide you.

ANVIL: What can people expect from your book?

PAULA: The Backyard Farm is an easy handbook that should enable anyone to start his/her own backyard farm or kitchen garden. And I daresay, anyone. My hope is that the simplicity and the modest number of pages would persuade anyone to pick up the book, and that its straightforwardness would inspire anyone to unleash the farmer within.

Backyard of her home in Laguna

ANVIL: How does your writing process differ from writing a blog versus writing a book on farming and gardening?

PAULA: I wrote the farming and kitchen gardening book as a guide, a how-to, or a tool box. And so I walk you through the process, as though I am learning it myself. When I was writing for our Farm Blog, I always wrote it as a story. It was often anecdotal without specifics or direction. This book however, I wrote having would-be farmers and beginners in mind. And thus, it has more than just wisdom and wit, it has tools, illustrations, how-to’s and step-by-step guides.

ANVIL: What sets The Backyard Farm apart from other books on gardening or small-scale farming?

PAULA: I offer three new things: (1) a farming book for the tropics; (2) for a garden, a patio, or even a windowsill; and (3) it is so simple that a girl from the city who knows zilch about farming can understand.

There has never been a backyard farming book for the tropics. It has always been a farming book written for temperate countries, or a tropical large-scale farming book. I searched for a backyard farming book that a city girl in the Philippines could understand. I found none. And so instead, I wrote it myself.

ANVIL: What useful tips can you share to those who want to write about gardening and farming?

PAULA: The problem with those who work the land is that we all know there is no magic formula. The problem with writers who desire to write about farming is that we get hooked on particulars and procedures. I believe the key to writing about growing food is to follow the way nature does it: have a nice blend of science and magic. And lastly, keep it uncomplicated, easy and fun. Gardeners or farmers don’t read. They would rather be knee-deep in compost, listening to birdsong.