Building our house in the Philippines – landscaping and gardening on a budget. This is not about hiring an architect for an elaborate and artistic home landscape. It s to just share our experiences with making our 1,500 square meters of flat farmland into our own tropical paradise.
Planning for landscaping really begins even before you buy your property. If gardening and landscaping are important to you, factor in the size of the lot you’ll need. While growing vegetable can be done on the small lot, or even in pots, ambitious gardening is best served by a generous-sized lot or property. Unless you are building in the mountains (such as Baguio) you probably will have the climate common to the Philippines, hot with wet and dry seasons. This is great for tropical varieties but growing temperate zone crops may be difficult. A key consideration, especially for the larger lot is the type of soil on the lot. Great soil is a huge asset. Will your lot require filling, either because it is subject to flooding or because the soil on the lot is unsuitable for growing things? Filling may not be a big issue for the smaller lot but a large lot can require huge amounts of fill and considerable expense. The photograph below is of our lot as we bought it in 2008 — 1,500 square meters of typical rice land — fertile, heavy clay.
This is our lot shortly after Typhoon Frank in June of 2008. This kind of seasonal flooding is terrific for growing rice, but not so good for septic systems and house lots. So, our lot required filling to make it usable. This is typical of properties in low-lying areas such as Iloilo, Manila and many other parts of the Philippines. This should be factored into your plans in two ways. Filling is an additional expense and the quality of the filling is very important to the success of your future gardening and landscaping. Also consider the depth of the required fill. If the fill is minimal, plant roots will be mostly affected by the underlying native soil. Further, some species like having their roots in water and others don’t. Discussions with our engineer and with local residents suggested that actual flooding (overflowing rivers and so forth) were unlikely so that just enough filling to raise the lot about the surrounding rice land would be fine. Our problem is not really destructive flooding as in overflowing rivers, our problem is being located in a relatively flat terrain which can’t shed rain as fast as it falls, leaving temporary surface build-ups.
Another consideration is important. Although there is virtually no residential development around our property, it was prudent to assume that there would be in the future and that these future neighbors would fill their lots. If our lot ended up being the lowest in the neighborhood, our lot could be flooded by runoff from these neighboring lots. We have seen many properties in Iloilo which have been ruined when adjoining properties and public roads are filled.
Here is a tip. If you are building a perimeter fence and you have good soil, make sure your workers deposit the soil from the trench on to your property. This is mostly valuable topsoil. In our case it may be the best soil we have and since many of our plantings are along the fence, they have done especially well.
We managed to find a fine sandy soil which is dredged from the river in Cordoba, Iloilo. It’s likely that it really is soil washed down the denuded mountains of Iloilo Province. We were quoted a price of P250 per cubic meter. We happened to know that another major buyer of this same material paid P160 per square meter so we offered P170 for 150 cubic meters. Our offer was accepted. On the first day the trucks delivered fifteen ten cubic meter loads in one day. The truck were constantly getting stuck in the clayey soil of the lot. The workers were pretty good natured about that even though digging the big trucks out was a lot of work. While the soil looked loamy when it was wet, it really turned out to be sandier than we hoped. Proceed carefully as there is no real way to undo the filling.
While it’s always nice to write a narrative explaining how our well-planned project proceeded in order that readers can benefit from our brilliance, our story does not quite qualify. As you can see below, our new fill is covering up the relatively fertile native soil with our new, sandy filling. It would have been better to have scraped away and piled up the native topsoil, put down the fill material and then put the native topsoil on top where it belongs. This could have been done quite easily at the very start of our project so learn from our missteps!
In total, we’ve placed over 100 loads of fill in our 1,500 square meter lot at a cost of more than P100,000 ($3,000). Subsequently we searched for real topsoil for our raised bed. It was very difficult to find at any price. Here is some supposed topsoil which was terrible. Not much would grow in it. It was a subsoil from the mountains. If you have any interest in gardening or landscaping, don’t skimp on the quality of your fill and topsoil!
Finally we were able to purchase some useable fill. This soil is quite clayey but fertile. We mixed it with sand for our raised beds. We also had to dig out areas where concrete was spilled during house construction and put in topsoil.
Our landscaping plan was essentially to have an open lawn with a mixture of trees, shrubs and flowers on the perimeter. A vegetable garden would be in the area near our bahay kubo.
This pretty much covers the process of filling the lot. Now on to planting.
This is what our property looked like in May of 2009 after having finished building our fence. There is some gravelly fill in the foreground. This was to allow delivery trucks to enter the lot without getting stuck. You can also see some strings which we used to experiment with the exact position of the house.
As soon as the perimeter wall was finished in May, 2009 we started planting. We were so anxious to have something growing on our bare lot. We started planted even before the lot layout was finalized. Our jumping the gun caused some problems. We had a well established Fire (Flame tree) which we had to move. It died. We planted mangos, one of which is shown above. This mango is the only one which is really well located. Two other are so close to the house and septic system than they might need to be cut down.
This shows the same wall in May of 2012. The Acacia tree on which my sister-in-law is resting her feet is a little over three years old. Now it towers over the house. It started life as a two inch high seedling given to us by a member of our construction crew who knew we liked trees.
These banana plants now tower over our bahay kubo. They have produced big crops of excellent bananas.
Our “lawn” is totally natural vegetation kept moved with a gasoline powered mower. This is a technique Bob learned in the US. On bare ground, weeds and grass take hold. With constant mowing the grass out-competes the weeds and eventually you’ll have a lawn — not a perfect lawn, but one composed of native grasses which require no care except for mowing. The lawn may lose it’s bright green during the dry summer months but will spring back to life as soon as the rains return. Each year the lawn gets better with watering or fertilizing.
Our small vegetable garden produces more than we can eat. We grow eggplant, tomatoes, kang kong, basil, pechay, okra, and more.
We hope that this narrative gives you a sense of how much pleasure our modest property gives us. We fear that it will disappoint those preferring more refined landscaping and hopefully inspire those who seek the simple rural life in the Philippine provinces.
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