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Posted On: 24 December 2019 05:42 pm
Updated On: 12 November 2020 02:06 pm

Qommunity Voices: Grow vegetables at home with Michael Forcado

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Growing vegetables at home is nothing new to Michael Forcado and his family. Growing up in the Philippines, his mother started a small vegetable farm in front of their home to help feed the family. The excess from the bountiful harvest was then shared with their neighbors. Here in Qatar, Michael continued his mother's legacy and did not let space restraints stop him from growing their own vegetables on the roof deck of the villa where they are staying.

By profession, Michael Forcado is a CPA and has been working in Qatar for 11 years, managing the Finance section of a group of companies based in Doha. He is currently residing in Doha with his wife and two boys, ages 14 and 11. It is because of his family that he started growing vegetables again. Not just to save money but more importantly so that his family will be able to get proper nutrients from fruits and vegetables that are free from harmful pesticides.

ILQ was able to get insights on how he started his gardening journey and how he is sharing his knowledge (and harvest) to other people. Here is what we learned:

1. How did you get into vegetable gardening? What pushed you to pursue it here in Doha?

Michael: When I was a little boy growing up in the Philippines, we were always short of budget and for this reason, my mother initiated a family project to clean a vacant lot (not ours) in front of our house and utilized it as a small vegetable farm. My mother is a housewife and my father is a retired forklift operator in a manufacturing firm. My interest and passion for growing vegetables were kindled in my early childhood because I saw the bountiful crops we harvested which we also shared with our neighbors.

Here in Qatar, vegetables are expensive because these are mostly imported from neighboring countries that is why any amount we can save by producing our own vegetables is a big help in our day to day budgeting.

2. How do you grow vegetables? What techniques are you using?

Michael: We used to stay in a corner lot villa where there is plenty of space for gardening. The major challenge we encountered was that the soil is too hard and rocky to be used for gardening. Natural composting of kitchen waste (except fish, meat and dairy products) helped us a lot in improving the quality of the soil. And in no time, we were able to grow green leafy vegetables such as snow cabbage (pechay), sweet potatoes, and other vegetables like okra and tomatoes. We were also able to grow the nutritious malunggay with the scientific name Moringa Oleifera.

A few years after, we had to move to a new villa where there is no space available for gardening. More so, we are staying on the topmost part of the villa with a roof deck. This is when the idea of the hydroponics method of growing vegetables was accidentally introduced to me through YouTube. The method that I use is only basic hydroponics or the one that does not use electricity, artificial lighting, or pumps.

Alongside hydroponics, we also plant vegetables using conventional methods of gardening in soil. It's quite a big challenge to grow vegetables on the roof deck because we had to gather soil from whatever sources available and mixed it with compost and then patiently brought them to the rooftop. We normally pull over the car and collect whenever we find some good sand and soil and dried leaves by the roadside.

3. What plants are you propagating? Do you also plant during the summer season?

Michael: Our favorite crop to grow is kangkong (a.k.a. water spinach or river spinach) because it is easy to grow whether through soil or hydroponics, plus the fact that this vegetable flourishes and survives even during the hot summer months of May to October. Kangkong is a very common ingredient in Southeast Asian dishes such as the famous “stir-fried water spinach” usually mixed with chili pepper, garlic, and other spices. We also grow a variety of vegetables like tomatoes, pechay, lettuce, okra, string beans, cauliflower, broccoli, potatoes, chili pepper, and herbs and spices like oregano and sweet basil. However, these vegetables do not survive during the hot summer months.

4. What do you do with your harvest?

Michael: We grow food primarily for personal consumption. I want my family to be able to get proper nutrients from fruits and vegetables that are free from harmful pesticides. Also, we earn extra income from selling kangkong that we deliver to our favorite Filipino-Chinese-Indonesian-Malaysian restaurant. It’s so rewarding to see our two boys delighted whenever they receive the payment for their hard work.

5. Where do you shop for gardening supplies? Was it difficult to get the necessary materials?

Michael: We get our gardening supplies from various shops in Doha. We get the cocopeat and potting soil from the gardening shops located in Abu Hamour, where a variety of seeds and fertilizers for soil gardening are also available. The major challenge is where to get the plant nutrients for our hydroponics system because it is not readily available in the gardening shops. Fortunately, we were able to source out an alternative plant nutrient for hydroponics in one of the agricultural shops in Salwa (Agricultural Materials Company Ltd). There are also a number of gardening groups and clubs in Qatar where you can ask for tips and where to buy cheap gardening materials. Some would even go the extra mile and welcome you to their houses to share with you the extra seeds and seedlings that they have. IKEA also sells trash bins which costs QR 4 which one can use as pots and containers for plants and vegetables.

6. Where’s your favorite “green space” here in Qatar?

Michael: Our favorite green space in Qatar is Al Bidda Park because of its proximity to our residence in Wadi Al Sail. The park is open to the public and offers a variety of activities for the whole family including biking, jogging, complete play area for children and plentiful picnic grounds!

7. Why should people get into gardening here in Qatar?

Michael: In a world where everything is remote controlled and you get almost everything instantly in a push of a button, I think the best reward that one can get from gardening is to be able to see beautiful things coming into life from a tiny seed. To be able to see things grow right before your eyes. As most of us spend long hours on gadgets and devices, we tend to forget that we were designed to be in the outdoor and to sweat under the sun! to see the colors, smell the flowers, hear the birds as they sing their hearts out. To appreciate the fresh air and get our hands dirty! I believe this is what we were designed to be doing.

And by the way, I have come across a recent study that says there is strong evidence that gardeners live longer and are less stressed. A variety of studies confirm this, pointing to both the physical and mental health benefits of gardening. So, what are we waiting for? :) Start planting now!

8. What do you suggest for people who feel like they don’t have green thumbs? Any tips for beginners to start with?

Michael: The best tip I can give for beginners is to actually start. After all, experience is the best teacher. You will never know that you can grow these amazing seeds unless you start. Secondly, the success of propagating seedlings largely depends on the quality of the seeds that you have that is why it is so important to check the expiry date of the seeds you are buying from the supermarkets and gardening shops. I prefer to buy seeds that are at least one year prior to the expiry date. Thirdly, if you do not have experience with composting, you can initially buy cocopeat and mix it with potting soil. Then you can gradually include kitchen waste like fruit peelings, vegetable trimmings, and eggshells to increase soil nutrients. I do not advise putting dairy products, fish, and meat as this will attract flies and other insects that are difficult to manage.

For pest management, we avoid using insecticide because we want to maintain the garden as organic as possible. We diligently and patiently pick and prick any spotted harmful worm or insect, and if it becomes too many and uncontrollable, we use a mild solution of dishwashing liquid soap mixed with water and neem oil to control the aphids. But so far this year, we are fortunate that we did not encounter any aphids.

Watch Michael's video on his easy and step-by-step tutorial on basic hydroponics.

9. Did you notice any change after growing and eating your own food?

Michael: Our children became more interested in eating vegetables because they see how these lovely greens grow from seed to harvest. They are healthier and are more resistant to common diseases such as cough and colds and flu.

10. Why do you love what you do?

Michael: Family bonding time and creating lasting memories are the best rewards we get from gardening, plus the fact that we know that we have fresh and organic vegetables on our table all the time. We also share our produce with our friends and neighbors which is very fulfilling and rewarding.

11. Are you teaching any classes on gardening aside from posting tips on your Facebook page?

Michael: We have a community of expat Filipino workers here in Qatar and they visit us during weekends to learn vegetable gardening. We give them tips and ideas on how they can also grow their own vegetables using limited space and resources. As a matter of fact, most of my friends here have now started their own vegetable gardens in their backyards and balconies.

12. Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Michael: I get inspired daily whenever I see new leaves and flowers blossoming from the tiny branch of a plant. I get inspired whenever I smell the sweet scent of oregano or basil. I feel happy whenever I see our children’s eyes grow big because of the bountiful harvest we get from the garden. I feel glad whenever we can share our produce with our neighbors, and they thank us by giving us a portion of their cooked dish with the vegetables in it. I feel blessed because the Almighty God gives us the opportunity to grow vegetables by giving us the warmth of the sunshine and the dew from heaven which are all supplied to us daily so bountifully and free : )

I also got inspired after watching the movie “The Martian” in 2015 played by actor Matt Damon. He played the role of an astronaut who was able to grow vegetables on planet Mars in order to survive. Now, if he was able to grow vegetables up there on Mars, I believe we can also grow our own vegetables here in the desert!

13. What is the biggest difficulty you have faced?

Michael: Here in the Middle East, there is no storm or cyclone but the biggest challenge we face is that it can really get hot during the summer months of June to October. The ideal months for growing vegetables are from November to May. To help the plants survive during summer, we put green garden nets from one side of the wall to the other side of the wall. As lettuce, tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage cannot survive during the hot summer months, we grow lemongrass, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and other green leafy vegetables like kangkong and pakchoi. It's also quite a big challenge to grow vegetables on the roof deck because we had to gather soil from whatever sources available and mix them with compost. We normally pull over the car whenever we find some good sand and soil and dried leaves by the roadside.

14. How do you balance work and your passion?

Michael: I’m an accountant during weekdays and a gardener during weekends, yet I am a full-time father to two wonderful boys and a committed husband to a lovely queen. I am just grateful and blessed that my family also loves what I do. It is really just a matter of pursuing your passion amidst your busy schedule.

15. Do you have any message for the people of Qatar?

Michael: We are forever grateful to this beautiful country and its people for being an instrument of God to bless me and my family and the people around me. Although we have been away from our homeland for quite a while now, I can say that we have found a home right here in the desert, in this young country blossoming from the sand.

To my fellow gardening enthusiasts, let us continue to make a positive impact on our community by helping those who are less privileged and help each other and share whatever little resources we have.

Lastly, I would like to mention that it is so easy to feel the love of God through the simple things around us. Waking up to be greeted by the warmth of the sunshine and seeing these beautiful flowers, fruits, and vegetables. It's just priceless!


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