US-based Filipina copes with the death of a loved one by growing local veggies

Losing a loved one may take years or even a lifetime of recovery from grief. Marissa “Marz” Ebarle Middleton, 42, a homecare therapist, knows this feeling as she suffered from her baby’s loss seven years ago. 

Marissa “Marz” Ebarle Middleton, 42, a homecare therapist, with her fur baby, in the garden where upo and ampalaya plants are found.

Middleton has been living in the US since 2003 with her American husband Charles. When they lost their premature baby in 2014, Marz had to keep herself occupied to deal with her grief. 

This, coupled with her longing for fresh Philippine produce and dishes, prompted Middleton to start growing vegetables at home.

“It is very sad when you go to the Asian store to buy vegetables and they just don’t look very fresh,” she said. 

Marz grows upo, patola, ampalaya, kamatis, talong, mani, sitaw, garlic, okra, malunggay, onions, pechay, spinach, sili, sigarilyas, kalabasa, labanos, mustasa, green beans, cucumbers, saluyot, and other vegetables in about 65 square meters of space.

“Every Mother’s day, my husband would build me a raised bed or a trellis. I am very proud of how my trellises or pergolas are built.” In the pergolas, she cultivates upo or bottle gourd and ampalaya, while her onions and tomatoes are grown in raised beds. 

Her garden has trellises or pergolas for her climbing plants. The location used to be a basketball court, which makes it easier to build the pergolas.

Gardening from the Philippines to Michigan

Middleton’s fascination with farming came from her upbringing. Growing up in Agusan del Norte, she used to spend time with her father in their backyard garden where bananas, corn, tomatoes, okra, and other crops were grown. 

Now that she is living abroad, she’s blessed to share this hobby with her father again amid the pandemic since her father paid them a visit and got stuck in the US due to travel restrictions.

Marz posing with her gigantic pechay plants.

Due to the temperate climate and shorter growing season in Michigan, this Filipina gardener needs to germinate seeds indoors before transferring them to the ground. She’s able to grow seedlings with the help of grow lights, heating mats, and fluorescent lights with high lumens. 

“It is hard to grow vegetables with long maturity days because as soon as they start producing flowers and fruits, the first frost always kills them. I cannot start them indoors for so long because it stresses the plant,” said Middleton. 

Kangkong plants that are grown in an old wheelbarrow.

Her seeds initially came from stores, but now, she mostly gets seeds from freebies or by bartering with other gardeners. 

Middleton also saves her kitchen scraps for compost, along with other green and brown compost materials like grass clippings, leaves, and wood shavings.

The garden has a frequent uninvited visitor, aka a deer, that keeps eating her long beans, eggplants, and tomatoes. Middleton, together with her husband and dad, placed a horizontal wire as an addition to their fence to prevent the deer from jumping into the garden.

Marz and Charles Middleton with their fur babies Benjie (tricolor) and Joey (blenheim).

Building an online garden community

In 2018, Middleton and her friends created a Facebook group in an attempt to connect with Filipino gardeners living in different parts of the world. The group, which they named “Global Filipino Gardening Ideas and Kitchen Tips,” has gathered over 18,400 Filipino group members to date. 

The online community has inspired Middleton to enroll in a class in Michigan State University Extension where she gets to study the basics of gardening and volunteer in the community.

The group also promotes the production of Philippine fruits and vegetables. “We have an annual gardening contest that showcases the longest, biggest, and odd Pinoy vegetables. Our prizes are not extravagant, but everyone is having fun.”

Sharing with people that matter the most

Middleton preserves her harvested vegetables that she happily shares with family and friends during winter. She makes flavored vinegar and pickled ampalaya and peppers from the garden. All homemade products she creates are gifts for her loved ones and are not for sale. 

She makes homemade products such as chili garlic sauce, spaghetti sauce, tomato salsa, fresh garlic sauce, and flavored spicy vinegar that she sends to her loved ones. She even created her own brand logo on each item.

She may have started gardening with a heavy heart after losing someone she loves, but as she moves forward in life, Middleton shares and dedicates the fruits of her hard work and passion to the people that are dear to her.

Read: Five basic requirements when growing Philippine crops in temperate regions

Photos courtesy of Marz Ebarle Middleton. 

For more information, visit Marz Kitchen and Garden or join the Global Filipino Gardening Ideas and Kitchen Tips group on Facebook. 

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