A tale of two gardens–and a marriage | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

One has to look hard enough to see that, for all the assertive individualism characterizing it, Cherry Pie and Leo’s marriage actually works.

Scarcely seen together outside their home, they’re bound, indeed, to provoke wrong impressions. Even one picture showing only the two of them to document moments of visible togetherness was hard to come by. So, instead of a wedding-day picture dug up from 47 years ago, which would only tend precisely to defeat the purpose, she has sent me a family picture, which she has plenty of.

“See how easy it is to believe we’re no longer together,” she says, laughing confidently.

In fact almost as soon as they became one, Cherry Pie Villonco and Leo Lazatin went about their separate personal and professional pursuits, and have continued to do so until only recently. Going into the “twilight of our years” (her own phrase, uttered after some groping, illustrated with two fingers on each hand held up scratching at air to supply the quotations, lest the phrase be taken morbidly), they decided to ease themselves out of their careers, toward retirement, and do something, together, perhaps build a resthouse.


Cherry Pie quit as a high-fashion model when she married Leo, a surgeon, and joined her family’s business in films. The only thing she has kept from her modeling years is some friendships.

Taking his medical ethics solemnly, especially where these concerned revelations about patients, Leo couldn’t talk shop with his lay wife, whose own interests lay elsewhere. Plants were among them. They have always been since childhood, and she has never forgotten the thrill of growing her first roses from cuttings.

Conversant with plants, she can identify just about all of them, matching Leo’s own medical and pharmacological jargon, Latin for Latin.

His own hobby was big-game hunting, which but for trained guides, he did alone. In his den at home stands a leopard in a positively unwelcoming stance, thankfully taxidermied. It had once menaced an African town in the Kalahari. He agreed to put an end to it, taking it with one shot and earning himself a feast for a hero.

Cherry Pie herself preferred cruises anytime and would have turned down an invitation to a safari if he invited her, which he didn’t. He did go on a cruise with her, but that only affirmed it wasn’t his thing. They hardly had conversations that did not reduce the other to, at best, “a polite listener,” she says.

When their three daughters were finally grown, it seemed the perfect time for the rest house, Leo’s idea.

“I would have preferred Tagaytay [Cavite], or Baguio, to Pagsanjan [Laguna], but he was quite insistent on having a house where he didn’t have to look out on his neighbor’s roof,” says Cherry Pie, who could not argue against the suitability of the hilly 1.2 hectares belonging to Leo’s mother.

Leo seemed to know exactly where to build—on a plateau with a view of the Sierra Madre on one side and the Bumbungan River on another. The land required taming with a backhoe, and the 17 springs that made the earth swampy had to be networked and coaxed to flow back into the river—truly a man’s task.

Cherry Pie, on the other hand, visualized a pond of lotus and lilies, something out of Monet’s garden in Giverny, France. He left the creation of the garden to her.

But for all the freedom and the generous budget given her, she felt overwhelmed by her task. She returned to Edmond Rodriguez, the same landscapist who had helped her with her home garden. Edmond knew she was not, though a friend, an easy client, knowledgeable and decisive as she was.

“Edmond had good ideas, with a good sense of proportion,” Cherry Pie says, “and he let me choose the plants.”

Leo and Cherry Pie shared the vision and purpose for the project, and the first thing they agreed on was to leave the century-old coconut and gmelina trees alone.

“We planted the children’s favorite fruit trees—that was 14 years ago. Now our children and their own children—our grandchildren—are enjoying the fruits,” says Cherry Pie.

She and Edmond planted the huge property in patches, “in a trial-and-error manner,” she says. In the long process, they became experts in what plants thrived and looked prettiest where, and also discovered many indigenous species. On the house’s perimeter itself, they landscaped around a natural waterfall and a pond.

Highest point

Leo, meanwhile, decided to build himself a den, which didn’t strike Cherry Pie as unusual—he has a well-stayed-in one at home. But he was this time eyeing the highest point, reachable from the main house by a long uphill climb, and envisioning an entirely separate structure.

“He wanted to get away from me, siguro,” she teases.

When the den was done, Edmond and Cherry Pie rechanneled their creative labor around it. “But Leo started removing our plants until virtually he had undone all our work,” says Cherry Pie. “It became clear Leo had a different kind of garden in mind.”

“Magulo ang isip ng gumawa niyan,” she recalls Leo remarking.

He wanted “an uncluttered natural look, peaceful and serene, Zen-like if you like.” On a hillside he installed a life-sized Buddha. He was partial to ferns and palms, and for color he conceded bromeliads, on Cherry Pie’s expert view. Thus Leo created his garden.

Cherrie Pie’s own, in contrast, exploded with colors and scents, a work in constant progress, requiring planting and replanting and, therefore, a lot of care.

She likens gardening to motherhood, never ending, awaiting surprises: “Plants are like children: You never know how they’ll turn out; you just take care of them and love them.”

“We visit our gardens at least twice a month, three days each time,” she says. “Leo stays in his den, while the children and grandchildren are happy to be with me in the main house. Sometimes, though not usually now, Leo and I go separately.”


Three gardeners tend their gardens, one of whom Cherry Pie suspects to be the reincarnation of one of the builders of the Banawe rice terraces, some replica of which he has built, with river boulders, as a stairway to Leo’s garden.

Both religious and prayerful, Cherry Pie and Leo like to think of their gardens as homage to God. “The land that was laid waste has become like the garden of Eden,” says Cherry Pie, quoting Ezekiel, investing their separate gardens with a profound, if not-so-obvious, sense of oneness.

And if there yet be any doubts, she wrote him on their 47th wedding anniversary, on Sept. 19: “To Leo, my Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”—love words that happen to be the name of a favorite flowering plant of hers.

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