A little paradise outside your door
If you have some space, however small, at home, some greening may be all that you need to liven
A look at the garden outside the three-bedroom house at Nyahera on the outskirts of Kisumu gives the impression that it was made more by luck than judgment. Yet the off-hand manner of its owner — the camera-shy and private Doris — disguises a professional modesty that is evidence that gardening is not a rich man’s affair, so every Kenyan can make their own on an incredibly low budget.
This is how Doris, who refused to be photographed for this piece, achieved her little heaven on earth: Working on a green-on-purple-on-pink colour pallet of foliage, plants, grasses, shrubs, and trees, Doris created a sophisticated urban garden that is practical in Kisumu’s hot and humid climate.
The fact that she used at least three different contrasting types of flowers and plants, none of them a perfect variety, is the first clue that Doris is not a novice in the world of gardening, and the impact of that choice is felt the moment she allows you through her green gate to a strip of grass sandwiched between stones arranged in a wavy pattern leading to the second green gate.
The grass fills in the voids between the stones and covers the largest part of her garden. Her grass is the fast-growing Paspalun species, even though she could as well have used other types of grass here, such as the Zimbabwe or Kikuyu varieties.
From the second gate, one is ushered into a similar strip of grass directing you to the main house. On either side of the second strip is an array of plants: cactus, grass, and bougainvillea, and in between are waist-high and water-proof light bulbs, which Doris says are her garden accessories. On the left side is another fancy lawn with a white bird feeder placed in the middle.
There are stairs on either side of the garden leading to the house and on the left side is a swing, another of her garden accessories, as are the brown clay pots carefully placed in strategic points around the garden.
Doris says she has always been fascinated by the “therapeutic effects of plants on the home that you go to everyday after a hard day’s work”, and so her decision to green her compound was not just for aesthetics, but the cosy feeling you get when you are in a place you love.
So much is her enthusiasm about plants that, while she was in Nairobi before she retired, she had rallied other residents in her apartment block in Hurlingham to put potted plants and some trees around their swimming pool.
“They grumbled about the idea,” she remembers, “but I did it on my own and five years later I could barely get to enjoy the shade as everyone thronged there.”
PATCH OF UNKEMPT GRASS
It is difficult to imagine that the place on which the garden rests in her current home was no more than a patch of unkempt grass and hard virgin soil just a few years ago. “It was plain and drab and depressing,” she says, and that was obviously anathema to a woman with an eye for detail, tranquillity, and an orderly mind.
Confronted with the ghost of a dented bank account and a desire to have a great garden, Doris scoured the pages of international home magazines she had subscribed to for over a decade such as Better Homes and Verandah from where she says she got ideas not only for her exterior house design, but the interior as well.
The several succulent shrubs and cactus in her garden, ideas for which she says she picked up from the magazines, are in fact one of gardening’s hottest trends right now. Robert Isabwa, the director of Greenlawn Landscapers, says succulent plants are the right variety to go for as they are resilient and can withstand dry spells, which are common in these climes.
And Edwin Mwangi, the director of Nairobi-based Eden Gardening, concurs with Doris’ choice of plants, adding that everyone planning to green his or her compound must consider the climate of the area. Other resilient plants include Buranda, ornamental or wild roses, and palm trees, which Doris also has in her garden. “Some of these plants cost as little as Sh20… only the palm tree would cost about Sh250,” says Mwangi of Greenlawn Landscapers.
But it is not just the beauty and colour of her garden that was of interest to Doris when she started out, the smell of her lovely paradise was important too. And so, behind the main entrance to her house and directly facing her bedroom window majestically stands the scented Queen of the Night, which is valued for its relaxing scent.
The plant is also a pyrethroid and repels mosquitoes, so while Doris catches her 40 winks in a bedroom filled with a pleasant natural and free scent, she does not have to wake up every now and then to swat mosquitoes.
This paradise, however, did not fall from the skies. In her own words, it was a deliberate effort to make fuller use of what nature and fate threw her way. The landscaping, for instance, is the product of several “accidents” during the construction of her house which she turned into decorations.
“The bird feeding stone in the middle of the garden, for instance, is the creation of the defiance of the engineer building the house,” she explains. “I had asked him to build a resting shed for me on the peripheries of the garden, but he insisted that it looked better in the middle of the garden. I was so upset that I decided to turn it into a bird feeder!”
Doris cares for her flowers as she would her house. “I trim them when they are too bushy and weed, water, and change the beddings when they grow old.”
THINKING OF DOING IT? CONSIDER THESE:
Soil and topography:
The two gardeners we asked to evaluate Doris’ garden — Edwin Mwangi and Robert Isabwa — both gave her a six on a 10-point scale for her choice of plants, which they said considered the prevailing climate, soil topography and, most importantly, her health. If you want a hassle-free gardening experience, Isabwa advises, consider the topography of where you live because “the type of soil will determine the amount of time dedicated to taking care of the plants”.
Red soil is nutrient-rich but the black soil found in areas such as Syokimau, the larger part of Nyanza, and western regions must be mixed with loose loam to be able to support good gardening.
Black cotton soil, on the other hand, retains water, pushing all plant nutrients to the ground — a phenomenon called leaching — and when it gets dry it cracks, leaving huge spaces that make it difficult for plants to get nutrients from other parts of the soil.
Black cotton soils require a lot of manure too and Isabwa cautions against use of chicken droppings on gardens as these harbour termites that easily invade the flowers.
How often does it rain in your neighbourhood?
You cannot put a flower in the middle of the desert, then relax and wait for it to bloom. If there is no rainfall, Mwangi advises, you will have to water the plants yourself. But, even as you do that, it is advisable to pick drought-resistant and succulent varieties such as wild roses.
Water the plants only in the evening and morning as doing so when the soil is scorched by the sun ends up affecting their tender pericarps. Also, says Isabwa, find out how to deal with pests from agricultural officers, who will advise you on what plants fall prey to what organisms and help you chose weeding-inhibiting fertilisers and plants.
Doris went for the accidental bird feeder and light bulbs in her garden, and that was the easiest choice as it does not require much head scratching and planning. And, at night, says Mwangi, “the contrast of darkness and the bulbs intermingles with the scent of the plants to create such a refreshing atmosphere!”
You can also decorate your garden using other varieties of potted plants, but for these you must regularly change the soil and cut the roots and, over time, they tend to overgrow the pot.
DID YOU KNOW
Pruning helps your flowers maintain a healthy look, especially once you are satisfied that they have achieved the right height. When the apical bud is removed, naturally-occurring plant hormone Indole-3-acetic acid (IAA) found on the tip, is lowered, allowing lateral buds to grow and produce new shoots.
To maintain your garden, you need the right equipment for the right job. Consider buying a pair of secateurs, a jembe, and a rake. If you are a die-hard DIY fellow, think, too, of acquiring a sprinkler, a hosepipe, and a wheelbarrow.