Gardening in small spaces: How I transformed my eighth of an acre in Athi River

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Otieno’s garden at his home in Machakos on August 14, 2023. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

What do you do when your land is only an eighth of an acre and you want a beautiful garden? For some homeowners, an eighth seems too small to add lots of greenery.

But Philip Otieno says to maximise space, you build your mansionette in the middle of the land, then create a symmetrical greenery and flowering garden.

At his home in Athi River, Philip has created his small green space disproving the idea that you must have a large piece of land to enjoy lush pemba grass, purple hydrangeas, Jasmine creepers, palm trees and succulents.

He did the most that he could with what he had.

Our one-hour journey to his home is dusty and hot but when we got to Philip’s home it was cool. His is a garden within a ‘desert’.

Outside his home compound, he has grown a hedge Hottentot fig that produces purple flowers. This succulent plant has helped to maintain the green, lush foliage outside his compound.

While squeezing a leaf of the succulent, Philip says, “It stores water for a long time. They are watered once every two weeks but they maintain the green colour all through.”


Hottentot fig hedge growing outside Otieno’s home in Machakos on August 14, 2023. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

Within the hedge, Philip has also grown the Alcaria trees and the cypress shrub. To vary the green, he has also grown the fire euphorbia which brings a variety in colour.

“Everything out here is green but then the pinkish fire euphorbia acts as a neutraliser,” he says.

His love for greenery was inspired by the fact that he wanted to turn his family home into a homely place.

“When we moved here, it was all concrete and I wanted a softer and more subtle place. Most of the plants we have produce flowers and make the place more lively.”

The 38-year-old accountant takes charge of caring for his garden.

As a man doing gardening he says, “I just love gardening. Plants tone down the concrete jungle. Every morning after breakfast, I go around my garden. Not only is it therapeutic but it also gives me a chance to inspect my garden and see what is not working and what needs to be improved. I need to inspect my garden for at least 15 or 20 minutes. It gives me a warm feeling like I am at home because most of the time I work from home,” he says.

The garden is one year and eight months old. The avid gardener likes having everything done in an organised and professional way.

“For the outside, I brought in a landscape architect to do the planning of the garden and for the implementation of the design I engaged Anthony Musau, the garden designer.”

The garden design

The garden is very organised. Everything in it has to have a purpose. His lawn comprises hardy pemba grass growing neatly.


A section of a garden at Otieno’s home in Machakos on August 14, 2023. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

“When I stand here (he stands at one edge of his garden), I would like to see a straight line to the other edge of the garden,” says Philip of his desire for a perfect garden.

He adds, “If you look at the structure of the place everything is either symmetrical or it has a purpose. On one side of the garden we have a traveller's palm and on the other end, there must be a traveller's palm.”

On the brick wall facing the road, Philip has grown large-leafed climbers and creepers that he says capture dust and prevent it from getting to the house. It is also in his front yard that you are introduced to the pattern of organising that he needs in his garden.


A section of a garden at Otieno’s home in Machakos on August 14, 2023. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

Next to the traveller's palm, he has grown the beautifully pink oleander rose and the Sago palm which he says cannot grow beyond the level of his windows as he does not want it blocking the light getting into his house through the window.

“The tallest the sago palm can reach is here (shows us the level of his window) so it cannot block the sunlight from getting in through my window.”

To cover the brick perimeter wall he has planted a jasmine creeper that produces white flowers when in bloom, the reason being, “White makes a place look bigger, it is all in the planning.”

On one side of his home, he has grown red and yellow hibiscus plants.

“The whole idea is to have this side having a dash of red and yellow. Then we have Irensine (the blood-leafed plant) to add some colour variety and neutralize,” Philip tells the BDLife.

At every corner of Philip’s garden, there is a snake plant growing. The purpose is to ward off snakes. “Snakes fear other snakes and are very territorial so when they see the snake plant they assume that this is a bigger snake and run away,” Philip says of his snake-chasing tactics.

Outside all windows of his house, Philip has grown repellent plants that have a wonderful smell which he says help in keeping off mosquitoes and snakes.


Repellent plants growing at Otieno’s home in Machakos on August 14, 2023. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

The whole idea for his garden is “If you fold it into half it should be symmetrical and equal. In my garden, there is more symmetry and intentional planting.”

He has also grown the Traveller's palm trees on the sides of his home to ensure his privacy from neighbours preying eyes.

Picking the plants

He hand-picked every plant that is in the garden. “I had to choose everything that is flowering. My wife loves colour.”

Watering is done with a hose pipe, He gets the water from a borehole. Every watering session takes Philip at least two hours.

“I do the watering once a week. Watering should be done in stages. After planting you need to water every three days for the next three months. Afterwards that you water every two days for two months. When the roots have firmed up, the watering can be done once a week,” Philip informs us.

On the spaces within the mazeras stones surrounding his compound, he has grown pemba grass. “For the grass, it was all part of the planning. The idea is if I could do away with all the concrete I could.”

Every two weeks Anthony goes to maintain the garden. Part of what Philip expects from Anthony and his team is that the lawn will be well-trimmed, and the fence and the hedges will be trimmed to a symmetrical level.


A section of a garden at Otieno’s home in Machakos on August 14, 2023. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

The total cost

Inclusive of the consultation with the landscape architect, purchasing of the plants and the labour, Philip says that he has spent Sh500,000 to see his dream garden actualise.

He points out, “In this area, there is only black cotton soil so we had to dig and import the red soil to be able to plant. This also added to the expense.”

On what he would want to improve on, Philip says, “Gardening is interesting. Every day there is something to work on.

I had planted purple hydrangeas but they did not do very well so we had to replace them with the oleander rose. Now I am thinking of bringing them back but in pots so that we can be able to manipulate the soil PH and the conditions.”


Oleander roses growing at Otieno’s home in Machakos on August 14, 2023. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NMG

He also wants to remove the Thika palm which he says is not working well. “With gardening, you keep on improving every time. What’s not working you remove and replace,” Philip advises.

The challenges

His biggest challenge has been diseases that hit his plants. “Now the grass is ailing and losing colour so we are trying to use some folia to rescue it,” says Philip.

Philip sensitises the importance of working with a professional.

“I spend more time planning than implementing. For this garden, we had to check the soil PH by carrying out a visibility test. I would have preferred Arabica grass [carpety water-thirsty grass] for my lawn but this place is very dry so we had to opt for the Pemba grass."

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