A city garden in 67 pots


Irene Njahira at her garden in Nairobi's South B on June 18, 2021. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

For years, Irene Njahira, had been intending to start a garden. Grown up in a village, nature was always there to be enjoyed.

However, this was lost on her due to the rigours of urban living. Being a public health doctor, her busy schedule could not grant her enough time to plant, pot and pamper a plant to life.

This changed in June last year in the thick of the pandemic. She found herself with time and in need of something different to spice up her life.

“I left the house that morning and came back with four plants; anthurium, monstera, croton, and Chinese evergreen, ready to start my garden,” she recalls. She planned to “plant a bush.”

One year later, Ms Njahira has created a beautiful garden packed with colour and it is all in pots, 67 pots to be precise. Pinks from roses, yellows and oranges from marigold, reds from poinsettias, purple-pink from fuchsias, greens from the succulents, and a mix of colours from the coleus plant, among others.

“I chose container gardening because of space and soil constraints. The lawn is my children’s playground, and the soil is stony with poor drainage,” the mother of two says, as we walk through her garden.

Her plant stories

The pots line up the entrance, and along the front yard of her home in Nairobi’s South B. She buys the plastic pots from the manufacturer.

Each plant has a story. The sweet alyssum by the gate was brought by her house manager from the street, the African Lily across it grew from a cutting gotten from one of the workers at the mall where she shops and the pink rose plant was an experiment that went surprisingly well, which she is keen on replicating soon.

At one of the corners is the first monstera plant. Once tiny, it is now as tall as its owner. Right next to it is the gold dust croton with deep green shiny leaves and faint splashes of yellow.

The one-year-old garden is also home to four varieties of the Begonia obliqua. This is a perennial plant grown for its colourful flowers and foliage and the paddle-shaped leaved Canna lily.

Her favourite plant is the Calathea Jungle velvet. True to its name, it has large soft-velvety leaves with impossible-to-miss light and dark green patterns on top and solid purple tones underneath. It produces a new leaf every week and is not fussy, she explains.

Much has transformed, thanks to this potted garden. The atmosphere, the view of the house and its people have changed.

“My parents who visit me every so often spend most of their time outside unlike before,” she says.


Coleus in different colours at Irene Njahira’s garden on June 18, 2021. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

Propagates own plants

Furthermore, her two children have become more joyous especially because they participate in the tending of the garden. No new leaf, flower, or bug goes unnoticed.

Among the potted plants are guava and a pine tree belonging to her daughter and son respectively. They are cared for zealously as they await transplanting at their rural home.

Her life has become cheerful. “Gardening makes me happy. It's a wonderful distraction,” the medic says, adding that the laps of honour she takes every morning before settling down for work are something to look forward to.

She also has a budget for gardening and hopes to “one day stop buying new plants every time.”

The urban gardener, who is in her 40s sources her plants from anywhere plants are found as seeds or seedlings.

She later propagates them herself to increase her stock. Initially, the soil used came from Kiambu. Currently, she uses black cotton soil enriched with compost made using her two hands, under a mid-sized guava tree by her house.

Depending on the plant, they are watered two-four times a week.

Her love for gardening has seen her siblings get their hands muddied as they set up their own. Her sister started a balcony garden.

Besides this, the nature lover is a self-styled flower consultant, providing advice on the what, where, and the how of flower sourcing, planting and care. Since June 2020, Ms Njahira has lost only two plants.

“The first one was the Madagascar periwinkle. It was scorched to death by the sun. I was so disappointed but when I realised that it was part of the process, I was able to move on,” she says.

The nature lover credits her success to an appetite for learning about and providing the right environment for her potted plants to flourish.

Her daughter has suffered loss too. She had a marigold christened ‘Lucy’. “Unfortunately, Lucy died. My daughter was so distressed,” she says.

“One day while shopping, she saw seeds being sold. I bought, we planted them together and she nurtured them to maturity.”

Pointing to one of the green plastic pots, Ms Njahira, shows me the new Lucy: A healthy yellow-flowered marigold.

Pests and diseases tend to rain on her parade but are pushed back using a mixture of baking soda, neem, and soap. It is only recently that she made the hard decision to use pesticides on one of her coleuses infested with mealy-bugs.

To the new gardeners, she advises: “Start where you are. Growing a garden is like bringing up a child. The journey is exciting and I absolutely love it. You will too.”

The plans are compounded into one word: ‘more.’ Build flower stands to create more space for more flowers outside, and to buy more indoor plants to keep the Chinese evergreen plant company.