Gardening

A new gardener creates oasis in city home

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Salline Handa Onoka, an amateur gardener, at her concrete garden in Kileleshwa on February 22, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

Summary

  • Mrs Onoka is the proud owner of a colourful potted oasis, which she calls a concrete garden, at her home in Kileleshwa, Nairobi.
  • The amateur gardener recalls exactly what led her to dip her hands into the dirt. It was during the Covid-19 period.
  • Mrs Onoka wasted no time in buying and potting a few of the globally acclaimed plants for newbies: hardy coleus species, the snake plant and succulents.

Gardening was not one of the things that Salline Handa Onoka thought of pursuing. An interior designer by profession, she knew that the outdoor spaces reflected the indoor spaces. However, she did not feel like she had the capacity and the creativity to work with living things.

“It’s easy to fidget with non-living things like a pillow. I can pull it apart, cut it, play around with its colours and still end up with something stunning. Plants, on the other hand, are living things. They either accept your hand or don’t,” she says.

But now, Mrs Onoka is the proud owner of a colourful potted oasis, which she calls a concrete garden, at her home in Kileleshwa, Nairobi.

“I call it a concrete garden because it’s literally built on concrete. I actually wanted a landscaped garden. This meant removing a section of the cabro by the wall. However, my husband could hear none of it, afraid that he’d be left with a dry garden once I “get over this gardening fad” I’m going through,” she says, overlooking her yellow lollipop plant which blooms all year round. One and a half years later, she is still at it and she loves it.

The amateur gardener recalls exactly what led her to dip her hands into the dirt. It was during the Covid-19 period. At the time, she was selling vegetable planters from her home.

Day in day out, the dull concrete stared back at her unashamedly. She knew that something great could happen there but was clueless on how or where to begin.

“Somebody bought planters that I knew were too small and shallow for vegetables. On inquiring, she told me that they were for growing flowers, and even showed me what she was envisioning from the Pinterest app.” That conversation was a destiny-shaping conversation.

“I had the crates, I had seen the plants thanks to the client and a space in dire need of a make-over,” she says.

Mrs Onoka wasted no time in buying and potting a few of the globally acclaimed plants for newbies: hardy coleus species, the snake plant and succulents.

Though these plants can thrive on loving neglect, the mere fact that something green survived under her care inspired confidence in her.

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Salline Handa Onoka's concrete garden in Kileleshwa on February 22, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

Soon, her plant collection expanded as she moved away from basic gardening. But so did the margins of error.

For some of the plants, what was to be their living grounds became their dying grounds due to the perils that accompany container gardening: use of poor potting soil, different plant combinations, underfeeding, over-and underwatering, and poor plant positioning. What she didn’t do was set unrealistic expectations.

“This brings me to my first nugget for a new gardener. Indeed, the best way to learn is through mistakes. However, make mistakes that you can afford. I navigated this by buying cheap plants whose loss wouldn’t send to the pit my gardening resolve and my hard-earned cash,” she notes.

“The second one, keep learning, trying, failing, and doing it again. It gets better with time.”

With her gardening muscle growing, her current brick and mortar garden has pots numbering more than 60. Noteworthy is the fact that on entering her garden, one doesn’t feel as if they’ve walked into a plant nursery. This she has achieved through pot arrangement.

Along her perimeter wall, she has created a harmonious, visually pleasant scene by playing with height— whether the plant’s own or accentuated by the use of stands or plastic buckets— using different sizes and shapes of the pots as well as colour from the plant flowers and foliage.

Among the plants are the croton and the caricature plants which are known for their bold, vibrant, and bushy foliage, nerve plants, the mirror plant, daisies, copper leaf, and Jacob’s coat.

“One of the challenges of my garden is the heat. There’s heat from the sun above and from terrestrial radiation below. Therefore, I select a plant that will survive such an environment. I also choose those that do well in bright light because there’s a lot of light,” she explains.

On her 4 meters by 3 meters lawn, she has created islands by grouping plants together. My favourite one is the gardening security light surrounded by four potted indigo-purple coleus plants.

Right beside this is a lemon cypress and two giant pots in the shape of flipped frustums carrying her latest green treasure, sago palms loved for their feathery foliage that grows into a symmetrical ring.

A pot with a fern, snake plant and an angel wing begonia add a green vibe to her front porch. The double sago palms and the begonia assure her of her maturing as a gardener.

“These plants are the opposite of cheap and hardy. Sago palms are delicate and pricey. Begonias seem to be found only in seasoned gardeners’ gardens because they can be a bit picky about light and water. Having it doing relatively well at my doorpost is a huge achievement for me.”

Lately, the mother-of-three has come to appreciate the marvellous advantage of container gardening. It is ideal for newbies and there is flexibility because she can move the plants changing the effect and appeal of the garden.

This is also less stressful than watching a plant die due to too much sun or shade.

Furthermore, if she changes houses, she will not leave the plants, which are her jazz, behind.

But the most satisfying thing is the power of pots in controlling pests and diseases.

“I have great control over the plant’s environment because I hand-pick the growing medium and nutrients. Secondly, I have grouped pest-prone plants. This confines those dream-killers to one section of the garden. My first point of action is to wipe the affected parts with a damp cloth. When this doesn’t work, I exterminate them using a mixture of neem oil and soap.”

Her vision as a gardener is to have the super-power of knowing all her plants biological names, diagnose a problem just by studying the leaves to remedy the problem in time, and grow exotic plants like lilies and orchids.

“The day I’ll be able to do this, I’ll have crossed over into the land of expert gardeners. I’m excited just at the thought of this.”