Betty Wanja, the plant addict with over 100 plants inside her houseThursday November 10 2022
I met Betty Wanja under the blazing sun that shines over Kikuyu, where she lives. It was raining fire. I remember this vividly because of how contrasting the temperature in her house was. It was cool and soothing - a source of comfort for my heated body. That, plus the refreshing glass of ice-cold water she served.
But this isn’t the only thing I recall. I recall the eye-popping collection of indoor plants at her house, where a whisper is as good as a yell.
I came across Ms Wanja on Instagram, having posted pictures of rare potted plants. The captions are brief, followed by a plethora of hashtags that communicate the joy of indoor plants.
“I have more than a hundred plants inside the house alone. I was actually counting them just before you came. This number doesn’t include the ones on the balcony,” she says.
The 34-year-old may have bought her first plant - the money maker - in 2011, but mingling with nature wasn’t new to her because of her grandmother. “My grandmother insisted that we don’t waste space while planting crops on the farm. Any space was planting space,” says the passionate gardener.
The way she managed to fit 100 small potted plants in her living room and on her kitchen window sills is testament that her grandmother’s practice became hers in adulthood.
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Ms Wanja’s gardening journey started when she began living in urban apartments, which are often characterised by concrete. Her home wasn’t complete without plants. Her personality, she says, prefers to be low-key. Muted colours; disappearing into the crowd is who she is. But when it comes to plants, she “goes all out”.
“Adulting enabled me to take my passion further because it came with more knowledge and more financial resources to invest in gardening. Since I couldn’t afford a space to grow out a garden in the city, I decided to create a potted indoor garden.”
Another reason for indoor plants is that they are hard to kill. It takes special powers and skills.
The advantage of a potted garden is that it can be redone. “If the colour doesn’t suit, or if I want to change it up a little, I just move the plant.”
The tiny, amazing indoor garden contains plants that peak her interest. Those with quirkiness in the leaf and form make her extremely happy. She has a sentimental attachment to those with a story behind them. Like the Anthurium Crystallinum, a striking indoor plant that adds jazz to green plants with its oval, white-veined leaves. Currently, it’s her favourite plant.
“This one was gifted to me by a fellow plant lover on Instagram,” she says, holding it tenderly. “It’s special to me because it’s quite hard to find it in Nairobi. I’ve had it for two months now.”
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The “one” before the Anthurium Crystallinum was the variegated monster. “I just love the shape of the leaves.”
Other favourites include the Philodendron Birkin which is known for its bright, thick and fleshy stems that carry round, dark green mildly pointed-tipped leaves with white pinstripes. There’s also the Angle wing begonia loved for its wing-shaped leaves and colourful foliage.
There’s also a rare version of the zz plant. “This is the black version of the green zz plant - the raven zz plant. I got it in 2018. It starts off green and then turns black with age. It’s a low-maintenance plant, good for beginners,” she says. In the four years she has had it, it has produced only one stem. It’s wonderful for testing a gardener’s patience.
Her most recent plant is the softly textured, oblong-leaved Begonia listada, whose underside bears a rich mahogany colour.
“I guess all of them are my favourite!” She finally exclaims.
Outside at the balcony is another collection of plants, arranged in three, compact layers. One look at it and you’ll conclude that there could be no more space. But with a plant in hand, Ms Wanja will find space for it.
She notes that the plants on the balcony have been like a shield against the dust outside especially during the construction of the road nearby. By placing plants in strategic locations like the kitchen window, she’s able to keep eyes on them.
To keep all her garden alive, well and shiny, Sunday afternoon is “plant care time” when she works on the plant with the intensity of ants during the harvest season. This is the time when she inspects all her plants, waters, and wipes them down. It’s also the time when she repots any overgrown plant.
“I discovered while on my journey that red soil is not good for indoor plants. It dries out and easily compacts. The best medium to use is compost because it allows soils to breathe,” the plant lover explains.
Regular inspection of the plants is of utmost importance in indoor gardens grown within a small area because an infection in one plant can ruin an entire oasis.
Mealybugs are the most common pest the gardener encounters. Wiping it down and banishing the infected plant (for a time) until the invader dies has proved effective in curbing its spread.
What have plants taught Ms Wanja about life?
“I shouldn’t limit myself. Plants don't stop growing after a certain height or producing this many fruits or flowers. Plants want to grow as much as they can in their given conditions. Plants have also taught me to adapt to changing situations in life. Life changes are unavoidable. If I am not flexible to these changes, I will suffer.
The leaves of most plants move in response to light or humidity. One of the plants with the most noticeable movement for me is Monstera deliciosa. If a plant is in a dark space, it will turn its leaves towards the sun to maximise photosynthesis.”