How I built drought-resistant garden

Alex Bell, a landscaping architect at her home in Nairobi, Karen. PHOTO | POOL

As we drive into Alex Bell’s home in Karen, Nairobi, a warthog and her piglets dash away, but not before I take a photo. At her patio, she shows us the warthogs sleeping spot.

I wonder if wild animals are a common phenomenon at her home.

“When we moved here in 1998, I preserved as much of the vegetation that was pre-existing here. It had nice bushes and trees. I left the bush in the background to maintain the biodiversity. Occasionally, we have some wild animals coming here like warthogs, monkeys, and hyenas. We have a bushbuck that has been isolated here in our three-acre land after everyone put up fences. We have a lot of snakes, too. The important thing is to be cautious with them rather than fearing them,” she says.

Alex Bell's garden in Karen, Nairobi. PHOTO | POOL

Ms Bell’s city garden reminds one of Alfred Austin, a poet who said, “We come from the earth, we return to the earth and in between we garden.” And gardening is what Ms Bell does best. Hers is one of the most stunning drought-tolerant gardens I have seen in Nairobi.

“One of the things that drive me mad is seeing people sprinkle their gardens when there isn’t enough water for people to drink,” she says.

The landscape architect does her planting during the short or long rains. She waters her plants for a further three months after the rains to ensure that the plants are deeply rooted.

“I don’t use a hose pipe, I fill wine bottles with water and then poke them into the soil. So the water gently goes into the plant,” she says.

She has a wide variety of plants gotten from across the world.

“I have hundreds of different drought-resistant plants that I got or collected from different parts of the world. People think that drought-resistant means spiky plants or plants with no colour. But as you can see we have plenty of colour and foliage. I have a wide variety of succulents such as euphorbias, aloes, jade, and cactus. I also have cycads and acacia plants."

There is a meticulous manner in which she has designed her garden. From the patio, you can get a perfect view of Ngong Hills.

"When I was designing my garden I wanted to angle the view towards the Ngong Hills as opposed to Ongata Rongai, which is becoming a city. You wouldn't know that it [Ongata Rongai] is near," says Ms Bell.

The mother of two has named her two daughters after the plants in her garden.

Alex Bell's garden in Karen, Nairobi. PHOTO | POOL

"My first daughter is called Acacia. When I gave birth to her in 2002, my father gave me two acacia trees. My other daughter is called Carissa. I have a Carissa edulis bush. It has beautiful white flowers at the beginning of the rains and it produces edible fruit," she says.

A tradition of gardening runs in her family.

"My mother's garden is way more beautiful than mine. She has also designed gardens for Banda School and some foreign embassies. I always knew that I wanted to be a landscape architect," she says.

Following through with her passion she pursued a degree in horticulture with a specialisation in landscape design from the University of Reading in the UK. She proceeded to get a Master's degree from the University of Georgia in the US, where she worked for a year before coming back to Kenya. She set up Ecoscapes, her landscaping company in 1996.

Her three-acre garden in Karen, Nairobi was not always this green. It has evolved with time. When they first moved in, the area was so sloppy that it was difficult to plant anything. Not one to give up, she allowed her creative instincts to kick in.

"The first thing I did was to create terraces. I created flat areas on different levels so that I can utilise the space. I see these spaces as outdoor rooms."

She used much of what was locally available to build her garden.

"When we moved in here, we built a septic tank. I used all the stones that came out of the septic tank to create the walls of the terraces. We didn't bring in any soil, we used what was there. We cut and spread the soil where we needed it."

Creating a garden is an art, she says, you do not just put one plant there and another one there. You must go in with a vision.

"There are certain design rules to follow. When planting a group of plants it is better to plant them in odd numbers — threes, fives, or sevens. You need to colour-coordinate by selecting the colours that work together. You can have the reds and oranges together and the blues and purples together. Then you can have contrasting colours to make them pretty. You must also look at the size that the plant will grow into and space them well such that the tall ones do not block the short ones."

Alex Bell's garden in Karen, Nairobi. PHOTO | POOL

In her garden, she uses plants to drive how one looks at the garden. She has planted two cycads against each other to create a gateway into a part of her garden.

"This cycad here I got it from Zanzibar growing on very rough coral. They are very hardy. I have another cycad that I collected from northern Kenya on Mount Ololokwe. I collected the seeds and propagated them," she says.

She has planted allaudias from Madagascar, some tall thin ones, as features to get people to look at the other plants in the garden. When you see the blue plants at the entrance to the garden your eyes will be drawn further into the garden.

You will not be faulted for thinking that her three-acre garden cost a fortune to build. It has terraces and lots of well-spaced plants. There are different 'rooms' that contain gateways to every part of the garden that is separated by lawns that are planted on drought-tolerant grass. On one part, she has planted the cape royal grass and Zimbabwe grass on the other.

Deeper story

However, the landscape architect says she did all the designing by herself. She worked for a month with casual labourers who helped with the terraces and now has two gardeners who plant and take care of the plants.

Ms Bell says the cost of creating a garden is like asking, "'how long is a piece of string?"

"To design a garden for one acre with one-third planting beds and the two-thirds lawn area can cost about Sh3.5 million. This does not include the landscape architect's fee. This is the cost of plants, labour and materials," she says.

Every gardener has a deeper story of their garden. For Ms Bell, her garden is a stress reliever, calms her down, and enables her to focus on what is important.

"The more time you can spend in your garden, the better. When I wake up every morning my first routine is to open the curtains, take in the view and I am grateful that we have a garden," she says.

Her plants also give her something to reminisce on. They remind her of her daughters, her pets that died and were buried in the garden, and the different places where she got her plants from.

Gardening has come with its share of challenges.

"When I started, some plants died and that was disheartening. Whenever it rains I need to do a lot of weeding, which prompts me to get in casuals to help with that. The aloes also get fungal infections. I deal with this using organic solutions such as neem, and organic copper," she says.

Her advice to a person hoping to grow cacti is to mix them up with other plants.

"Cactuses tend to be spiky so I mix mine with softer plants. I have combined cactuses with softer shrubs, which introduce colour."

Alex Bell's garden in Karen, Nairobi. PHOTO | POOL

On her plans, Ms Bell says, "I am looking into focusing on organic farming. In 2015, my husband and I bought a 12-acre land in Naivasha where we practice organic agriculture. I grow organic vegetables and herbs to supply to customers in Nairobi and Naivasha. I have a plant nursery in Naivasha where I sell my plant seedlings. That's my new passion."

The plant lover also hopes to set up the Ecoscapes Organic Farming Institute to pass on her organic farming knowledge.

As we drive out of Ms Bell's compound, we leave behind the cool breeze and the serenity. The birds chirping in her garden grow fainter and fainter as we drive into the chaotic Nairobi's concrete jungle.

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