Gardening

How I planted 24 fruit trees, rock garden and carpet-like Arabica grass on quarter an acre

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Njoki Njuguna’s garden as pictured on August 22, 2023. PHOTO | BILLY OGADA | NMG

It has taken Njoki Njuguna four years to create her little garden of fruits trees, and herbs. At her home in Kajiado, Ms Njoki has been able to actualise her childhood dream of having her own fruit garden.

“When I was growing up, we lived on a farm for some time and we had a lot of fruit. At that time my mom had so many fruit trees, even some like the pomegranate and the fig that most people did not know about. I knew then that when I get my own place, I would want to have some fruit trees,” she tells the BDLife adding, “Before we moved here we had rented a house in Karen and our landlord had a very beautiful garden. That gave us an idea of what we might want.”

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An aerial view of Njoki Njuguna’s rock garden as pictured on August 22, 2023. PHOTO | BILLY OGADA | NMG

In a quarter of an acre, Njoki has managed to squeeze in a rock garden, an orchard of her fruit trees, a lawn of the Arabica grass and a vegetable garden.

“The grass is mainly my husband’s. He loves his grass. Normally it’s very green but you found it not at its best.”

At the time of our visit, the lawn had some patches where they had uprooted some grass and replanted. We found her gardener, Anthony watering and tending to the grass.

“Our costliest spending has been on the Arabica grass. There was a time we had to uproot the grass completely and plant it all over again because we did not know that whenever it rained we would get three other types of grass that would grow.

By the time we realised it, it was too infested and we had to do away with everything. But right now we have been able to catch it before it is completely infested. That is why you can see the patches that we have uprooted. It is not clear what happens when it rains but this is the third time that we are dealing with this,” the telecommunications engineer tells us of their struggle with the grass.

When you enter her home, your first view is Njoki’s rock garden built above her underground water tanks and her well-manicured fence of Lavender.

“I have been growing succulents because there is only one foot of soil so it drains out very quickly.”

On the rock garden area, she has put artificial grass. “Before I opted for the artificial variety, the grass grew in a very chaotic manner. It would dry out very fast or grow very weirdly. Here [rock garden] I do plants that do not need a lot of water,” says the 40-year-old mother of one.

On the rock garden, Njoki has grown drought-resistant plants like the red and yellow gazania flower, the hardy lemon mint herb, and the bay leaf plant. She also has other plants in pots like the French Lavender.

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Njoki Njuguna at her garden on August 22, 2023. PHOTO | BILLY OGADA | NMG

Her fruit trees

Ms Njoki has over 24 varieties of fruit trees. “My not-so-serious challenge is that my husband loves his grass so much that he tells me that I cannot put anything on the vast grass area. But I have managed to squeeze my fruit trees along the perimeter wall. I am now waiting for some containers that I ordered to arrive so that I can grow some in pots. I hope to have over 30 varieties of fruit trees.”

She has to limit her fruit trees to a height of not more than five feet.

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Passion fruit tree in Njoki Njuguna's garden on August 22, 2023. PHOTO | BILLY OGADA | NMG

“I am trying to squeeze about 20-30 fruit trees here. So if I let the trees grow too tall they will overshadow the other plants, preventing them from getting sufficient sunlight. Also, if I let them grow too tall, then I won't have room for more plants. Sometimes it puts me in a dilemma because I find that the tree has a flower and I cannot prune that. I can't ruin a potential fruit,” she says.

Among the fruit trees she has grown are the lemon tree fruit, guava, wild berry, golden berry, raspberry, blueberry, peach, pawpaw, avocado, and mango trees. She says berries are among the healthiest fruits. Her pawpaws have been struggling though.

“I have bought seedlings twice and they have not grown, so my mom advised me that I can just put the seeds anywhere and leave them to grow. I put some coffee in my blueberry because it needs some acidic soil,” she says.

She worries about her struggling grapefruit tree but hopes that they will one day get to eat its fruit. On the other hand, she speaks fondly of her red guava tree.

“The first harvest we had only one fruit. We cut it into five slices, one for my husband, my daughter, the nanny, the gardener, and I. We all tasted the first fruit. But now we have more coming.”

The pomegranate tree she says has been kind to them and they have eaten a lot of them.

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Njoki Njuguna's recovering grass lawn at her garden on August 22, 2023. PHOTO | BILLY OGADA | NMG

Her herbs

Njoki’s other love is herbs.

“I have a favourite herb for cooking, smelling and looking at. I like smelling the lemon verbena and I love cooking with the basil plant because it has a really good taste. My favourite herbs to look at are sage and lavender,” she says adding “I have tried to plant herbs around the house. When we moved here we had many spiders and mosquitoes but now with the herbs I have noticed a difference.”

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Njoki Njuguna’s kitchen garden as pictured on August 22, 2023. PHOTO | BILLY OGADA | NMG

She says that herbs are very good in food and salads and in making teas. Ms Njoki also grows different varieties of mints, thyme, oregano, marjoram, lemon balm and the French lavender that she uses for decoration in the house.

Her advice for any beginner in gardening is, “Try herbs. It is hard to kill herbs. You do not need to fertilise them, in fact when you fertilise them, they turn out untasty because the leaves will be too big and lose taste,”

“When we got this piece of land, we were very disappointed with the shape because it was very slender and long so we did not know what we were going to do with it but our architect was able to squeeze the house into a corner which now latter left us with a yard and a spot for our kitchen garden,” Njoki tells us of how her garden came to be.

Her kitchen garden has lots of green vegetables including terere, spinach, kales, and cherry tomatoes. She has also grown her onions in building stones that are also providing borders for her garden.

“For tomatoes, I do not buy the seeds, I just buy one from the markets then give the seeds to my gardener to plant,” she says.

In her kitchen garden, she has also squeezed in a place for her strawberries which she has grown in gutters and repurposed liquid soap containers.

The area is covered with a net to keep away the birds which she says have been relentless in ensuring that they do not take any fruits.

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Eggplant as pictured in Njoki Njuguna’s garden on August 22, 2023. PHOTO | BILLY OGADA | NMG

Cost

While she does not explicitly mention how much she spent on the garden, she agrees that gardening is a very expensive hobby but with good returns.

“I am always planting tomatoes but I still find myself buying tomatoes. The watering of the grass is very expensive as well.”

Caring for the garden

Njoki does not have a regular watering schedule and says that it all depends on the weather.

“If it is very hot you may have to water every other day and it also depends on the plants. Like the strawberries, we have learned the hard way that they need a lot of water and sun. So my gardener uses his own judgement to know how much water they need depending on how hot that day is.”

She also does the pruning herself because “Gardening is like a drug for me, it is so calming. The days I go around my garden for 15 minutes and the days that I don't are two very different days. Sometimes I walk with my shears pruning but mainly I walk around with my phone, recording the plants that are not doing too well and sending them to my gardener so that when he comes he knows which plants need the most attention.”

She tells us of her struggle to get the right gardener. “This is my third gardener and I think we have found one. I am a believer in letting people self-govern and I found that all the other gardeners were relying on me too much. If I tell you how something should be taken care of I don't want to have to keep reminding you. With this gardener, I feel that he is a fast learner and is passionate about gardening.”

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Lavender plants pictured at Njoki Njuguna’s garden on August 22, 2023. PHOTO | BILLY OGADA | NMG

Her challenges

“We practice organic farming here so the problem with organic farming is that if you are not keen you will get a lot of pest infestations. Most often we find the fruits have seeds and insects inside. There is a trick my husband told me I could try where we would mix molasses and yeast and apple cider and then spray the plant. But then you don't do it when you have fruits but when you have the flowers because those insects will then attack the flower instead of the fruit.”

Her other challenge has been overcoming her fear of crawlies.

“Apparently when doing organic farming you have more creatures coming to eat your plants. Three Months ago I saw a chameleon and I literally thought of moving houses. Just recently, I saw a chameleon and instead of squirming I took a video and I was just so happy that I am making progress. I really fear crawlies to the extent that I can even lack sleep thinking about it,” says the avid gardener trying to embrace the organic way of living.

‘We have to think more about what we are putting into our bodies.”

Her favourite fruit is peaches but she laments that they are not very affordable in Kenya.

“I planted a peach tree and last season the birds cleared all the fruits before we could take them. We are now using eco bags to shield the fruits from the birds.”

But she nonetheless maintains a love for birds.

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Njoki Njuguna’s garden as pictured on August 22, 2023. PHOTO | BILLY OGADA | NMG

“We don't have pets so we believe that birds are our pets. I even have some stands for them and buy bird feed for them,” Njoki says of her bittersweet love affair with the birds in her garden.

In her garden, she has grown plants in tyres and old buckets or used containers. She repurposes a lot to reduce the cost of gardening. Geraniums are quite dominant in her garden.

“Not that they are my favourite but they are very easy to propagate.”

Njoki's experience with gardening has been a series of experiments with wins and failures. Her hope is that she can grow more fruits, herbs and trees. She looks forward to a time when she will not need to buy fruits and her household can have fruits in season all through the year.

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