Gardening

Pushpa Ratna's 31 years of tough love plant parenting

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A wide view of Pushpa Ratna’s garden at her home in Gigiri on January 29, 2024. PHOTO | BILLY OGADA | NMG

Pushpa Ratna, 74, beams with joy and excitement as she tells her gardening story.

She speaks of her yellow trumpet-looking allamandas and her mother-in-law's tongue, a common houseplant also known as snake plant.

Her lawn is so neat and well cared for that it feels offensive to walk on it. At her home in Nairobi's Gigiri on a half-acre plot of land, Ms Ratna has grown over 70 plant species that attract birds and butterflies.

When it all started

But Ms Ratna wasn't always excited about gardening.

“Growing up, I didn't have any interest in gardening, but I got married and came into the Ratna family, and suddenly I had a big house that came with a large space. I could either put vegetables (which I have no skills in) or grow ornamental plants,” she says.

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Pushpa Ratna at her home garden in Gigiri on January 29, 2024. PHOTO | BILLY OGADA | NMG

To begin her gardening journey, she picked hardy plants that did not require a lot of care. Naturally, that saw her gravitate toward ferns, hibiscus, and allamandas. 

“I like them because they do not need a lot of water or attention. You just give them manure twice a year and they’ll be fine. They do not need a lot of water or attention," she says.

Over the last 31 years, gardening has grown on her so much that it gives rhythm to her life.

“I enjoy the garden. Every evening at 5 o’clock I come out here on the patio and have my tea while looking at my garden. I also have my early morning walks here," says the plant parent.

Building the garden

In Ms Ratna’s garden, the lawn area is not covered with any plants.

“When we moved here, my husband said he didn't want any trees in the middle. He just wanted the lawn and so that is how I set it up. I did the garden in bits and pieces, starting with the grass. Then I did the ferns which are my favourite. They grow so high, they can almost reach the ceiling if you put them inside the house. Finally, I did the potted plants,” says Ms Ratna.

Inside the house, along the swimming pool area, Ms Ratna has planted anthuriums and Christmas cactus in pots.

“When I bought the anthuriums they were so tiny but now I have made a lot of them from the mother plant. I feed them a tablespoon of bonemeal every month and water them every alternate day,” Ms Ratna tells the BDLife.

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Potted plants in Pushpa Ratna’s garden at her home in Gigiri on January 29, 2024. PHOTO | BILLY OGADA | NMG

Outside, all around the house Ms Ratna has her potted plants. At the edge of the garden, she has a bottlebrush tree, ginger plants, and willows that cover her garbage area.

“I love plants that give rhythm such that when I sit here (on the patio) I look at the different flowers, different shapes and that is the way I like them.”

To cut costs, she propagates most plants in her garden, and those she can't she gets from her friends and fellow garden enthusiasts.

Caring for the garden

“Since I discovered healthy gardening, I don’t use inorganic fertilisers. If there are insects on my plants, I use washing liquid, dilute it with water, and spray my plants to remove any aphids. I don’t use harsh insecticides or pesticides. The same goes for my lawn and for my indoor plants, I use bone meal,” says Ms Ratna.

Watering

One of a plant parent's fears is lacking water to keep the garden lush and blooming. Most don't think twice about spending big to have vendors deliver water.

Ms Ratna, however, believes her plants should be able to tough it out.

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Pushpa Ratna’s driveway that has the beautiful yellow allamandas at her home in Gigiri on January 29, 2024. PHOTO | BILLY OGADA | NMG

“When there is water shortage, I do not water at all. The garden looks bad, but I say when there is water, it will look lovely again. I water the potted plants once a week," she says.

She does not have a gardener.

"I have three people who work for me in the house and they work in the garden every Tuesday and Thursday. I ensure that I am out here with them. One of them cuts the fence and the other the dry leaves and flowers, and scoops the soil in every pot and plant for the air to go in," she says.

Challenges

Her journey has not been without challenges. "During the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, there were a lot of white flies which made me cut a lot of plants," she says.

To improve the garden, she has planted beautiful creepers whose flowers have not come up.

"The next time you come you will see beautiful dahlias and purple on the willow trees," she says.

Apart from ferns, hibiscus also occupy a special place in her heart.

“I love the orange, red and the white. My hibiscus have become like bonsais because we prune a lot of branches. My favourite creeper is the morning glory,” she says.

Other plants in her garden include the heliconia, birds of paradise, and herbs such as rosemary, curry leaves, and basils. “I love cannas because I paint and I love to paint cannas.”

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A section of Pushpa Ratna’s garden at her home in Gigiri on January 29, 2024. PHOTO | BILLY OGADA | NMG

The yellow trumpety allamandas remind Ms Ratna of her mother-in-law.

“When I got married, my mother-in-law grew yellow allamandas and we got along very well so I thought I could grow them to remember her,” Ms Ratna says of her beautiful yellow allamandas that are a huge part of her driveway.

Ms Ratna says one lesson that younger gardeners ought to pick up from her is that having a beautiful garden takes time and patience.

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