Sheena Shah’s love for nature can only be fully understood when your eyes rest on her intimate, lush garden. Tucked away in Nairobi’s Westlands, one can hardly believe that a few metres from her home is a big shopping complex, lots of urban buildings, noise and pollution. Her garden is an oasis of calmness and a breath of fresh air.
“My parents moved here when I was born but I started these edible gardens in late 2012, after taking a permaculture design course,” Sheena says as she leads me into the garden whose floor is covered with thick, soft Zimbabwean grass.
Her father who was an avid plant lover designed the front yard.
“After the permaculture course, I asked him to let me integrate edible gardening by planting herbs and vegetables,” she says. I inquire why most of the plants here are in pots.
“I had to get creative if I was to make the garden productive. There was a huge palm tree that we had to cut down as it had overgrown,” she says, pointing at the spot where the tree once stood.
“We couldn’t remove its stump as the roots were huge. As a result, nothing we planted grew. It was then that I decided to pot all my plants. They grew very well,” she says, adding that she inherited the green thumb from her father and grandfather.
The front yard alone has over 30 varieties of plants including outdoor flowers, climbers, ground covers, potted herbs and vegetables, making it not just a haven but also a place teeming with organically grown food.
She has grown different varieties of parsley, coriander, thyme, lemon balm, rosemary, mint and edible flowers.
“When I get home from my morning run, I forage for all of the herbs I need for my scrambled egg breakfast each day. There really is no better feeling than foraging for your own food,” she says.
She takes me through the different herbs and salads and has me pick out and taste some of it too. While at it, she pours me a glass of delicious infused water, made using some of the garden’s herbs.
Her favourite plant is the rosemary. “I just love its aroma which enhances memory and concentration. Rosemary is also traditionally known as the herb of remembrance and friendship. I planted it in memory of my friend who passed away in 2018,” she says.
Outdoor the parking berm, which also forms part of her garden, plants here are growing directly from the soil.
“I spent the first few years building back the soils in this area,” she says.
Her hard work has paid off as the soils are back to life. On this space, she has another 30 species of plants. She has sweet peppers, more herbs and green chillies.
Part of her garden seems to have been freshly planted.
“We just harvested some squash, chocovines and beetroot, and planted oregano and salvia to attract bees and beneficial insects,” she says.
Additionally, she has integrated a composting pit from which she can easily make at least three full bags of compost every two months.
Sheena gets her seeds from abroad when the varieties she needs are not locally available.
“I always bring back some seeds when I travel to the UK and US as we unfortunately do not have a wide access to organic seeds here. I also pick up much of my seedlings from various local plant nurseries, and save my own seeds,” she says.
As a permaculture practitioner for the last nine years, her garden is a place for her to practice her craft. It is also where she turns to for solitude.
“The colours, smell and watching the bugs play lets me see the bigger picture,” she says.
When she is away, Dominic, her gardener, whom she has trained in permaculture maintains them.
“He gets excited when we harvest vegetables every so often,” she adds.
One of the ethics of permaculture is ‘share the surplus’ thus any extra produce is usually shared with her neighbours. Secret to a healthy garden?
“Start with the soil. Healthy soil, healthy produce,” Sheena says.
I ask her what she has learnt from her garden: “Being out in nature has taught me to go with the flow just as nature does and be part of something much larger than myself.”