Garden designers turning Nairobi homes, hotels into havens of tranquility


Mandhari Plants and Designs garden in Karen. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

Gardens are spaces bursting with life. The colours are a feast for the eyes. Nevertheless, to create an opulent one can be nerve-racking.

BDLife spoke to Simon Walsh and Marcus Church, directors of Mandhari Plants in Karen, Nairobi, on how to design a garden that enriches your everyday life.

Mandhari Plants began in 1980 when Simon’s mother moved to Kenya.

“She had a fiery passion for plants. I grew up watching her prune, cut and plant flowers, trees and grasses in our backyard, a passion which she turned into a business,” Walsh says. “That nurtured in me a love for all things nature.”

After studying Landscape Construction in TAFE NSW in Australia, Walsh came back to Kenya to pursue his passion, working in the horticulture industry.

In 2014, he established Mandhari Plants, a business that offers turnkey solutions to all things gardens.

“We design, build and maintain living works of art,” he says.

Mandhari Plants does garden design, implementation and maintenance for residential and commercial projects, retail and wholesale of plants, and hiring of plants for events.

They stock about 100,000 plants at any one time and over 200 species and varieties.

“When designing a garden, you should be realistic about the use of your space,” Walsh says.


Mandhari Plants and Designs business director Marcus Church at the nursery in Karen. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

“That way you’re able to create something that brings you happiness every time you lay your eyes on it.”

These are the basic factors one needs to consider.

“First, understand the local environment. Don’t grow something that wouldn’t survive in the climate you’re in. If you’re in the tropics, plant tropical plants and so forth,” he says.

The second thing is your input. “Look at your budget and the level of skill you have or need.”

Third, pay attention to the design of the house. In doing this, the garden design is related to the building, creating a unified piece rather than a detached one.

“This should be done with intentionality.”

With these in place, you can then choose the type of plants that you need.

On the choice of plants, he says, any common plant that thrives is better than a rare plant that struggles. Some of the must-have plants incorporated into their designs are the bamboo and the sansevieria (the mother-in-law tongue).

“The bamboo is inexpensive, trendy and grows quickly granting almost immediate satisfaction. It’s also versatile as it can be potted or planted into the soil,” Walsh says.

For indoor plants, the mother-in-law tongue is recommended as it’s a hardy plant.

“If these don’t tickle your fancy, the Chlorophytum comosum (spider plant) and the Ficus Lyrata (fiddle-leaf fig) are a good option. These are classic indoor plants,” Church says.

“With its long, thin stripped leaves, the spider plant fills the pot beautifully, while the fiddle-leaf is a stunning piece.”

While many of us think of a lawn when doing garden design, Church advises to broaden your thinking as concrete can actually be part of your design.

“A lawn is very expensive,” he says.


Indoor plants by Mandhari Plants and Designs. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

To make it interesting and affordable to maintain, have 30 percent of your space as lawn.

“That is enough for your children to play and for you to sit and enjoy the sunrise and sunset. On the rest of it, put big perennial beds, plant wild grasses which attract birds, gravel and a rock garden,” he says.

This will significantly lower the garden’s maintenance cost.

“You can also put plants in pots. Very many plants do well in pots.”

The designers also speak highly of vertical gardens, air plants and the use of lighting. “They simply add beauty.”

When deciding on a garden designer, Church advises looking at two things: a designer with local knowledge and the work they’ve done.

“When somebody understands the area you’re in, the climate and plants that can do well, they’re in a better position to give good advice. You should be able to ascertain the truth of their words by looking at the quality of their work. Therefore, don’t be shy to ask for past performance records. They’re critical,” he says.

Some of their work can be seen at Sarit Centre, the Social House in Lavington where they’ve done the vertical gardens and the interior fit outs, as well as in the recently held Nairobi Wine Festival.

Church and Walsh say this is their secret to gardening: “Hard work, a good dose of passion and knowledge.”

You can’t design a garden, implement it and leave it to grow on its own. You’ll soon have a forest. You should read up on it too. The Internet is a good resource. Being professional gardeners, they’ve seen many cases of improper pruning, fertilising and spraying.

Final words? “You’re a better person with a garden,” Walsh says.

“They are spaces of joy. Invest in good design, proper implementation and care, and reap the rewards.”