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Gardening

Turning Wild Jungle Into a Veggie Garden

Chu owen and Susan Murabana
Chu owen and Susan Murabana. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG 

Six months ago, Chu Owen and Susan Murabana moved into what might have been their ‘dream home’.

“We love the place,” says Susan referring to their new multi-levelled home and garden in Nairobi's Westlands.

“But we would have liked to buy rather than rent. And when we moved in, the backyard hadn’t been maintained well, so it was practically a jungle,” she adds.

Chu (short for Tudor) chimes in. “I grew up loving to wander in overgrown jungles. Nonetheless, we still had to uproot lots of plants, trees and shrubs in order to create our vegetable garden.’

They also had to create space for the geodesic dome that they are in the process of building out of the bamboo that grows right there in their backyard.

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“The bamboo has already grown back since we cut it,” Chu says, noting that the dome will be six meters tall and nine meters wide (at the diameter) when completed.

“We would have liked to assemble it using all organic materials [such as sisal]. But if we did, the bugs would go for them and we would have to redo everything every few months. So we had to work with rope which is nylon.”

Chu, who’s a big astronomy enthusiast, says that once the dome is done, they are going to open Kenya’s first and only Planetarium.

“We’ll be able to accommodate 50 adults comfortably in the dome and 100 children,” he adds.

Geodesic dome

Geodesic dome under construction on Chu Owen and Susan Murabana vegarden. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

“We’ll have a (skylike) projection in the dome that will be powered with software that assimilates views of both night and day skies,” says Susan who has a Master’s degree in astronomy from James Cook University in Australia.

But even as they are busy building the dome, Chu and Susan are also tending their quarter-acre vegetable garden.

Both are clearly proud of the garden, especially as their company, ‘The Traveling Telescope’ also teaches ‘sustainability’ when they go to schools with their telescope and tell children as well as adult about the stars and planet earth’s relationship to the universe.

“We want to point to our garden when people come to the planetarium and show them by example that we practice what we preach when we talk about sustainability,” Chu says.

Already, Susan and Chu and their three boys eat virtually all of their fresh fruits and vegetables straight from their garden.

They never use chemical pesticides or fertilisers. And for now, they only fertilise with goat manure, “although we hope once our compost patch matures, we will be able to use only organic fertiliser,” says Susan, who like Chu, is passionate about sustainability as well as astronomy.

She is especially fond of smoothies made with spinach, celery, passion fruit and pineapple, all of which (apart from the pineapple) comes from the garden.

Meanwhile, Chu is a fan of tree tomato juice.

Spinach on Chu Owen and Susan Murabana vegarden

Spinach on Chu Owen and Susan Murabana vegarden. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG

“I had never seen a tree tomato before I came to Kenya,” he says, having been born and raised in the UK.

But he was concerned about sustainability even before he came here in 2013 to see the total eclipse which was passing directly over Turkana, which is where he and Susan met.

“She’s the one with the academic background in astronomy while I have just been studying it on my own for the past 15 years,” says Chu, who practices gardening as enthusiastically as he does astronomy. Nonetheless, his background is actually in filmmaking, although he’s humble about the years he worked with Al Jazeera as well as other media houses over the years.

Walking me down and all around the garden, Chu points and shows me how they are already growing everything from rhubarb, kale, spinach, cabbage, celery, lettuce, and broccoli, as well as carrots, tree tomatoes, (regular) tomatoes, beetroot, peppers, zucchini, mint, parsley, coriander and cow peas.

We stop to taste one delicate three-leafed green that they only know as ‘yumyumbuzi’. Chu takes a leaf and happily chews it while passing me another stem of three to me.

“They taste lemony, don’t they!” he volunteers, and I agree. They are also slightly sweet and I suggest they might be good in tea.

But Susan says that the family only eats them when they come down to the garden to pluck and chew the yumyumbuzi green just as she did when she was growing up.

“We also have avocado, guava, neem (or ‘mwarubaini’) and jacaranda trees,” she adds, admitting she is looking forward to October when the Jacaranda’s beautiful purple blossoms will come into bloom.

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