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Katy Barnes came for a holiday in Kenya, fell in love with the country and decided to settle here.
“London was fast-paced. You felt like you needed to do it all. Then I came to Nairobi and things were much chilled. I found it more sociable and the nice weather helped,” she says.
Now 10 years later, Ms Barnes has not only made Kenya home but has also built a breathtaking garden on a two-acre piece of land.
Hers is a drought-resistant garden because she lives in a water-scarce area.
“I am on black cotton soil and it is very dry here in this part of Lang’ata [Nairobi]. But I do not water my garden. I only water my potted plants. The only time I water my garden is when there is a brand new plant and even then I try and time when the rainy season might be coming in,” she says.
Ms Barnes has had the garden for about five years.
“When I first bought this place, there was just a very thin garden at the edge of the compound. Over time, I have been bringing it out into the lawn and putting as many trees. I want to, eventually, get rid of the lawn because it is very water-thirsty and replace it with more garden beds and indigenous grasses that are better for biodiversity, the insects and the birds,” she tells BDLife.
Her garden is divided into five beds. “I do my garden beds quite cheaply as I try to propagate many of my plants. Like this bed (she shows us her most recent colourful garden bed), there is no design style, it is just for colour and the birds like it there. I am trying to encourage as much bird and insect life as possible. Over time, some things don’t work well like the calathea plants (she uproots them). But the ornamental grass is doing really well, and the lilies,” says the 44-year-old.
She also has poinsettias on her bed to add a little bit of colour. “The bromeliads will be lovely when it rains. The agave attenuata, pennisetum grass and the giant banana also do well here,” she says.
“Every single palm that I have ever bought dies in the garden so I have had to put all my palms in terracotta pots. Even my heliconias are not doing very well so I will have to put them in terracotta pots.”
On another bed, the gardener has lush vegetation consisting of agave attenuata, jade plants, poinsettias, and large South African aloe. There is bougainvillaea that has added a splash of colour. “This is the nicest bit of the garden where I have also added some sculptures. This one (the bed) is mostly to hide the beehives so that my dogs do not get stung,” says Ms Barnes who has nine dogs.
If a plant does well, she propagates it or adds more of the same variety.
“Once I know a plant does well, I start putting more of them here. So I knew the aloes and the agaves do well here so I bought a new variety to add in.” At the sides of her garden, Ms Barnes has grown large South African aloes and bromeliads.
She has two vegetable gardens. One is netted. “This is where we grow our spinach, lettuce and herbs. This is where we grow the plants we don’t want the birds eating or the dogs peeing on,” says Ms Barnes who also runs her business, Kuzi Trading from her home compound.
The other vegetable patch is much bigger and it is where she grows sukuma wiki and pumpkin.
Where she get her plants
Ms Barnes says that she buys most of her plants from the roadside or at the Kenya Horticultural Society (KHS) sales adding, “I also propagate a lot, especially the agapanthus, the aloes and the agaves. I also swap plants with friends.”
Having built such a beautiful drought-resistant garden, one would imagine that she has prior experience or grew up on a farm.
“I am from the UK and did not have a garden until I moved out here. This has all been a complete learning curve for me. I started working at Mandhari Plants [a Nairobi-based plant seller] on the operations side and that is how I learned about plants. One of the things that was really frustrating to me was that I was working all day with plants and I did not have any plants of my own. So I bought this place,” she says.
When she moved into her new home, she started taking out a lot of the bushes that were all over. Her focus has been to add some texture and depth, having plants on different levels, and different shapes of leaves in the garden.
“My palette is aloes, grasses and agaves. I really like the combination of aloes and grass because you have the softness of the grass and the agaves and aloes are really low maintenance. I then added a little bit of feature plants like the bananas, the red of the poinsettias and the bougainvillaea,” she says.
Though her land sits on black cotton soil, Ms Barnes says that she avoids using artificial fertiliser. “When we have established the garden beds, I normally just buy a little bit of red soil and use manure. I am not a permaculturist but I don’t like disturbing the soil too much so I leave the natural microbiome as much as possible. I also try to leave as many things to die in place. It is kind of messy because it is leaf litter but it is better for the soil and the insects in general. If your leaves aren’t being eaten then it means that there is no life in your garden. And you need some life,” she says.
Outside her house on the veranda, she has a lovely purple petrea plant, also known as a queen’s wreath. Where it sits is also where all her blossoming potted palms now stand. She also has her ‘plant hospital’ on the veranda. “When plants don’t do well outside I bring them here to see if they will survive,” she says.
While the outside gives the sight of her drought-resistant plants, the inside of her house gives a feeling of nostalgia. Amidst all her many arranged books on the shelves, she also has varieties of plants. The house feels cool and chill courtesy of the many house plants.
Her best plant is the fiddle-leaf fig, a showy indoor plant that easily stands in as a work of art. Many people are not very successful in growing it because it can be fussy but at her house, it is thriving that it clings to her wooden roofed ceiling.
She also has syngoniums, and mini-monsteras. With indoor plants she says, “People tend to think that you need to water more than you need to. Most of these plants usually get watered at least once every 10 days. The last thing you want to do is to over water and leave them sitting in water. Some of them can probably do with more light.”
“I really like plants, they are like my friends. Having them in the house is like having my friends around me and every day I can check on them. Some are toxic friends like this one (she points at the calatheas), I know it is going to die on me. They need very humid conditions. They are also notoriously fickle so they die quite often. It will be beautiful for six months then it dies.”
For people getting a house plant for the first time, Ms Barnes advises that they try the pothos plant. “It is one of the first plants I bought when I moved here. Now it is all over. They grow very fast and they are just so easy to look after,” she says.
Her biggest challenge has been water.
“The reason why we don’t water anything is that we rely either on bowser water or collected rainwater. I cannot water my lawn with bowser water as it will be too expensive,” she says.
As the Kenya Horticultural Society chair of Nairobi District, Ms Barnes says that it takes up so much of her time that she has little time for gardening for pleasure.
“During the week, I do my work then during the weekend I do the KHS duties. However, I am happy because it has helped me to know how to grow certain plants. It is very unlikely that there is a plant grower in Nairobi and I don’t know of their existence. I am quite community-minded and I just think that it is important for Kenya to have these organisations and ways to learn how to grow plants. All information about gardening on the internet is related to foreign countries yet we have different seasons here in Kenya. So the only way to do it right is to learn from each other,” she says.
At KHS she runs the monthly meetings, and the flower shows.
On her plans for her garden she says, “I don’t think a garden is ever done, it is always in constant motion and being changed up. People tend to want everything filled up in the garden all at once but the problem is if you fill everything out when it is all new, when it grows it will be completely overgrown and then you will need to take stuff out. It is much cheaper and more sustainable if you start with a few plants and learn as you go. As you can see with the plants that are not doing so well, I am still learning,” she says.