City gardener growing all her veggies, herbs

04Dec 2021
Nairobi
The Guardian
City gardener growing all her veggies, herbs

If Reshma Khan wants to make her favourite dish —Thai curry or anything Thai — all she has to do is arm herself with a food basket and saunter around her garden outside her colonial-style house.

Reshma Khan (left) and Sheena Shah sit down at a bench found in Peshan’s home garden along Peponi Road on November 16, 2021.

By the time she is back, her basket is packed with everything she needs to whip up not only Thai dish but also Indian curries, salads, and even authentic guacamole. You would be forgiven if you thought that this food garden that is awash with fresh, organic produce is in a place far away from the busy, fast-paced, highly-polluted, sprawling-with-cement city of Nairobi. It is right in the heart of it. In Westlands.

“I honestly don’t recall the last time I purchased herbs and vegetables from a supermarket or food market. I did buy an avocado recently but only because a visiting friend wanted to eat guacamole and our avocados aren’t ready yet,” Ms Khan says, pointing at two well-endowed avocado trees. From where I stand, the growing green fruits, in their hundreds, are weighing down their host.

Ms Khan’s food garden is ever-giving yet it’s not huge. Our mid-morning stroll through it begins at their “small portable garden.” Planted in 20-litre plastic water bottles (because Ms Khan and her family are environmentally conscious) are a huge variety of herbs and vegetables among them different kinds of lime — Florida, Thai and the rare and expensive Australian finger.

Several types of mints and thyme as well as the brightly coloured goji berries, marjoram, sorrel, gooseberries, purple jalapeno, rosemary, Japanese mitsuba parsley are also part of the foods grown here. I taste some as I go along.

Many moons ago across this portable herb garden was a slope with green grass. Wanting to grow her food, Ms Khan was dismayed at the lack of space. Her expansive backyard adorned with trees and the unmissable African lilies, thanks to their spectacularly purple flower blooms, was not receiving adequate sunlight. But there was space. All she needed were a knowledgeable set of eyes.

Meet the experts

She found them in Sheena Shah and Daniel Kathendu, permaculture experts at Harvesting for Good East Africa, who work to turn seemingly unproductive spaces in urban areas into food orchards through permaculture design and principles. According to Ms Shah, the majority of city dwellers who approach Harvesting for Good East Africa want to grow their food but have no idea how to start because of limited space.

“People are amazed when they find out that any piece of bare land or spaces left exposed where you can see the soil, can be utilised. Applying permaculture principles can help turn average yards, and small city spaces like Reshma’s, into functional areas that are also appealing to the eye,” Ms Shah, the founder of Harvesting for Good EA, says.

Such principles include promoting biodiversity, where whatever is planted is one in nature; observing and interacting is growing plants specifically for the landscape and those that keep pests at bay and obtain a yield is ensuring that the harvest is abundant, among others. “If we utilise some of these principles, we’ll see a lot more fruitful spaces come up,” she adds. How do they go about turning people’s average and bare plots into permaculture blisses like Ms Khan’s? I ask.

“We do a client site visit not only to assess the site but also to find out what they’re hoping to achieve,” the lead permaculture educator shares. Some want more food than flowers, others more flowers than food. This means that no design is the same. With this information, they create a garden design and implement it together with the client.

Knowing where the direct sunlight and light fall is a fundamental aspect. Once you have figured this out, then it is all about choosing the right plants and working the soil with compost making it alive. Selecting annuals and perennials plants keeps the space looking productive and vibrant all year long, not forgetting adequate watering and mulching, the keys to a successful harvest.

“We finally train the garden owners and their staff on how to manage for it before handing it over for them to start reaping from it. We encourage starting small and steady so that you can watch the growth, and then start to add more plants along the way rather than adding too many varieties on the land,” Mr Kathendu says.

20+ varieties of plants

Ms Khan’s food garden was created using a permaculture technique known as sheet mulching. This is a no-dig garden method used to keep grass from growing back up. The technique was chosen because the soil had been dug up too much already.

“We layered cardboard over the grass, added a good layer of mixed compost, manure, and soil and made a raised garden. We then planted the crops,” Ms Shah explains. They also created swales where water is held and gradually filtered through the plants allowing for better water retention and absorptions.

On the patch, they’ve planted 20+ varieties of plants including a Peruvian chilli, lemongrass, holy basil, sweet-scented geranium, and fruit trees namely orange and mango, having harvested cabbages, and tree tomatoes previously.

It is also a place of serenity. Ms Khan works as a full-time leadership coach in the social impact sector. In the thick of the pandemic, the garden was a source of refuge and comfort. Spending time in the garden and eating everything from it is probably what saved her mental health, she says.

Is it expensive to develop a permaculture haven? Ms Shah says it depends on the work required. “But in the end, the return on investment is innumerable. The health benefits and memories made are worth any costs incurred,” Ms Khan says.

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