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The best qualities of the Kenya Horticultural Society budded this May and flowered in June as society members with the privilege of time attended a series of garden lectures in beautiful gardens across Nairobi to learn more about their favorite hobby.  Lectures were held in some of the most established and interesting gardens in Kenya by some of the most cultivated minds.  The knowledge was imparted to senior gardeners on big estates such as the Muthaiga Country Club and Fairseat and to members with gardens that they wanted to understand more and do more with.  Each talk distilled a wealth of information to pupils hungry for knowledge and inspiration.  As they were held in special and mature gardens, students were able to see, touch, feel and ask many questions to lecturers who were keen to share everything they knew. It was a great privilege.

Barry Cameron kindly took a morning off with Celia Hardy in their rich garden in Tigoni to teach a group of about fifteen about propagation, pots, potting soils and plants for pots. We learnt about which brands give the best seeds for certain plants and vegetables and how to plant from seed and build seed trays.  We toured their own successful vegetable garden to see it done right.  The lessons were practical, as we watched it all happen and got to try it ourselves.  We also learnt how to grow plants from cuttings.  We were taught many secrets that can make such an endeavor successful, such as taking cuttings in the morning and using root hormone and where to buy it – at Plants Galore of course!  We then moved on to learn about different types of cuttings, such as leaf cuttings.

“I’m going to start preparing my Christmas gifts now,” said Harriet as she watched Barry slit the leaf of a beautiful African Violet and place it horizontally in the seed tray ready to take root.  Barry Cameron has been working tirelessly on the KHS book, “Gardening in Eastern Africa” as it nears completion soon, making it the East African gardener’s most useful and interesting encyclopedia.  It was really inspiring to be in the company of such a learned man who has such a passion and interest in gardening and who is contributing so much to the society and the field through his work on the book.

“The gardener’s life is a healthy life,” said Barry to his pupils.  “You get all the exercise you need working in your garden.”  Barry also pointed to some of the thousands of species in his garden, recounting warmly of the day some of the special ones were acquired; many as a result of his long friendship with Peter Greensmith who shared rare species with Barry over the years.  “You must come to my garden so that I can share a cutting of a creeper that I have with you,” members said to each other as they toured the garden after the talk, inspired and humbled.

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Celia Hardy carried the flame the following week in the almost century old garden of Nairobi’s first governor, Sir Michael Blundell.  “This should be a national treasure” we whispered, sitting in the awesome splendor of a grand garden coming into its own as it’s rare palms and trees reach maturity; fulfilling the vision of the colonial Governor, who imagined his garden to become what it is now at the beginning of the last century.  Seated beneath the grand canopy, in the dappled shadows of the stone manor, we passed different species of grass between us discussing the pros and cons of Bermuda; Zimbabwe; Kikuyu; Arabica; Durban; Cape Royal and Paspalum. We learnt what burns a lawn; how to lay a lawn and what to feed a lawn.  We learnt what kinds of lawns work well in certain environments.

“Bonemeal is wonderful to sprinkle in handfuls on a lawn twice a year because it is a slow feeder and it does not burn a lawn. The only problem is my dogs like eating it, but I still do it,” smiled Sally. We explored different tools available that will make a gardener’s life much easier and we watched Karen’s gardeners hard at work. It was amazing that after more than fifty years, the gardeners were able to cut back weeds and invasive species to reveal the original plants down below, struggling for survival these many years, now set free to flourish.

A week later we had moved from Ridgeways to Langata, where Susie Allan and Brian Williams taught the class about building a dam, succulents and indigenous trees. “It was so beautiful being there,” said Rita, as she gained inspiration for her new garden.  Brian William’s indigenous tree nursery in Thika is one of Kenya’s most established and richly stocked, so we could not have had a more learned and devoted teacher. On the same side of town, the following week, the society moved into a new garden designed by Chloe Humphreys.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like it in Kenya,” said Sue, as we sat beneath a yellow fever tree, enjoying the gentle sway of the wispy grasses around us, just as landscape designer Chloe Humphreys had envisaged when she drew and planted the beautiful garden.  Chloe, who studied landscape design abroad, has now returned to work in the field professionally through her Landscape Studio.  She imparted some of the principles that she thinks are important: that we should be bold and simple; if you were thinking of using five species, perhaps cut it down to three; think of creating gardens with journeys as you walk through them and think of the flow of movement as you move from space to space; think of these spaces as outdoor rooms and create screens so that gardens feel bigger than they are as you discover different pockets within them. Chloe was kind enough to share with us her incredible library of rare and interesting books and those with time and interest browsed through these at the end of the talk, absorbing the carefully thought out but simple garden around them.

I recommend the garden course to anyone with an interest in plants, gardens, trees and nature in general and thank the society and all the hosts for organizing such a great series.  “I’ve been so busy with work.  These mornings have been such a refreshing break,” said Jaimini.

Arjun Kohli

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