What you need to know:
As we get consumed by our daily grind and the commodification of everything, we get disconnected from our environment. We lose the joy of connecting with soil and mad because everything is now concrete and steel. Once you realise how integral every aspect of nature is, you will not think twice about creating your own garden.
The pandemic taught us that one does not need a multi-acre farm to grow vegetables and herbs for consumption. While we all bought into urban gardening with the aim of growing food for consumption, we have pushed the ornamental garden into the background. Many homeowners repurpose their small plots from flower gardens to vegetable and herbs.
While the practicality of this transition is commendable, once in a while when you visit a home that is surrounded by beautiful blooms and towering trees you question whether the fresh and safely grown vegetables and herbs are worthy compensation for the joy one gets sitting in their ornamental garden soaking in the beauty of nature.
Alice Chekwoti is one homeowner in love with all plants that bloom and has turned her home in Buwate, Kira Municipality into a haven colour. Wherever you look, your eyes are met with beautiful plants in the middle of a wild bloom.
The house itself is barely visible because of the lush garden featuring a green canopy of acacia trees reminiscent of the ruggedness of a wild savannah while the orchids creeping upon columns of tree bark portray the softness of urban living. Yes, she created artificial tree trunks from tree bark just for so her orchids could feel at home.
Gardener since childhood
The 48-year-old gardening guru says her gardening passion has been honed over the last forty years.
“I have been a gardener since I was eight years old. Our home in Zimbabwe was on the second floor of a police flat because my father was a policeman. I would get NIDO tins and fill them with soil and plant flowers in them. The whole veranda was lined with tins and luckily, no one ever stopped me from my passion,” she says.
She found out early on that gardening was a great source of happiness for her. She spent most of her free time studying which plants did well in which soils and by the time she was in her 20s, it came naturally to her. All this time, she was doing all the gardening on her father’s balcony in the police barracks.
Study your soil
Chekwoti says the fundamental thing about gardening is that one must understand which flowers thrive in which soil. Her garden is as pristine as it is because she understands soil very well.
“Soil is the first thing I got to understand from an early age. The first thing about a good garden is the soil. If you get the soil right, everything else will be easy. There is a type of soil composition that can be good for 80 percent of the plants, but even that necessitates that you understand what it is. The other 20 percent of the flowers are so particular that they need specific conditions for them to thrive. And you must know this,” she says.
If you feel ill equipped to do your own soil testing, Chekwoti recommends getting an expert to do it. Sampling new lawn or garden areas several months in advance allows time for making recommended adjustments before you plant.
Plan to provide soil samples for each area that you will be planting. Established lawns, for example, need different nutrition than gardens or new lawns. So, area-specific samples will deliver area-specific results and recommendations. Sample front and back yards separately; conditions will vary in each one.
Test healthy, established lawns and ornamental gardens every three to four years, and nutrient-demanding vegetable gardens every two to three years. Always wait at least six to eight weeks after fertilising depending on the type of fertiliser or liming to sample or your samples may be skewed.
“One concerning attitude I have discovered here is that people do not want to invest yet they want nice things. Many times I have been contacted by commercial establishments such as hotels to do their landscaping, but when I give them my quotation, sometimes as little as Shs20m, they say we will get back to you and I never hear from them,” she says.
She says plants such as anthurium flowers that have deep roots must be planted in a soil mix that is well-drained and rich in organic matter. Such plants need a mix of peat moss, perlite, and coarse sand or bark.
“The soil should be loose and airy to allow for proper root growth and water drainage. The reason for this is because they prefer moist but not wet soil. Soggy or clay soil will inhibit their ability to bloom. For these plants, overwatering can cause root rot, whereas under watering can cause the leaves to wilt and the plant to become stunted. It is important to ensure that the pot has good drainage, and that excess water can drain out easily,” she says
For such plants as anthurium, if the roots cannot penetrate the soil, it will not be able to get the nutrients. If it is not getting the nutrients, it is not going to give you flowers. So when you mix the soil, ensure it is as porous as possible.
Cactus, aloe vera and other succulents, which thrive in arid environments such as deserts, develop widespread roots that can go up to 15 feet far from the parent plant. The fibrous roots do not go deep underground but remain on the surface for one main reason; water collection. These roots remain on the surface, so they collect water from the soil even with little rain. If you put it in nonporous, rich soil, it will just rot.
For such plants to thrive, mix 70 percent sand with 20 percent black soil and 10 percent small stones.
The grass in Chekwoti’s garden is lush green and healthy. She says maintaining it like that requires adequate knowledge of the land and willing to get one’s hands dirty.
“There is grass that can grow well in the sun but will not work in a shaded area. For instance, paspalum cannot survive if planted under too much shed. So we removed paspalum and planted kifuta grass, because it grows naturally. What you may not know is that people in Tanzania buy this grass from Uganda to plant in their gardens,” she says.
Her lawn has all types of natural, indigenous grass that grows all over Uganda.
“In January, when it starts getting very dry, we get manure and spread a layer of it over the grass. That manure helps keep the moisture in the ground and fertilise it. The manure gets the morning dew from the blades and keeps the ground cool and the grass is fed,” she says.
Weed your grass
For a lawn to be this good, she says it must be weeded regularly. Without weeding out the invasive grasses, the intruders will take over the lawn.
“Gardening is not cheap. You have to be prepared to spend on manure, irrigation, even weeding,” she says.
Plants for casual gardeners
Chekwoti places gardeners in two categories; the passionate and commited ones and those who want a beautiful garden without putting in the work. While some do not have the time, others do not want to get their hands dirty.
“Yes, there are flowers and plants for the unenthusiastic gardener, but even then, some work is needed. However, you cannot cheat nature, so the work you put in will be reflected in your garden,” she says.
She advises that for those who do not have time to look after a garden constantly, to go for hard to kill plants such as cactus, euphorbia, succulents, birds of paradise and heliconia, among others.
For the enthusiastic gardeners, she recommends plants that give you about three months of abundant bloom, then they die and you have to plant them again. These mostly include annuals such as zinnias, salvia, ‘Chinese forget-me-nots’ dahlias, echinaceas and black eyed susans, among others.
Passing on knowledge
Chekwoti is a becoming famous for her Instagram posts about gardening. She is racking up a following on social media of people who want to have a garden such as hers. She says, she shares her knowledge freely with her followers, especially young people.
“I help people, mostly young homemakers who want to plant great gardens. I show them the basics of gardening and how I managed to put my garden together. One thing I stress is intentionality of purpose because if you are intentional, you can do anything,” she says.
Checkwoti also organises gardening workshops, although they are not as regular as she would want them to be because most of the time she is busy at her flower farm. The workshops are once every quarter.
“While many more people are now clamouring to attend these meetings, I usually like to keep the number at 30 people,” she says.
Dream come true
Chekwoti says as a young girl, she prayed to God to have a home that has enough space for a garden. Having grown up in flat surrounded by nothing but concrete, she came to equate success with living close to the land and growing whatever you wanted in your garden. Her dream came true when she arrived in Uganda in 1997 upon getting married to a Ugandan university professor she met back home.
“So when I got married and I moved to Uganda, immediately I started planting a garden in our first home in Kyebando. By the time we moved to Bulindo, it was a little forest,” she says.
When they moved away from busy Kyebando to quieter Buwate, some 15km north of Kampala, she immediately started planting another garden at their new home. The garden was still young when, in 2009, the family moved to Arusha, Tanzania to join her husband who worked there. For this passionate horticulturist, no matter wherever she moves, her priority is turning her environment into a green wonderland.
Importance of landscaping
As we get consumed by our daily grind and the commodification of everything, we get disconnected from our environment. We lose the joy of connecting with soil and mad because everything is now concrete and steel. But as Chekwoti has showed us, you can create a green oasis even in the middle of a cacophony of cars and people. Once you see how integral every aspect of nature is, you will not think twice about creating your own garden. Many gardeners say they experience spiritual and physical well-being when tending to their gardens. Not only is the exercise healthy but also a well-tended garden adds value to a property.