CULTIVATING A GARDEN PARADISE
By Margaretta wa Gacheru
Geraldine Robarts didn’t discover she had a green thumb until she went to teach fine art in Uganda at Makerere University in the 1960s. But the same year as she created her very first garden, she won an award from the Uganda Horticulture Society and she has been gardening ever since.
“I found that painting and gardening have a lot in common,’ she said. “They’re both about finding beauty in nature and about selecting colors that go together.’
Describing gardening as her passion, Geraldine (who is equally passionate about painting) never took a course in landscape gardening, but looking at her exquisitely eclectic gardens – she has several in her shambain Karen – one could easily assume she had an advanced degree in horticulture.
“But I was an avid disciple of the late Peter Greensmith, [the British horticulturalist who was the first to come, work and stay in Kenya] from whom I got almost half of my plants and a great deal of my knowledge about them as well,” she added.
The rest of her plants have come from cuttings which she’s collected here and there and then carefully cultivates, using only natural fertilizers.
“Twice a year, we spread organic compost (mixed with soil) that we generate on a daily basis. We also spread dried horse manure [semi-annually] that we get from our neighbors up the road who have the biggest stable full of steeple jumpers in Kenya. That’s why our plants are so healthy,” she said, sounding like a proud mama whose offspring are strong, beautiful and blossoming.
Coming to Kenya to teach at Kenyatta University in 1972, Geraldine’s family soon decided to settle here and bought 17 acres of land in Karen when the space was still affordable.
“But with four children in school overseas, we had no choice but to sell most of that property,” said Geraldine who remained with almost three acres.
That is where she’s been creating lush, dense and colorful ‘gardens within gardens’ ever since. She’s got a spacious bamboo garden which also has a rich variety of other trees, flowers and shrubs in it – including everything from a Pride of Bolivia tree and a Yellow Candle tree to the Fichus Nitida tree (a relative of the Mugumu or Fig tree) which she planted more than 40 years ago!
She’s also got several rock gardens filled with assorted succulents, and an array of other gardens filled with orchids, ferns, cactus, chrysanthemums, bougainvillea, and all sorts of Latin named plants that I won’t enumerate. She’s even got lemon and papaya trees in the vegetable garden that’s maintained by her spouse Mike Fairhead, a former Group Technical Director with the Nation Media Group.
Having planted literally thousands of both indigenous and exotic flowers, trees, succulents and shrubs since she settled down on acreage that had once been part of Karen Blixen’s coffee plantation, Geraldine says she planted almost all the vegetation in her gardens – with some assistance in the physical bit of the process from her household staff – although she has one or two caveats.
“There were a half a dozen indigenous rainforest trees in the driveway when we arrived and they are still there. Also, there were three trees that had been planted by Karen Blixen which we found at the same time: two Jacarandas [which are now around 55 feet tall] and one huge Thorn Tree which was felled during a torrential storm some years ago.
“It was a tragedy since we loved that tree, but after we dug up all its roots, we found the hole was so deep, we had little choice but to put in a swimming pool, “said Geraldine who would’ve preferred not to have a big cement hole in her front yard, which is why she has potted plants, specifically ornamental Palms, all around the pool. “It’s to offset the hard effect of the cement,” she said.
Fortunately, she was able to salvage some seeds after the storm so that today she has two baby thorn trees which she tends lovingly as she does all the plants in her gardens.
Geraldine is continuously collecting cuttings and planting them all over her gardens. “If you look carefully, you can see how the plants are layered [in terms of color, shape, size and height] with a foreground, middle ground and background, in a way that’s similar to the way I paint,”
In fact, she is also continuously inspired to paint her gardens. And why wouldn’t she since she genuinely feels they have become a kind of paradise.