The murram road that runs from Wiyumiririe junction off the Nyahururu-Nyeri Road to Aberdare Forest in Ndaragwa constituency is well-made, shortening the 12km journey for travellers.
As we approach the forest, the hot and dry humid weather cools as a gentle breeze from the ranges blows to our direction.
Our destination is an orchard in Mwangaza village on the fringes of the forest.
The one-and-a-quarter-acre farm owned by John Mureithi Nduhiu, 45, is home to tens of tree tomato trees, pomegranate, oranges and grapes.
He also plants capsicum and tomatoes in a greenhouse, grows herbs, spices, flower and fruit seedlings and keeps fish.
On a normal day, the farm teems with researchers, university students and farmers from as far as Nairobi, Nakuru, Uasin Gishu, Busia, Embu and the neighbouring Nyeri counties, who visit to learn from Nduhiu how to be a successful tree tomato farmer.
It all started in 2008, when he planted 100 tree tomato seedlings of solid gold variety. He has since increased the number to over 1,000.
His seed capital then was Sh5,000 from his own savings.
“Tree tomato is the unexploited gold,” he says of the fruit he loves most. “A tree produces between 2kg and 3kg after every fortnight and with 1,000 trees that translates to between 2,000kg and 3,000kg,” he offers, adding a kilo goes for between Sh80-Sh100.
He switched to fruit farming after planting maize and potatoes and making losses.
He sells the tree tomatoes to traders from Nakuru, Nairobi and Nyahururu who visit his farm to buy.
To make the venture profitable, Nduhiu says one must practice good management from planting to harvesting.
To plant tree tomato, dig a hole of about two feet wide and two feet deep. One must then separate the top soil from the sub soil.
“You should then mix the top soil with one bucket of farm manure in equal ration and put them in the hole. The hole should not be completely filled with soil to leave space for watering. The mixture is left for about a week before the seedling is planted.”
Mulching using grass or dry weeds helps to retain moisture in the soil.
Nduhiu does not use pesticides on his farm to avoid pollution as they may affect bees, which help in pollinating the fruits.
“I keep bees for pollination because without them, my fruits will never flourish. I also have red worms which I feed vegetables that have been grown organically and produce urine that I mix with water to make organic fertiliser,” he says.
He mixes a litre of worm juice with five litres of water, then uses the concoction as a pesticide to spray the trees to keep away pests and diseases.
“In between the tree tomato trees I plant coriander, spring onion and garlic which act as repellent to harmful insects that include flies.”
According to him, the stem of the tree that normally has a seven-year lifespan should be green and not dotted with black spots, which is a sign of dieback disease.
“Beneath the leaves I check whether there are red spider mites which could multiply into millions in days and destroy the fruits,” says the farmer, who works with extension officers to ensure his orchard is in good shape.
He cuts the affected leaves with a sterilised scissor dipped in Dettol to avoid transferring diseases to the trees.
Nduhiu manages the orchard with the help of his wife Elizabeth. And when schools are closed, his children Lydia, Agnes and Kevin join hands as they learn the secrets of fruit farming.
“I get seeds from fruits picked from high-yielding trees which have no history of diseases and have strong stems and broad leaves. I then dry the seeds and plant in a nursery and later put them in plastic pots,” he says, noting he sells the seedlings at between Sh400 and Sh500.
More more come from visitors who pay Sh500 each for three-hour theory and practical lessons.
Growing fruits in Ndaragwa, though, comes with various challenges.
“The biggest challenge is lack of water. I use piped water which is rationed and erratic weather patterns interfere with crops.”
To mitigate these challenges, Nduhiu harvests rainwater and is planning to drill a borehole.
Joseph Gaturuku, the Nakuru county horticulture officer, says for farmers to get maximum returns, one must do soil analysis.
“This will help to establish the soil suitability for growing certain fruits or crops and guides one on how to apply fertiliser.”
He further advises farmers to plant grafted fruit seedlings as they mature early, produce bigger and more yields and are slightly tolerant to drought.
“Adequate water supply is critical and since the roots are shallow, farmers are advised to have constant supply of water by constructing water pans.”