A walk around my garden – part 1

In May 2006 I took my friends at www.mooseyscountrygarden.com. on a walk, and it is much the same walk we are going on now. I am going to show you things warts and all: the hosepipe left lying from last week, and the reed from last month, the edges untrimmed, paving stones awaiting their future, autumn leaves left lying after two windy late autumn days (liar: many have been there for weeks). In addition I have not waited for the right light to photograph by, but have set off late morning on this nippy but sunny day.

4 Outside_the_gate

The Ellensgate Garden and its entrance are the only perfectly level areas in the entire garden. Pinks flank the brick path on this side and bergenias on the outside.

My purpose is to give you an idea of the layout of the garden. In 1995 I spent more than 3 months travelling through the UK in a camper, intensively studying gardens and garden design. (When I returned to South Africa I started designing and installing gardens in Johannesburg whilst further developing the nursery and garden on the farm. Eventually I realized that two one-man businesses 400km apart could never work and decided to give up my city life.) One of the many lessons I learn in England was that often the unexpected combination of formal and informal have delightful results, and whilst still there started wondering how I would achieve this on the farm…

I knew that it was out of the question near my cottage. It was intrinsic that it stood ‘in the veldt’ as we say in South Africa – in other words in a meadow. I had already compromised when I started developing the cottage garden outside the front door… It made sense that the formal gardens related to my parents’ house, altogether a grander and more conventional structure: but how?

The answer was already there: the house sits on a terrace retained by a waist high wall which slopes down parallel with the valley. Directly in line with the front door and the entrance steps, a set of steps cuts into this terrace. The line from the front door down these steps would determine my main axis. To the left of the line would be the expanse of the open garden, over which one would look from the verandah (‘stoep’ in South Africa) across the dam to the Arboritum. To the right would be a series of garden rooms of different scale and mood. Up and down I wondered, planting pegs and staring, making cryptic notes to myself that even I sometimes couldn’t Up to the mid 50s this area had been potato lands, ploughed by a mule-drawn single-share plough. It had become veldt over the years since then, but it was still vaguely terraced; not level, simply less steep than the natural contour had been. I felt it important that this topography was respected – besides: the cost and effort involved in substantial regrading was out of the question, and many trees had already been planted over a 15 year period.

And so things developed: the Ellensgate Garden was on the first level below the stairs. Work started quite soon on it and on the main axis. As this axis dropped down each of the old terraces, a flight of stairs was called for; the bottom ones are yet to be built ten years later! (Recent note: And STILL not built going on 14 years later…)

5 ellensgate_garden_across_lawn

The awkward brickwork triangle on the side facing the lawn is hidden by an Abelia ‘Francis Mason’ hedge – here very much in need of a trim! To the left of the gate is a “Paul’s Scarlet Climber”; one of my aunts remembered it when reminiscing about the garden at Ellensgate and I planted it for her.

2 Ellensgate_gate

The gate and its garden with the white garden beyond. One day the white garden was there : the viburnum opulus was in flower and there were some self-sown white nicotianas (tobacco flowers) in the foreground; all it needed was some fine-tuning. Coloured nicotianas are removed and promptly, on pain of death, presented to my mother for putting into vases.

The Ellensgate Garden started with just that: Ellensgate. My paternal grandfather carpented the gate himself in the early twenties. It was the front gate to their house in Pretoria. Ellen was my father’s eldest sister, and her favourite spot in the garden was near this gate. She died in a typhoid epidemic in 1928; my father was born early the next year, the only son. I don’t know whether it was before or after her death that the house was officially christened Ellensgate. When the house was sold in 1954 my father himself removed the brass plaque from the gate. I remember it from my boyhood, lying in the bottom of his bedside drawer. For 40 years the house was used as a boarding house, growing progressively seedier, until it was bought by Pieter and Willem, who started renovating it. My father drove past on one of his occasional pilgrimages and saw the improvement. He stopped and within 20 minutes all three were in tears around the dining room table. Pieter and Willem have since become our friends and visit us on the farm. (See their website: www.ellensgate.co.za )

My father had always spoken of someday buying the gate – I knew now that it would happen, and it was part of my planning for that first garden from the very beginning: it was for my parents’ 70th birthdays and 45th wedding anniversary, and it was to be a tribute to four generations who had sought to beautify their surroundings: the sandstone of the gate pillar cappings and the fountain comes from the Orange Free State Province, near where my great grandparents built a home of similar sandstone in the early 1900s after the devastation of the Anglo Boer War. The black slate pathways are in tribute to the thick slabs of black slate of which Ellensgate itself is built. The wooden walls and ‘windows’ are of Sequoia sempervirens – Californian Redwood – grown and harvested on this farm, after which we have named it Sequoia Farm.

1 Ellensgate_garden_from_the_living_room

Perfect symmetry from the living room window. Beyond the pergola in the Anniversary Garden, at that stage still incomplete, can be seen.

One of my earliest gardening lessons I learnt from a neighbour who, when building her house on a nearby hilltop with a spectacular 300 degree view, designed her garden on such a small scale that one stooped to pass through the rose arches. The contrast between the greater and the closer space was breathtaking. I wanted something similar: a small, totally contained and introverted space. Also I wished to pay tribute to the ultimate formal gardens: the enclosed courtyard gardens of Islam, divided into four quadrants by rills and a central fountain. Except here the rills were replaced with paths! The garden is six meters square. When standing in the bay window of the living room, one looks through a ‘window’ into the garden with its central fountain aligned to the centre of the living room. The three paths all contain benches set between low pillars (tea tables!) which echo the gate posts of the fourth path.

6 Ellensgate_gdn

In theory the Ellensgate Garden is perfectly manicured, with only the occasional self-seeders allowed. The reality is somewhat different, and it is often messier than this. The catmints are just showing colour but two plants which are ubiquitous in my garden are making their presence felt: Erigeron karvinskianus (the little white daisy) and Verbena bonariensis (the highly fashionable, tall ‘see-through’ purple verbena – a weed in South Africa!)

A hedge of myrtle (Myrtus communis) flanks the paths. This replaced a sowing of Nicotiana alata which proved much too exuberant and sticky! The centre of the quadrants were originally grass: impossible to mow as they are less than 2m square, and cutting the lawn with nail scissors has never been my idea of therapeutic activity. They are now paved with large terracotta squares interplanted with wonderfully scented pink pinks (Dianthus whatever; never figured that one out; the blue-grey grassy leaved tussocky ones that smell so deliciously of cloves.) There are L-shaped raised boxes between the pillars, planted with pink roses, catmint and an unusual jasmine in each corner. The importance of scent in this garden was always paramount. The roses are ‘Bewitched’, a very tall and prolific, slightly mottled mid pink HT and ‘Bella Rosa’, a shortish darker pink floribunda. “People’s Princess” planted in the four corners, like their namesake, all died spectacularly at an early age. Yet it is still in the catalogues, and highly praised…  (Currently: the myrtle has been removed, for it too was difficult to keep to scale. The ‘Bewitched roses are due to be moved in the next weeks – as tall and robust as ‘Queen Elizabeth’ (an ancestor) they tower way over ones head and are also out of proportion. The pump recently packed up and must be replaced. All in all it is time for a serious overhaul in this, my parents’ 80th year!)

The White Garden is gradually being developed further, with ‘Iceberg’ roses, white hydrangeas, gaura, ox-eyes, and Rose ‘Purezza’ (just visible against the red azalea). This is a repeat-flowering white banksias for which Ludwig’s Roses provide no varietal name – a mystery rose! I have recently scattered seed of Nicotiana sylvestris. The pot in the distance is due to be moved elsewhere and a sundial set more to the centre will replace it. It will mark the crossing of the white Garden and the Yew Walk axes.

The White Garden is gradually being developed further, with ‘Iceberg’ roses, white hydrangeas, gaura, ox-eyes, and Rose ‘Purezza’ (just visible against the red azalea). This is a repeat-flowering white banksias for which Ludwig’s Roses (SA’s top growers) provide no varietal name – a mystery rose! I have recently scattered seed of Nicotiana sylvestris. The pot in the distance is due to be moved elsewhere and a sundial set more to the centre will replace it. It will mark the crossing of the White Garden and the Yew Walk axes.

One day I looked across from the gate and the White Garden was born – it was all there already, it only needed editing. But now I have run out of time, and the tour has only just started. We will have to continue on another occasion, when today’s pics (May 2006) will feature as I promised in the beginning of this post, instead of these I went foraging for …

5 thoughts on “A walk around my garden – part 1

  1. Hey Jack, welcome to the garden blogging world. I’m always excited to see a new South African Garden Blog.

    I love that photo in the next post!

    Ok, scrap my last question about the redwoods, but are they still growing on the farm? How well do they grow in our climate?

    Your gardens look great, it must be wonderful having so much space to work in, and scope to create any garden you like?

    I wish we could use Verbena in SA – it would have been the perfect plant to use in some of my designs, but the potential for it to spread is just too great.

    • Hi Ross and welcome – especially on one of the ‘meatier’ posts! I was actually thinking as I posted this (based on a 3 year old Moosey post) that we have far fewer verbena boronariensis now than a few years back – I wondered why. They have been ‘wild’ on the farm for as long as I can remember. Beint a cold climate by SA standards they have never been weedy, but I have seen them out of control in warmer grasslands.

      Talking temps, we are too cold in winter and too wet in summer for a great many indigenous plants. I fact we must have of the most classically temperate conditions in SA. As I believe a flower from the Cape fynbos is no less exotic here than something from Asia or wherever, I look to endemic plants when I think indigenous. I will still post on that at some stage.

      We are in a small micro-climate between the sub-tropics of Tzaneen and the dry savannah of Polokwane in the furthest Northern foothills of the Drakensberg – basically north of the mountain instead of east. We are a lot like parts of the Natal Midlands, and the Hogsback in the Eastern Cape. And yes, I do have redwoods. I will post on them too!

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