Three threads, of which two are in the title: a book, and a seasonal marker. But more importantly there is a great question; a Quo Vadis of a kind you ask yourself as the year changes, but especially when your father dies.

Laie afternoon in mid summer

The late sun on the summer solstice. The light flows up the valley at this time of the year, side-lighting the view from the big house. A garden on a golden afternoon. Which led me to my title – and some thoughts. (Did you know that the sun is setting at 6.30pm and soon after 7 it is dark? But then we are just 50km from the Tropic of Capricorn, and in mid-winter it only gets dark after 5.30.)

Gardens of a Golden afternoon

I first read Jane Brown’s Sissinghurst – Portrait of a Garden 19 years ago, sitting in our newly beautiful garden in high summer, whilst Francois slept inside, now obviously approaching the terminal stages of cancer. Strange to say when your partner and soul mate is dying, but I don’t think I have ever in my life been as serenely happy as I was then.

Compston 93 -0007

The garden in Johannesburg, 1993

Reading Jane Brown  changed my life. Literally. It pushed me from being an interested gardener to being a passionate gardener and led 18 months later to my resigning from my job in marketing and setting off for 6 months in Europe in a camper, spending most of my time studying the great gardens of the UK.

Europe1995 - Hatfield 1197 Europe1995 - Hatfield 1177

The summer of ‘95: the camper, and one of the most beautiful gardens of the world, Hatfield, where grand gesture and huge scale are successfully combined with intimate plantsmanship.

The experience changed me profoundly. I came to understand the delicate balance between nature and nurture, structure and incident, control and abandon which I believe to be the central tension of gardening as an art. And I realised that formal design could add to our beautiful valley. The question was how, where and why should I add it. The answer I have often dealt with elsewhere. (Possibly most directly in this link.)

The Sunk garden Great Dixter

The Sunk Garden at Great Dixter in 1995

When I acquired Jane Brown’s Gardens of a Golden Afternoon I was already familiar with the work and especially the influence of the Lutyens-Jekyll partnership. It can surely  be said that this book documents, as the title suggests, the culmination of a golden age which ended abruptly when the First World War broke out – a century minus 18 months and odd days ago. And that much of gardening since then has been a nostalgic and romantic longing for ‘the good old days’ before the tensions of modern life, when time passed slowly and labour was cheap.

big house and Iron Crown from  arboretum s

A panorama from the top corner of the arboretum, with the big house and its garden on the left and the Iron Crown, Limpopo Province’s highest mountain to the right.

When time passed slowly and labour was cheap. Each year passes faster as we grow older, because, among other reasons, it forms a smaller percentage of our lives. I am eternally (no pun!) thankful that I started gardening seriously in my 20s, for 30 years on there is so much that has grown to maturity. And 30 years seems forever when you are 25. Now I have crossed one of life’s great thresholds: I have buried my father. I know that the next 30 years, if I am destined to live longer than him, will pass in a flash; and that year on year I will be able to measure the diminishing of my energies.

Gladiolus and St John's Wort

Nature and nurture – self-sown local wilding, Gladiolus dalenii, in the Upper Rosemary Border

Sequoia Gardens has never been more beautiful than it is now. Yes, there is work to be done. There are areas to develop and to redevelop; there is constant maintenance; there are dreams not yet dreamt. As I look across the garden, I am eternally thankful (those words again!) to my staff. Last week I thanked them ceremoniously for a good year before finalising their December pay, Christmas allowance and annual bonus. It added up to considerably more than I’ve ever received as a  salary cheque, even when an annual bonus was included. And that too set me thinking.

Big house reflected

In the Southern Hemisphere things are different to Europe and North America

You see – I paid eight people. And I’ve never earned a substantial salary. A century on, South Africa still has cheap labour. And Sequoia Gardens would not have come into existence, nor can it be sustained by me, without cheap labour. Does this make me an exploiter? I’ll leave that to you to decide. But two years ago five of my staff were temps, and for economic reasons I decided that two had to leave and three be permanently appointed. After much discussion they themselves suggested that they all take smaller salaries instead. I took a deep breath, paid them all a little less than I’d intended and absorbed 1 1/2 salaries myself – paying 5 from 3 would have pushed each share below the minimum legal wage, besides anything else… For you see, there is vast unemployment amongst poorly educated rural people, and almost all of these men support an extended family. As part of the ‘Xmas Box’ I handed out my late father’s clothes and shoes, from still-in-a-wrapper to 20 year old quality to near rags. Only the jerseys will fit any of my staff; everyone was happy with whatever they got. What they don’t use themselves will be handed to family, bartered or even sold.


Structure and incident – the front door axis from inside Alfred’s Arches

I wish I could shrink my monthly wage bill; I don’t have the heart to let anyone go. I considered a smaller annual bonus, which is not controlled by law or negotiation; I could not justify doing it, for my staff have gone the extra mile for me this year. In fact I wished I could have doubled their bonuses.

Control & abandon

Control and abandon – the hedge beyond the Upper Rosemary Border

Quo Vadis? The South Africa my staff live in is not the South Africa that was fought for. Twenty years ago I would not have believed it possible for me to employ 8 people today. For how long will this continue? Much went right in the ‘New South Africa’. Education went horribly wrong. It went wrong before in 1976 when the slogan ‘Liberation before Education’ emptied the schools and destroyed discipline; by 1990 order was being restored. Ambitious new education plans were launched in 1994. Too ambitious. They have been revised and revised again. This year it took the Limpopo Education Department eight months to get text books to some schools. How do you teach like that?? We lost a generation to the struggle in the 70s and 80s. We lost a generation to bad management and misguided idealism in the 90s and 00s. The 10s see the gap between the haves (definitely no longer white only) and the have-nots still opening. Education is the key to a country’s future. For many rural black people there is no future. Do you see why my staff are keen for their jobs, thankful to be treated fairly and humanely?

Organic Gardening

I need to introduce a fourth thread to reach my conclusion, and my Christmas present from Louis is an ideal vehicle: HRH The Prince of Wales’ book The Elements of Organic Gardening. I already own all his other books on architecture and gardening and the organic movement. I take a rather unkind pleasure in the way the world’s perception of him has changed from oddball eccentric to prophetic guardian. I relate deeply to his obvious need to create a haven of beauty and wholeness in a chaotic world. I envy him his resources whilst admiring the obvious lack of modern-day materialism that drives him. I am side-tracking myself. The fourth thread is sustainability.

Looking down on the garden, Serala in background

Looking down on the garden from the neighbour’s recently cut plantation. Serala, our second highest mountain peak, touches the frame right of centre.

Sustainability. Having a garden that contributes to Nature and Her functioning (to use the prince’s capitalisation), rather than detracts from it. But also in a more concrete way, a garden that can be justified – economically, emotionally and socially.

Sequoia Gardens entrance

The garden is open to the public. Not because it could possibly be a source of meaningful income, but because I cannot justify owning something like this and not sharing it.

cottage and big house from Biebuyck s

The House that Jack Built in its meadow on the left, the big house through the trees and the Iron Crown on the right. 15 acres of garden in the valley.

I can’t know what the future holds. Will it still be economically possible for me to continue in years to come? It is even now already really not the case. My dad was a relatively wealthy man. I am not, merely blessed. Will the South African economy join the modern world, or will a part of it continue to limp along a century behind the times? When will my own diminishing energies make the whole exercise pointless? Who will the next custodian be and how will he or she experience and develop Sequoia? How will the Golden Afternoon end?

Ripples on the water


  1. Beautiful photos and such interesting snippets of information. Thank you for sharing some of your stories and thoughts – this reader has enjoyed learning a bit more about you (and realised how little she knows about so many of the teachers who shaped her life).

  2. You are closer to the ‘coalface’ than I am, in our gardens, and your working life as a teacher. I admire the triple bottom line in your garden. The textbook distribution issue leaves me despairing. But in January my great-niece and great-nephew will be freshly minted teachers in Cape Town.

    • Wonderful news about the ‘freshly minted’ teachers, Diana! I remember Elize Botha, one of my mentors and favourite professors at the University of Pretoria, saying to me in her rich contralto voice: ‘Teaching is the ONLY honourable profession.’ Fanciful, untrue, but it made an impression… One of the reasons I returned to teaching for over 10 years was a romantic belief that I could help right the damage.

    • And thank YOU, Barry! I look forward to your next visit to The Mountain – only after we had spoken on the phone did I discover who the Barry was who stayed over at Sequoia Gardens during my absence!

  3. Jack, Life’s major passages inspire deep thinking; and I think as we get older we tend to both marvel at what we’ve accomplished and realize how little we’ve accomplished. Sometimes when I feel despair about the policies and politics in the US, I find myself immersing myself in the garden as one small world that I have at least some control over (even as i know that control is an illusion). I found this post both inspiring and thought-provoking. Thank you.

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