Ellensgate Garden

I was planning a post on our wild flowers to slot in with the celebration of Wildflower Wednesday and have been saving suitable pics for days – it being high summer and wild flowers plentiful. But my own recent writing has prompted thought on the subject (see my nature/nurture pic on my previous post) and as a direct result of that  post I discovered http://thinkinGardens.co.uk This is a fascinating forum for serious talk about gardening and why we do it; about gardening as art, or at least as highly conscious construction.

Ellensgate Garden detail

This morning when I stuck my head across the gate of the Ellensgate Garden it struck me, not for the first time but more forcibly than before, that this most considered and contrived of my gardens had shown me a toffee and done its own thing – rather spectacularly well. What is more, self-sown wildings like the ferns, the mass of Gladiolus dalenii and the yellow arum, Zantedeschia albomaculata contribute substantially to this mutiny. As do the mosses and lichen on the very expensive sandstone trimmings from 800km away I commissioned – even if they now might just as well be cast concrete…

Ellensgate Garden detail 2 Zantedeschia albomaculata

The Ellensgate Garden  was the first development along the new axis from the front door. I started on it in 1996. It came to be because my father acquired the gate made by his father for their family home back in the 30s – read more about it here and follow the link given for full explanations of the material used etc. That original description, first used on a gardening forum nearly 10 years ago, makes for amusing reading against the backdrop of my present plight – is this carefully designed and built garden all about control? Is it the living abandon within the framework of control that makes it a success or a failure? Is what we are witnessing now simply the result of neglect? And then we can ramble on to the ethical/aesthetic debate around “can a garden which is the result of neglect even be considered to be a ‘good’ garden?” And as every gardener knows, that question leads on to all sorts of issues like the passing of time and the need for maintenance, which are like frame and wall to a painting…

Under the Ouhout

You see, the above is to my mind one of the most successful parts of my garden. Snag is that the only human intervention here has been the removal of some dead branches every few years. The trees were planted by nature. So were the grasses and the creeper. All natural, indigenous, endemic, native. Does that mean that it is not a garden? Or that I am such a poor gardener that I can’t compete with something so totally random?

Wild yellow daisy

What if I told you that the deepest joy of my gardening is these random incidents? The moments where Nature says – so it seems to me – ‘well done, Jack, and as a reward I will give you this as well!’ Witness these wild daisies in the arboretum growing, you guessed it, amongst wild grasses and other wild plants but against a backdrop of highly exotic camellias.

Wild yellow daisy detail

Here it is in close-up: Berkeya setifera, called Buffalo Tongue because of its large rough leaves…

Lobelia and agapanthus

Of course it is easy for me in our mountain’s kind climate with its varied flora to call on nature to contribute… The garden lobelia in the pot and the agapanthus beyond are close relatives of our wildings.

16 Lobelia erinus

This is Lobelia erinus, the species of the garden hybrid, photographed growing wild on the farm; individually possibly more beautiful, but not as floriferous as the garden hybrids.

Agapanthus inapertus

And here, planted in the narrow bed up against Alfred’s Arches and raised from seed from a wilding on the farm, is Agapanthus inapertus, a different species from those most garden Agapanthus hybrids originate from.

Crinum & Agapanthus inapertus

Above, the same two flower heads, photographed a few days earlier from the opposite side, together with possibly our most spectacular wilding, Crinum macowanii, seen in more detail below.


Of course not all the wildings are spectacular. The two flowers below are each no bigger than a finger nail, the yellow Hypoxis hiding in rough lawn and the blue Wahlenbergia floating inches above it on thin stems.

Hypoxis Wahlenbergia

Some are little more than weeds. Weeds? Ah, there too is a whole argument. Rephrase: some are so fleeting in flower and willing in seed that they have no garden value, tend to spread, and have value only as sudden little incidents in the wilder parts of the garden. Ergo, the kind of flowers I love. The flowers of Vernonia, below, are a case in point, especially in a strongly coloured example such as this one, seen against a little fern. Ferns too are worth an investigation on their own…


I have told the story before of how, on a tour to Sissinghurst, I was first attracted to Phygelius. ‘Don’t you know it?’ asked a lady on the tour, ‘It is from South Africa!’ I didn’t explain that just because one came from Washington DC it meant one knew the president. But I remembered the flower.

Phygelius aequalis

To my absolute surprise I discovered huge sheets of it just below Freddie’s Dam’s wall on my return to South Africa. But one needs to wade through the marches to get to see it in close-up. Which is well worth doing.

Phygelius detail

It took me another 15 years to strike a cutting, and that has been languishing for over a year on my kitchen window sill. That is the kind of sharing of one’s inadequacies which leads to angst – or perhaps stills it. (Never mind; I’m not nearly as angst-ridden as you might suspect. Winking smile) However it does reopen the debate about neglect and good gardening… Change the subject.

Samaria irrigation dams

We move further and further away from Wildflower Wednesday, and I have been away overnight to my cousins on Samaria near Mapungubwe – see this post which tells more about Samaria and links in to many of my other current thoughts. It was hot – night-time minimums equalling day-time maximums in less extreme parts of the country during last week’s heat-wave. And I want to share just one plant from this visit: an indigenous plant but considered a pest by many farmers; its English name, Devil’s Thorn, gives just one reason. The seed has vicious prickles. I have more than once had it go right through the sole of a shoe into my foot!


My sister tells of arriving in the arid city of Windhoek as a young woman. Dotted around her sandy ‘garden’ were the prettiest yellow flowers. So she dug them up and planted them on either side of her concrete entrance path. She wondered why the neighbour looked at her strangely. Until the seeds developed and she understood…


Sticking to the joys of wildings, I am pleased to report the survival of an attack by baboons (which you can read about here) of the Eulophia orchid. Here is its first flower of the season, on the only stalk. Not as robust as before, but alive!

Blue Thunbergia 4

I end this post, written over several days, with a reference to one of our quieter but more pervasive wildings, a flower that grows on you with close scrutiny – Thunbergia natalensis: a perfect example of the charms of a wilding as expressed by gardeners around the world on Wildflower Wednesday, a monthly post initiated by Gail of ‘Clay and Limestone’.



  1. My Hypoxis sets seeds, but I never find any young plants. Do you?

    Is it a garden? Garden is in the eye of the beholder. One of the most beautiful plant combinations I’ve seen – was a fleeting glimpse along the national road as we left Clanwilliam in spring flower season. A few square metres close to the road, no possibility of stopping or photographing – but utter perfection. Is it a garden? No. But oh how I wish I could achieve an imitation.

    • That cut-off point between garden and non-garden is always an intriguing one, Diana! My Hypoxis (at least two species) spread of their own accord, I assume by seed although they might run. However neither occurs in a gardened area, so there has been little monitoring…

  2. Do we think we can impose our will upon the land and call that a garden? A garden is a relationship between man and nature, with man providing guidance and management rather than totalitarian control. Otherwise, the garden becomes a display, only a sterile reflection of some idealized image. A real garden develops patina. It has a spirit that speaks to you and invites you to linger. Jack, you have a real garden!

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