MY FATHER, A FARM AND I (Part 3: The Coming of the Arboretum)

2View from my house - early 1990

This was the view from The House that Jack Built in early 1990; the bridge would today be on the far left, the many trees planted that summer are lost in the scrub and only one of the three oaks of earlier planting can be identified, pale green in the middle of the right quarter. I start with this picture to illustrate the wall of pine that lay all along the road across the valley. Around this time my father made a decision that would change the garden, and significantly increase its size, impact and variety. That whole plantation would, on maturity, not be replaced with another planting of pine but by an arboretum; a collection of trees in variety.

I have said before that both my parents’ interest was trees, rather than gardening. I remember them after their first trips to Europe in the 70s waxing lyrical about the trees they’d seen: planes in Hyde Park, copper beeches in Zurich… it continued: in the 90s my father was eyed suspiciously as he photographed and studied the oaks in the White House gardens… You see, in South Africa temperate trees are not widely prized. The Cape has its oaks, Natal its planes and the cold hinterland its poplars which go yellow in autumn; old Johannesburg might be known as the largest man-made forest in the world; but seldom do you find the awareness of trees in their diversity that marks many of the great gardens of the world. Hugh Johnson’s ‘International Book of Trees’ was seldom on the shelf – whether in my house, the big house or my parents’ Johannesburg house.

felling the plantation 1997

By 1997 the pines were being felled, leaving scarred earth and piles of pine rubble across the valley. It was also at this time that my father had a triple heart-bypass in his 68th year. For the past seven odd years we had been buying trees all over South Africa and nurturing them in a special nursery on the farm. My father and old Phineas, the foreman, had, like a pair of old magicians in cahoots, been growing trees from seed and even – in the case of the Sequoias – from cuttings. They had propagated literally thousands of azaleas to plant between them. There was a steep area of well over a hectare – some three acres – facing the morning sun but protected from the afternoon heat, waiting now to receive these treasures. But first my father installed an extensive irrigation system. For, so we had concluded, the biggest difference between our valley and the rest of the temperate world, lay in the fact that spring was often the hottest, driest period of the year and just as the precious leaves were unfolding, plants would be stressed. Because of those six or eight weeks, my father took precautions. And in the early days, as the young trees established themselves against the hill, Phineas could often be seen way after ‘chaila time’ and before the official start of the workday moving the sprinklers, their late positions marked by dark overlapping circles of wet earth. But first, through the spring and summer of 1997-8, I learnt a valuable lesson from my father: count what you have achieved, not what you must still do. On an almost daily basis, now thoroughly recovered from his heart surgery, he would phone me where I was still based in Johannesburg to report: “Today we planted 15 trees, 5 shrubs, 30 azaleas. That brings the total to date to…”

Across main garden with plantation cut

Here is a picture from those early days. We did not know if it would take 5 years, or 10, or 20 to make an impact. We presented my father on 27 September 1997, my 41st birthday, when every member of the family planted a tree in the arboretum, with a copy of Thomas Pakenham’s book ‘Meetings with Remarkable Trees’ inscribed: “We celebrate the work of a remarkable man – few people ever plant an arboretum, fewer still do it in their late sixties. May your trees still pay tribute to your vision into the 22nd century.”

Dad with his dog and his arboritum

This photo I took less than 12 years later from nearly the same position, of my father, his dog and his arboretum.

Dad planting a Sequoia on 27 Sep 1997 when we all ceremoniously planted a tree Mom plants her tree 27 Sep 97

With the exception of the photo of Louis with his tree, the photos taken on that September day were abysmal. And ironically most of the trees, with the exception of his, have proved disappointing. My father’s Sequoia, one of a row, is today the runt and my mother’s fancy conifer reverted to something very basic; my oak died and had to be replaced and my brother’s plane has not grown more than a meter in 15 years. But the arboretum as whole has thrived,  as the photo below shows.

11 Looking across the Tulip Trees in The Avenue and up the valley

My father planted other areas too. After a massively successful germination of Liquidambar styraciflua   the concept of the double  liquidambar avenue, over 100 trees marching up the boundary towards the original 1930s planting of Sequoias, was born.

There are over 100 liquodambers grown from seed by my dad in a double avenue over 300m long

Those Sequoias, which gave the farm its name, the wood used in both our dream-houses and the propagating material for the trees grown from cuttings, can be seen to the right of the photo below.

Liquodamber avenue

In the early 90s the first of the young Sequoias were planted to form an avenue along the driveway leading up to the new house – below, in autumn 1997 as the arboretum was being prepared, they are just starting to make an impression.

Sequoia avenue May 97

The next photo, a self-portrait I took once I was living in the big  house, shows how imposing they have become in a mere 20 years:

With the dogs in the Sequoia Avenue

In the far corner of the garden lies Quercus Corner – my father’s collection of some 50 different oaks, many grown by him from seed. One day I’d still like to get an oak expert in to identify the many we don’t know…

Quercus Corner, my dad's collection of oak trees.

Bankie Christine

We used this photo of my parents looking across Quercus Corner on my father’s funeral program –  and ended it with this one:

Seat overlooking the older part of Quercus Corner

My father is a man who left a great many legacies, who did much to promote industry in this country, and who always cared deeply for others, a gentleman and a gentle man as Louis described him at the time of his death. As Stanford Lake College matures, the trees he donated and even helped plant there before I became involved with the school are also maturing. But no legacy is as tangible, and it will hopefully remain so for decades to come, as the trees he planted on Sequoia.

My father and his arboritum, autumn 2009

This is part of a series – part 1 and part 2 can be found by clicking on the links; future parts will focus on the development of the formal areas of the garden.

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6 thoughts on “MY FATHER, A FARM AND I (Part 3: The Coming of the Arboretum)

  1. I’m reading this via Feedly, and altho I’m the first to comment – I see your post has already collected 51 FB Likes and G+1s.
    What a privilege to enjoy autumn colour in South Africa!

    • Diana I’ve been mystified by your comment since receiving it. I can only see 12Fb likes across both my personal page and my SG page. But then Readers have always been a mystery to me, and having just signed up for Feedly I’m even more baffled. I seem to remember your writing that it took some getting used you! Thanks for the info anyway! 🙂

  2. I can remember My first visit to the farm and getting the full tour of the Arboretum. We still jokingly said it’s the 5 pound tour not the 2p tour.

    Thanks for sharing.
    Ina Moerdyk.

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