SEQUOIA is pumping under its new owners!

Welcome to my blog! I no longer live at Sequoia Gardens and so my blogging here has come to a halt. However, the new owners, the Van Heerden family, have re-opened to the public after several months of renovation. You can visit their site at for more information. And although I no longer add to this blog, it still has a life of its own and will in due course form the heart of a book I am working on.

When paging through my blog posts, I suggest you click on the ‘Latest Post’ in order to see it full size! The featured posts are a series of often linked posts that help give the bigger picture about the garden, or those posts I consider to be my best. Getting them in order is difficult, so I suggest you flick through them before deciding where to start reading. My blog has always served a dual purpose. It started life as a way for me to share the seasons and joys in my garden, but it is also a portal now for visitors – both day visitors and those staying in the cottages. The tabs up at the top guide you to specific information and even to booking forms. But the site as a whole makes an organic, muddled trip around the garden possible, or a thematic one (looking at wild plants for instance, use the search block top right) or a seasonal one (via the monthly archives). Enjoy! across-makou-dam


I was not happy with the accidental make-over my blog received some weeks back, though I did enjoy the large format photographs. After too-ing and fro-ing these last days, moving between dark, hot schemes and minimalistic white ones, i have finally settled on something clean yet slightly unpredictable, with blocks of colour in unexpected places. The problem was that the main contrasting colour, pale blue, asked to be included in my header. Spring view from Big House Now.  it goes without saying that expanses of pale blue in garden shots come from the sky. And that a long thin photograph which includes the sky, would include very little else. So what to do? Rainy summer dawn The answer, I decided, was to create a collage of sky-y photos linked thematically. And the easiest theme to help me find suitable photos from their titles was the seasons. So I scanned my hard-drive for spring – summer – autumn – winter, looking for blue in the thumbnails. And I’m rather pleased with the photos I chose without too much time taken. MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA         A bit of cropping to get them of equal size, and the correct final proportions, and I had my header: spring from the big house; summer and autumn two very different versions of the exact same composition looking across the water from The House that Jack Built; and winter looking out from there too, but some 90 degrees to the right. Winter with us is a sunny season And just in case I change it all again, I include the header itself… 1



A weighty title to warn you – this one aint goin’ to be easy! Winking smile

Problem no. 1: finding a first pic to introduce this theme; and then the pics to follow… Right. I think I have it.

Sissinghurst Rose Garden

Sissinghurst, from my scanned slides of my 1995 trip. Reading Jane Brown’s Vita’s Other World in our beautiful suburban garden as Francois lay dying in late 1993 was a turning point in my view of myself as a gardener and today I often think of Brown’s evocative writing, and of Vita’s cry of “Never Never Never”. And of the subsequent debates about how Sissinghurst has changed (for the worse?) under National Trust curatorship, right through to Adam Nicholson’s Sissinghurst – An unfinished history. You see: I, down in the lower parts of Africa, I too feel a bond with, even a kind of ownership of this garden, perhaps because I’ve read every word Harold and Vita (and quite a few others) wrote about it, partly because I’ve wondered through it in three seasons and in different years. And in my memories the crowds aren’t there.

05Oct25 Anniversary gdn panarama across valley

Mothers' Garden and Main garden from arboretum

And more than partly because my own garden seems to me to share with it a rather random rightness, an intellectual and romantic reasoning. I’ve written passionately about it, and dreamt intensely of it. I am, of course, talking of the garden in my head as much as of the one visitors see. Yes, there is hubris in the comparison. If you cannot accept that, please forgive me.

Great Dixter meadow grass

Five years before becoming more than vaguely aware of Sissinghurst, or of Great Dixter, I determined that my cottage (today called ‘The House that Jack Built’) would stand in a meadow amongst grasses and wild flowers. I would garden elsewhere, but not around my house. So you can imagine the impact my first visit to Great Dixter in ‘95 had on me, when I took the above photo.

THtJB across meadow panorama

panorama from above meadow 2

In the years since ‘95 my garden has developed, and I’ve written widely about it at  and on my blog. Wandering through all those English gardens, it was the motivation for a formal structure in my wild valley I was seeking. And eventually the obvious dawned on me: to develop the axis from the big house’s front door, already established by the first set of brick steps. Below, a chronological series of shots taken along that main axis with various garden areas branching off it to either side.

tHE AXIS IN 2000

052 Alfred's Arches axis

Mateczka on the axis

The fountain from the front door

Twenty years on what started as a vague dream has grown into a maturing reality. Sequoia Gardens consists of 6ha of gardens, some intensely formal although little is cultivated to a precise degree. Some is no more than paths cut through the natural growth with possibly a few shrubs or trees added. The arboretum across the valley visible in the above photo is growing into a delightful space full of secret paths and unexpected plants. It is my father’s greatest contribution. He was always a tree-man rather than a gardener.

The garden January 2013 s

And now Sequoia Gardens is in the market. I have overruled my cries of ‘Never Never Never’. I can not indefinitely maintain the garden, let alone develop it to the next level. Thus my pondering on this ponderous topic. And here endeth the introduction.


I have had, all my life, a deep fascination with the business of aesthetics. Not just with beauty, but with the context and cause – and cost – of beauty. Living in Africa brings an added frisson to my preoccupation with the glories of human civilization. Africa is beautiful. There is possibly more beauty undiluted by human involvement than anywhere else in the world; often my esoteric obsession has seemed pure decadence in this context.

Samaria 2010

The foreground ‘belongs’ to my cousins and we holiday here, leaving as slight a footprint as possible. For the first 60 years the farm was in the family nothing that could be termed a permanent structure was built. Beyond the river lies Zimbabwe and the heart of Africa. Click to enlarge and see the context in which I must judge beauty.

Ouhout forest

Even in my own garden I constantly vie with nature for attention. In fact I embrace this tension and find in it one of the strengths of my gardening. The above grove I have often shared: nothing other than the light pruning out of dead branches every few years is the work of man, but it is one of the most beautiful spots in the garden. Wholly indigenous, nay: wholly endemic and unplanted.

Ellensgate with hedges

Why then the obsession with the conscious manipulation of nature, the arrangement of the parts to create an effect? What primal force is at work in me? The Ellensgate Garden is the most formal and cerebral of my gardens. I search it for a justification. As best I recall, these were my motivations:

1) I knew from my extensive visits to mainly UK gardens in 1995 that I loved the juxtaposition of formality set in a wider natural context. Also a lifetime of interest in domestic architecture had early on spilled over into the manipulation of garden spaces.

2) At a time when the valley was much more open, I wanted an enclosed  introspective space. Friends on The Mountain had years before built a garden of small scale in vast space which had struck a chord.


3) My parents were turning 70 and I wanted to gift them a garden on the axis from their living room, as the first of the formal areas along the main axis. The above photo was taken from the centre of the living room bay window and shows the axial nature of the relationship.

Ellensgate from archives

4) My dad had recently acquired the gate from Ellensgate, his parental home in Pretoria (today a guest house by that name), which had been made by his father in the early 1930s.

The white garden seen through the Ellensgate Garden

5) Quite organically the decision came to pay tribute to the building materials associated with family homes: the black slate of Ellensgate; the sandstone of the family farmstead built four generations ago by early settlers in the Eastern Freestate; sequoia wood off the farm (after which we named it) and red brick to tie in with the existing garden walls, and (shhh) as a tribute to Sissinghurst. As I thought of this tiny square space, the exact proportions of my father’s dream room in his dream house, I knew that a symmetrical crucifix plan paying homage to the gardens of Islam was the only possible way to go. The plaque on the gate lived in my father’s bedside drawer throughout my youth. We ceremoniously reunited it with the gate on their 40th wedding anniversary. The gate will move with me, and replacing it is one of the 2014 projects.

Ellensgate  with roses

So, to get back to our current topic, the roots of beauty: I can justify my reason for making this particular space on many levels. I guess I could analyse and justify my other spaces and not dismiss them as pastiche, imitation or pretence, or – worst of all – as pretty. I could justify having created ‘beautiful spaces’. But why the pressing need to create them? That is the stuff of serious philosophy. Enough that it is there. Smile


Francois was an actor and theatre director. I remember him lamenting that as the curtain dropped on the final night, nothing tangible was left of the act of creation. Which of course often led to discussions on the intangible remains… On the opposite end of the scale, the oldest known human ‘creations of beauty’ date back 77 000 years and come ironically from a cave called  Blombos (Flower Bush)  at the very southernmost tip of Africa – well, on the coast, 120km and less than half a degree away from the tip, which is pretty close!


Moments in the garden might be ephemeral – like this shot of the light beginning to break through the mist – but the garden itself is somewhat more substantial. Which doesn’t mean it will last 77 000 years. On the contrary: three years of neglect will destroy much of it, and I don’t expect a visitor at the turn of the next century to even realise joyfully: here once was a thing of beauty…


You don’t have to be a gardener yourself to instinctively understand: gardens take more curating than most other things that might be called art. And much of the joy of gardening lies in that curating – especially when managed by the creator or an heir, spiritual or otherwise. The Sissinghurst debates mentioned in my first paragraph (and others on famous gardens) have criticised the curation process from many, often opposite, angles. Some say the preserving in aspic of someone else’s vision leads to twee fakeness. Others say Sissinghurst has changed too much to accommodate the huge crowds and to extend the seasons. One can imagine Harold and Vita returning to their beloved garden and being in turn delighted and mortified. Fact of the matter is – sooner or later the creator of any garden moves on. A new owner steers the garden on a new course, or the garden ceases to be, or, very occasionally, an artificial curating process starts.

early autumn


How does all of this affect me? Much (but not all) of my gardening has after 30 plus years become curating rather than creating. I would love to up the standards of curation – but can’t afford it. I would love to complete a few more acts of creation – but can’t afford it. And I’m not talking  money only. I’m looking at cash available, but also at financial investment, and particularly time and energy invested. I am looking at the fact that selling Sequoia Gardens improves the chance that it will continue to grow – if I manage to sell to the right person.

Above all I cannot and will not dictate a preserved in aspic future. I have done what I needed to do. Or rather as much of it as I can manage to do. I have created beauty. But the future of that beauty, and its future development, I must throw to the universe. My garden is open to the public because I believe it a moral imperative to not keep it to myself. In the same way I must now open up the ownership, just as I have the enjoyment. And I must trust that in that way the beauty I created will last for longer than if I cling desperately to it.

Looking up the axis path Looking back up the axis


Somewhere in the world there is someone to whom 15 acres of garden and an excellent team to look after it – as important to me that they are retained as that the garden is loved – will be a dream come true. Most people see such a large garden as a liability, not an asset. But sooner rather than later I dream I will find a buyer who will love the garden and appreciate the fact that every year enough timber is harvested on the farm to substantially reduce the cost of maintaining it…

(Play music, and zoom in over distance and time)

Sequoia December 2003

Big House in 2003

Big House in autumn

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.


Nearly four months on since Part 1 and I try to pick up the threads – in my own mind and amongst the photos…

Dams in a gardenless valley s

In December 1978 I spent a month clearing invader trees on the farm – my first stay of more than a few days on the farm. This dog belonged to the farm manager, and he left sometime in 1980. Where he lies the big water oak in front of The House that Jack Built now stands. It was one of the first trees we planted. Nothing you see here was part of the development my dad and the family started. That all came later.

Freddies Dam in an empty valley s

From within what is today a 2nd generation pine plantation I look across my meadow and my cottage, across Freddie’s Dam towards the beacon that has stood out since the farm came into the family over 60 years ago: my mother’s bluegum tree. It is difficult to imagine a time when the valley this empty.

An empty valley s

I have said The Plett was brought into a featureless valley. There was the stream and two dams. Very little else. Today the big house stands between the two tall bluegums breaking the horizon on the right and on the very right the old barn can be seen, visible down the length of the valley in those long gone days! Did we picture the valley as it is today? No. Or perhaps a little. We knew we were ‘improving’ it. But so little of the laying of the bones was done consciously, with specific effects in mind.

Flora's Path s

Here from a few years later – perhaps ‘85 – is Flora’s Path, the line of Chinese maples that mark the end of the garden in front of the big house. On this side now lies the New Old Rose Garden, and beyond the trees the parking area for visitors. I remember we planted these trees to mask our much enlarged staff house, as well as my uncle’s. In those days the main vista was still down the valley, not across it, and these two new and raw structures rather dominated the view.

Mom shows how much a swamp cypress has grown

One of those photos which seem quite ridiculous at the time, but grow in value as time passes: my mom indicates how much a Swamp Cypress has grown since ‘last we looked.’

Stone end

Also from the early 80s, a photo which has become quite important. Why? Between us and The Plett runs a hedge of abelias. They were moved from my folks’ house in Johannesburg when a new terrace was built outside the dining-room there. My father deliberately, consciously, and possibly resignedly planted them here to mark, as he pointedly put it, “the stone-end of the garden.” We would not, like our neighbour at Cheerio Gardens, lose the plot and turn our farm into a garden. We would garden around The Plett only. Except of course for the few trees we planted into the wider landscape….

When the big house was built they were moved to form a hedge along the staff house; by then they no longer marked the end of the garden… And when my dad started building, old Phineas, his foreman, proudly informed him: “My lawn will reach the dam before your house is completed.” And it did.

No sign of a garden - early 80s

Up until then the area between The Plett and the dam was just grassland, showing the remains of the terracing which had been done to make the slope less steep back in the days when these were potato lands ploughed with a mule-drawn plough.

Oct 90 - the garden-to-be

October 1990, and both the house and the lawn are complete, although most of the trees in the garden area are still self-sown pines and now being systematically removed. In the foreground the azaleas that today form a solid mass two meters high are young plants yet to knit. The pin-oak under which the bench stands today can just be made out in front of the left end of the huge heap of brown pine branches which must be the reason the soon-to-depart pines are looking so neat.

In the next instalment I will tell of the coming of the arboretum; here meanwhile is a damp early autumnal picture, taken this morning, with which to end this post.

Autumn rain


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


50s panorama s

I start this post with a snapshot I have shared before – taken by my father in the early 50s and showing our valley. It seems there are still ploughed lands – the potato crops were failing fast due to eelworm in the soil and soon the valley returned to grassland and more pine was planted. The big house with its twin gables today lies to the left of the range of buildings near the middle. The pine trees marching down the foreground slope would partially obscure it. It is my father’s dream house, and today it is my home. As his life approaches its end I find myself assessing my relationship with him, and the farm looms large in our relationship.

1 Mom assists with surveying

It is early in 1981 here and my mom, a few years younger than I am now, seems to be holding onto some sort of measuring device whilst helping my father to plot the position of The Plett, our first home on the farm. But it started long before… my father took the picture below of my mother swimming in the river on their honeymoon in the early 50s, only three or four years after my grandfather bought the farm. It was at this time that she claimed the big bluegum as HER tree.

Mom in their honeymoon

I was born with the farm in my blood. My first memory, aged 2 1/2 , is on the farm. The day I got my driver’s licence my cousin and I came to camp out at the very spot my mom was photographed. In 1979 I spent my summer holiday cleaning out invader trees on the farm. And by 1980 my father took over one half of the farm from my grandfather, and the family agreed with him to call our portion ‘Sequoia’ after the unusual trees planted there. His sister, who received the remaining half, inherited the house, over on the right of the first picture. It was many years later, only after my gardening persona had matured, that I realised how the three terraces in front of this house had influenced my development. The picture below was taken from the middle terrace – the little creature on the right is me.

Goedvertrouwen house 1967

As I write this, my cousin and his wife are retiring from their careers in Johannesburg and preparing to come to live permanently in this house. But back to those earliest days when it became OUR farm… My dad and I did some clearing – there was a fair amount of neglect – and we started planting temperate deciduous trees: eight, I believe, before we started preparing for the erection of The Plett. From the earliest days of owning the farm my father was dreaming of trees, and I along with him. The (recent) picture below shows not only the original stand of Sequoias to the right, but also an avenue of Liquidambars, all of which were germinated by him.

Liquodamber avenue and original sequoias

When we first put up The Plett our valley was mainly grasslands with a few self-sown pine trees, escapees from the plantations. You get some idea from the next photo, with the bulldozer preparing the site for The Plett. With a little imagination you can make out the Makou Dam between the trunks of the pines. As happens so often on the farm, rain was complicating matters. What followed was six weeks of sunshine.

2 grading the site

Six weeks of sunshine, that is, which ended the day before The Plett came slithering down our hill to an anxious reception…

3 The Plett arrives

There was no way the low-loader would be able to turn off the narrow road and into our narrow entrance, make its way up the steepish grassed slope of the two-track and onto the newly graded ‘drive’ to where it would deposit The Plett on its prepared site, then continue on a loop through the valley (past where today The House that Jack Built stands), and back up to the ‘main’ road… In fact the driver was terrified of sliding down the steep wet road, let alone leaving it, and turned the front of his truck into my aunt’s entrance.

4 Fear of sliding

Not for the last time Steven’s Lumber Mill – who’ve had the contract on the farm now for 35 odd years – and their trusty tractor drivers came to the rescue. Even the winch on the low-loader could not be used to lower The Plett because of the steepness of the road. The details of how the poor driver of the low-loader first did his best for a proper on-site handover whilst a tractor trundled his precious cargo through the mud, and then had to get his vehicle back to the tar, I leave to your imagination; the following pictures tell some of the story…

5 SLM to the rescue

Although The Plett arrived with a tow-bar, to in theory enable manoeuvring on site, the tractor could not hook it, as its ball was too high. And so chains were used… at times long ones when working around corners, then shorter ones. Luckily moving huge tree trunks into position for loading had prepared our tractor-man for this challenge!

6 turning in

My mother, wearing a most bizarre improvised rain bonnet, watches in trepidation as her precious new home is literally manhandled on its journey. And traffic on the road simply comes to a halt…

7 Muddy entrance


Heave-ho… and off we go!

8 Mom worried about her house

Ironically this is one of the best photos I have of the building which nearly 30 years later became Croft Cottage.

9 Getting there


Another scary moment as the tractor leaves the road and pulls The Plett onto the temporary drive to its final standing. We think this is the moment when sufficient flex occurred to prevent the large windows  of the living area from ever opening fully – the only damage during the entire nerve-wracking process. Where the tractor is, there is today a gable.

10 Another scary moment

We are on site! There were times during the morning we thought this would never happen! The block in the middle marks the point where the right rear jack must stand. And that in itself shows you how much fine tuning must still happen in the mud. My father, a control freak, calmly directs proceedings.  My brother, laid back as ever, (a much more subtle control freak) has his hands in his pockets. I run around frantically with the camera.

11 On site

My mother (think The Princess and the Pea) finally has her new home in position. Oh. Have you noticed the sun has come out, even though the tractor is still on site?

12 Sunshine

It is the next day. We have water on site. Me, my mother and my father, and my cousin’s vintage Chevy with which we fetched the water tank. We did not yet have a farm bakkie (truck or ute) of our own.

13 water on site


The Plett in place, the sun in the heavens, we start erecting the veranda, connecting the gas and the sewerage and all those things. Today the roses of Trudie’s Garden are in the foreground.

14 adding the veranda

My folks go home after the Easter long weekend and I – on varsity holiday – stay on to finish the veranda and try to create order in the mud of a building site.

15 Finishing touches - and mud


The next weekend the family returns, and there is time to relax in the shade over a pre-lunch drink, as we start to enjoy our new holiday home. In the background – grass and self-sown pines.

16 Holiday time


Spring 1957

Let me introduce you: Yours Truly – aged one year and possibly some days, posed with my birthday presents: one of those pyramids of ever smaller brightly-coloured do-nuts you pack onto a shaft and Lorna, the teddy-bear. I named him after one of my aunts. My mom is no longer there to ask how long after getting him this happened. I was not yet talking on my birthday. Notice, however, that it is ‘Peace’ I am holding, not the presents. I wonder if that was posed. If Lorna and the colourful do-nuts are vivid in my memory, that rose is seared. In fact, so is every flower in that garden. I still dream of them as they were then, especially ‘Peace’, meeting me squarely eye to eye. No wonder I find ‘Peace’ a little pale today…  If I think of being in the garden with my mom, she is busy with the roses. Dead-heading, it must be, for the nasturtiums are in full flower beneath the roses. And pruning in winter, dressed in red-brown crimplene slacks (to be worn at home only) and an old green jersey which kept getting caught on the thorns, causing her to curse gently to herself.

Spring 1957, front garden

Fifteen years later, during our last summer in this garden before we moved to a larger house, I sat with a bud of ‘Peace’ in a vase before me as I studied for my 9th grade exam and watched it swell and unfurl, marvelling for the first time with adult eyes at the complexity and delicacy of its structure and the way soft pinks, yellows and creams flowed through its colouring. That is about the time Lorna was finally pensioned from the family store of ‘toys for visiting kids’ – He was bald, earless and – I guess – unloved. But a fine bear in his day.

Compston 93 -0008

The next house never had the garden of the first, although there were over thirty fruit trees and vines and the greater part of the garden was an orchid rather than a garden. But I remember choosing several roses with my mother, some bare-rooted from the supermarket  – which means I just-just remember the pre-plastic era in gardening! We have to skip twenty years though to get to the above photo. It was only once Francois and I had moved back to Johannesburg that I started gardening seriously. My biggest project was the rose garden at our house in Greenside, where we started almost from scratch in a badly neglected garden. Next to the red gate in the back wall  I planted ‘Peace’. At this point Francois was already losing his final battle against cancer, which took his life four months later.

Gwen Fagan  Roses at the Cape of Good Hope

Some two years earlier he gave me this book: Gwen Fagan’s Roses at the Cape of Good Hope, and thus started our last great shared passion: the Old Roses. I tell the story, and how it led to the Rondel Garden where his ashes lie, in my post from July 2010: MY RONDEL GARDEN – or: To let go or To hold on?

Fagan on General Galieni

Here is a page from the book, and below is the ‘General Gallieni’ rose referred to on the page – grown from a cutting taken from the original planted in the Rondel Garden. The original is one of about 10% of the roses which did not survive being transplanted into The New Old Rose Garden, which I have mentioned often over the past three months. (Which in turn should indicate to you that the decision taken after the post referred to in the above link was to let go…) So taking further cuttings becomes a necessity.

General Gallieni

There then is an introduction. During the next few posts I will often refer to my roses, and especially the Old Roses, which are scarce in South Africa, but a great passion of mine!


The Rose and I – part 2

The Rose and I – part 3

The Rose and I – part 4


side view onto project

My story starts with a moment I didn’t capture on film, but which 16 years later still enraptures me. I had taken a photo of the stream at Bodnant Gardens in Wales, tall old trees on the banks, streamside ribbons of green, a few red flowers (what? perhaps they were yellow ligularia…) As I dropped my camera there tiptoed out onto the rocks across the stream a little girl of  perhaps seven or eight, dressed in red and pink, her arms out to balance her. Before I could lift my camera again, she had crossed. As I remember, I asked her to go back and do it again, smiling apologetically at her parents, but the spontaneity was lost and the final photo disappointing.

Element one of The Garden Celebrating an Imperfect Universe: children must play in it, lost in a fantasy world.

fibonaccispiral fibonac_8

Element two, and the one I knew I could never make work convincingly on my budget – I am fascinated by the Golden Rectangle and its relation to the Fibonacci spiral and Fibonacci numbers  (see  and   Or just  do a Google Image search for “fibonacci sequence in nature”as I did for these illustrations. The pictures will give you a pretty good idea of what this is all about… and why the gardener/ designer/ spiritualist/ philosopher in me is fascinated by the subject.)


IMG_1227 IMG_1226
IMG_1222 IMG_1225

I wanted to try to make Fibonacci work for me; last year I met an American girl who was going to be studying Landscape Design and who wanted some hands-on experience whilst she was here. I gave her a pack of references, showed her the site and asked her what she could come up with. She went off days later, leaving me with a few charming and evocative sketches, but I think she thought me  a little touched.

Photographed in my own garden last week, no thought of Fibonacci on my mind!
Element three: near where Croft Cottage is today there were two massive  Eucalyptus  trees of an unusual species. They had the nasty habit of dropping huge branches from up high, each  the size of a decent tree. I once watched one fall… those trees had to go; but their going was slow. Two contractors abandoned the job, the second leaving one  tree leaning perilously into another. A third contractor managed to drop the trees successfully, but absconded before cutting the huge trunks, over a meter in diameter and many meters long. Last year a man who walked barefoot and drank a bottle of brandy neat on the job every day cut the trunks into ‘manageable’ discs. Well most of the trunks. panorama 2

  I decided to use these discs like stepping stones in the garden at the end of the front door axis, One would step along them and look down on a sea of plants one would normally look across at in a border. And the child with the outstretched arms was there in my mind.

Main axis

Now let us take a look at the site. The main axis of the garden runs from the front door down past the Ellensgate Garden and through Alfred’s Arches before forming a stage at the head of the Rosemary Terrace. There, at the moment, it stops.

Looking down the axis Looking back up the axis
    Looking first down and then up the axis. The photos were taken on my return to the farm on 5 April,
a wet afternoon, and the dogs are eager for their first walk of the month. I am not being obliging…

Main axis side view

Side view of the axis; the hedge at the top end of the Rosemary Borders is only just protruding beyond Alfred’s Arches, the Salic cuprea arbour over the path.  The Ellensgate Garden is mainly hidden behind the two junipers that frame the start of the path. The pillars at the head of the steps are matched by two pillars either side of the front door – they feature in this photograph.

bottom of axis

The end of the axis is marked by a black rubber dustbin, let into the ground some 9 years ago to be the reservoir for a simple spout fountain that would sparkle in the view from the front door. Recently we laid on electricity to this point and the project can now be completed. But how to continue from here? There have been many ideas over the years. What ever happened next, the path would need to take a turn around the spout. Few of us are sufficiently in touch with our inner child to walk across an enema.

Stand at this point. Ahead is an off-centre semi-circle, dense to the right, fronted by the wonderful pale trunks of Pride of India (Lagerstroemeria indica) Straight ahead an ancient apple and a purple crab have clearable scrub beneath them. To the left there is lawn and  the view opens up towards the Makou Dam, but there are three Liquodambers kept coppiced to give an impression, along with some bedraggled spiraea, of finishing off the semi-circle. Take a look again at the picture above the axis shots to see this. Planning steps at spoutToo formal- one of the main reasons this area has taken 8 years to develop further.

Recently I stood astride the sunk dustbin, the silliest thing anyone can have in their garden, and wondered  how (the hell) I was going to make it all work. Whatever happened at this point would be of forced symmetry, at best vaguely semi-circular, yet this was where I was contemplating enforcing the perfection of Fibonacci on the terrain. No wonder my American thought me daft and apologetically came up with something very interesting, but only slightly like I had asked for… Since her suggestions  I had decided on the stepping stones, and pictured, vaguely, a curving set of steps going off to the left from the axis and flowing round into a sort of spiral within the semi-circle.

As I stood contemplating, a very lovely sunset developed, and it happened to reflect in the Makou Dam, and I happened to think that it would be very lovely if there was a sheet or two of water between me and the dam to bring the reflection closer.

4338595313_a895cf4fc7 I know it IS the 1st of April as I write this, but I promise you, I’m not having you on. Really not. I looked down the length of this lowest of the terraces and I thought about water and reflections and a picture of a very beautiful garden came into my mind and I thought ‘not like that, but rather like that’ and so I went inside (much to the dogs’ disgust) and searched through my many linear meters of books for the picture of it I knew I had. I searched and searched. I did not find the picture immediately.

But I found enough to realise that it was the garden at Shute House, designed by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe . More importantly, I discovered that there actually was an entire book devoted to the garden, and that it was available from the USA at $1.45, second-hand. So in due course the book arrived. I spent an agonising hour prizing apart the water-damaged pages (only very minor losses as they on the whole parted company cleanly) and then I could read all about Shute House in great detail. But that, I guess, really is a subject for another post. What is important here is that water had entered into the equation – and that I could almost certainly get it on site by pipe from Freddy’s Dam, there already being a pipe feeding the Waterlily Pond, which could be extended.

Last week I arrived back on the farm just before lunch with assorted shopping and a trailer load of old tyres to go into the soak-pit which will complete Croft Cottage’s sewerage system. At which point the Bell Loader arrived and parked behind me. He’d been working in the pine plantations, moving the cut logs and loading them onto the trucks. My staff had negotiated with him to come and help move the huge eucalyptus discs. They knew what a task it would be without the Bell… Well to cut a long story short, little over an hour later all the biggest and many of the smaller discs had been moved, several put on site in their final position, the Bell operator using his massively strong and incredibly manoeuvrable vehicle in such a way that one thought of an elephant using its trunk.

bell loader at work loading
unloading near the site dropped off discs

He was swinging those huge slabs to just where I wanted them, then putting them down facing as I requested. And so I found myself looking down on the semi-circle again on Wednesday evening, contemplating the newly installed curve of ‘stepping stones’.

I walked along them, exploring not only the inner child, but checking how aging gardeners would manage the ungainly hop. I wondered about a seat, for suddenly the area had a magic I had not noticed before. And I wondered about integrating the water into the spiral. And then I went home and prepared for payday, and coming to Johannesburg.

And thus we find ourselves on Thursday afternoon en route, with time to think, So I put my mind to the water issue. And as I told you in my previous post, things then happened fast… I thought of children, and I thought of the strange flattened-out spiral of  vaguely circular tree stumps and I thought of contrasting a counter-spiral of water, and I thought of the perfection of a Fibonacci arrangement, and how “sort-of” everything about the topography was, and the name came to me in a flash, and with it the whole solution… The Garden Celebrating an Imperfect Universe. quick planI stopped the car and drew a quick schematic drawing, to make certain it could all work: middle left the end of the axis where the spout is, with the steps above; circles of ‘stepping stones’, and the line of the chute.

Sequoia garden map

 Perhaps a map will be of value at this stage! The front door axis is shown in red, with the half moon representing The Garden Celebrating an Imperfect Universe. The broken line shows the edge of the property. The new visitors’ parking is indicated – come and see the garden for yourself!

A The Big House N The Old Barn (Die Ou Skuur)
B Ellensgate Garden O Croft Cottage (still under construction here)
C White Garden P The Long Border
D Anniversary Garden Q Makou Dam
E Big Lawn R The Arboretum
F Alfred;s Arches (willow arbour over path) S Park Lane
G Upper Rosemary Border T (marked Y Sad smile) The Avenue
H Rosemary Terrace – the most obviously formal part of the garden, especially when seen from the visitors’ entrance ‘L’. U The Circle Route – a comfortable walk on a drivable road,on a gentle contour around the two dams. About 800m long.
I Lower Rosemary Border – with a rosemary hedge along its entire length. V Freddy’s Dam. The Bridge is at the V.  The House that Jack Built looks onto  this dam.
J Site of the planned new reflective pools on the lowest terrace. W The Waterlily Pond. Could also have been marked U as the Circle Route  passes here.
K The Garden Celebrating an Imperfect Universe X Beech Borders axis With a bit of imagination the line between here and ‘U’ can be seen.
L New visitor’ entrance  ; from here you can easily explore the formal gardens or take the Circle Route ‘U’ to explore the wilder parts of the garden or the arboretum (R to T). Y Site of the planned Mothers’ Garden and Old Rose Garden (to be moved here from the Rondel Garden – off pic to the right.) The Mothers’ Garden, commemorating my and Louis’ moms, is due to be started soon.
M Vegetable Garden Z The Sequoia Avenue


1 Sissinghurst panorama1At last! Months later, I get to take up Jean’s invitation to post on my visits to Sissinghurst. Last month I at least laid the foundation when I posted on Long Barn, the Nicholson’s previous garden.

As I’ve explained before, in 1995 I spent six months in a campervan, mainly studying gardens in the UK. I visited Sissinghurst three times: in late May, mid-summer and early autumn. Here is one of the few ‘look-I-was-there’ snapshots I’ve ever had taken… I am standing inside the Rondel with the tower behind me and a dream has come true! 2 Jack in the Rondel

Recently I started scanning the nearly 1500 slides I took during the trip, and in time I will post on other gardens I visited. The above view of the Rose Garden from the top of the tower I photostitched – a fun exercise! The hedge on the left between the Rose and Cottage Gardens has been rejuvenated over the last few years. Compare current photos of its new slim and trim shape with this one.

But before I set off, let me point you towards an excellent  impression of Sissinghurst, posted by my good friend Moosey of recently after visiting Sissinghurst for the first time. In her inimitable way she comments on the experience here. And as a collection of Sissinghurst pictures, nothing beats Dave Parker’s series, now several years old, over here.

3 Sissinghurst iris An impression of Sissinghurst is of carefully selected plants against mellow brick and in exquisite old containers; the rustic and the sophisticated as foil to imaginative planting. Sissinghurst is the ultimate example of old brick walls in a garden. Mostly it is wonderful old-fashioned roses one sees pictured against the brick, but my best capture was an iris below a sink in the Top Courtyard. The  texture of the aged bricks, their varied shades of orange-pink-red and the patina of time are a wonderful foil to delicate and fleeting flowers.

The Moat Walk is flanked by the oldest brickwork at Sissinghurst, part of the foundation of the medieval manor, and unearthed (literally) to much excitement from the overgrown rubble towards the end of 1930. My source, by the way, is Tony Lord’s excellent book Gardening at Sissinghurst, together with Jane Brown’s Vita’s other world . There are few other gardens (or relationships!) as well documented, which helps to explain the immense interest in Sissinghurst. I own and have read and reread these books, as well as several others on the garden, Portrait of a Marriage, and the many volumes of journals and the letters between Vita and Harold and other people. You might call it my obsession 😉4 The moat

This picture captures many of the elements of the garden: beautiful lead vases – bought one by one as they could afford them from a patient antique dealer– top the Moat Walk’s ancient wall, which is colonised by various lime-loving crevice-dwellers, seemingly without human intervention. In fact the effect is carefully orchestrated, and whereas some of the plants are almost weedy, others are rare and select.

5 Bagatelle Vase, Lower Courtyard

On the right is one of the Bagatelle vases, inherited by Vita’s mother, Lady Sackville… and thereby, too, hangs a tale… Here it is planted with what I assume is a Helichrysum , but not  the plant Tony Lord shows it with.

Helichrysum It might even be this one which I photographed on Sunday: we were up the mountain marking the route for Saturday’s Iron Crown Challenge – a trail route half-marathon fund-raiser our Rotary Club has organised. (My obsession with the garden possibilities of our wild flowers comes through loud and clear in my posts here about previous walks on the mountainside!)

6 Varied abundance in the Rose Garden We are now in the Rose Garden, where another of the qualities that define Sissinghurst and have been copied in so many ways during the last 80 years can be seen: the lush and luxurious planting within a strong geometric structure. Although roses are the central plants in this garden, a vast variety of other plants provide texture, colour support and an extended season of interest, all contained within a network of paths and hedges of various heights. The central Rondel (see first photo) masks the fact that two important axes do not cross at right angles, due to the obtuse layout of the original buildings. The Rondel in turn is central to my own development as a garden… but that is a subject for a separate post!

7 Rose Garden towards Lime Walk

Here is another view across the Rose Garden… the flag irises at Sissinghurst make me despair for my own garden, where they need to be cosseted – and yet I’ve grown them with huge success in previous gardens… The Lime Walk which runs parallel to the Rose Garden can be seen in the background – note the series of horizontal lines that help give form to the composition in this garden.

8 Cottage Garden

The weakness of the last two shots is that they make the Cottage Garden and the Rose Garden look very similar in feel, which they are not – you will need to explore that statement by studying other people’s photographs!

These last photos tell a more personal tale…The thyme lawn (outside the Herb Garden) was the inspiration for the thyme lawn in my own Rondel Garden (see above teaser ;)…) Unfortunately it survived only a few years, a victim of neglect in my ever growing garden and erratic climate. But thyme does grow for us, so perhaps one day I will reinstate it…
9 Thyme Lawn
…I admired this plant. “Don’t you know it?” asked a member of my party, “Like you, it comes from South Africa! It is called Phygelius.” I had never heard of it. But I discovered a field of it in the damp ground below Freddie’s Dam within weeks of my return… 10 Phygelius

Admittedly less impressive than this hybrid, it nevertheless was an impressive sight which I had never noticed before. Strangely enough, despite all my plans, I’ve never brought any of it into my formal gardens, and a friend who imports new varieties of plants and trials them for commercial sales, has told me that all the phygelius he tried have disappointed him…

And thus we come to the end of my highly personal impressions of Sissinghurst.


MORNING COFFEE ON THE LIMPOPO Morning coffee on the Limpopo. Two old people, perched impossibly high on a granite slab (how DID they get there?), looking out over the first wintery sun on the river, reminiscing. My father, 81, and his sister, my godmother, 87. The setting: Samaria, her family’s game farm in the very north of South Africa on the Limpopo river, home during winter holidays for over 80 years. Today the farm is part of the Mapungubwe National Park, a world heritage site for reasons geological, archaeological and cultural. Not to mention one of the most stupendously beautiful places in the world to watch game and study trees – or veldt flowers, the opportunistic wildings of a harsh climate.

Samaria golden hour Coffee conversation

Somehow these pictures of my father and godmother seem an appropriate place to start saying what I want to say,  for the passing of time and the importance of human communication are important markers in these thoughts: we start with the printing press, and all the history of the Age of Enlightenment which followed. The importance of colour printing can not be under-estimated, nor  the huge advances in the field over the last 30 years. I have before me, here on the Limpopo, a copy of Margery Fish’s book Cottage Garden Flowers. Published 49 years ago, it contains not a single colour picture and only 36 b&w photographs.

Margery Fish The Dustcover (photographed on the very same table the octogenarians are sitting on) tries to make up for this lack: it is Über Cottage Garden! And anyone over 50 can remember gardening magazines which contained fewer than one third colour photographs…

Colour photography… 15 years ago I spent 6 months in Europe, mainly studying UK gardens. On my first visit to Sissinghurst, a dream come true, I took exactly 17 slides. My budget was limited and film precious. Over 3 visits in 3 seasons  I might have taken 70 photos – from which in due course will follow the long promised Sissinghurst post. During that visit I enquired on the progress in digital photography: it was used at vast expense for specialised passport photography only, I was told. Wait five years… I bought my first laptop that day from the same salesman – black and white, for who needed colour?

Wilding with impalas and baobabs Today we have cameras at the ready, and need never think of the cost per frame…

Wilding  middle ground We process photographs ourselves, ‘fixing’ indifferent ones, even when there is no electricity available, like on Samaria…

Opportunistic wilding, to be identified

And with relatively cheap cameras we can take close-ups that would have demanded very sophisticated outfits just ten years ago… (My cousin will be emailing me earlier views, taken in April, when the veldt was quite pink with these flowers after the late rain and the dry summer – no-one can quite remember taking note of them during the last 60 years; where did the seed come from? How long had they been waiting for just the right opportunity to dominate the landscape so thoroughly? And what are they called? Work there for Jack to research…)

Wilding Then we send those photographs out into the big wide world via cyberspace… and so I come to share across the world, for no clear-cut reason, on my blog a tiny, tiny wilding from a huge landscape – and many a flower is NOT born to blush unseen and waste its sweetness on the desert air… (I’ve checked the books I’ve brought along. There is no internet as I write. The one above – 7mm in diameter – remains a mystery. Might the pink one be  Hermbstaedtia linearis? It’s a long shot…)

Coffee conversation 2 Back to our subject. Blogging in time – time to blog.

Why this post? Why this title? First the second part: well, why not? And well – I’m a little behind with blogging, both in time and in scope. I WANT to achieve more! As for the first part, reading Margery Fish (toilet reading, a chapter at a time) has made me aware of how a garden writer like Mrs Fish, one of the great classics of the 20th century, is extinct as a published author. I read half a dozen posts per week, beautifully written AND illustrated, which share in the way she shared. Thoughts around a theme; chatty sharing of intimate plant knowledge; a shared passion indulged. The democratisation of knowledge which started over 500 years ago.

Baobab on Samaria And so I sit in an ancient landscape, where the Kaapvaal and Zimbabwe  Cratons collided 2700 million years ago as the earliest continents formed, and I am surrounded by the specialisation of eons of evolution. There are 1700 species of trees in South Africa, and I wonder how many hundred grow on Samaria. How many shrubs? Grasses? Herbs? How many wildings that have never been described and named? How many garden worthy plants unknown in gardens? Where lies the future – and what might happen to knowledge as it becomes more and more freely available?


The Rosemary Borders in colourful splendour in January 2007

By early 2007 the Rosemary Borders were looking the best they ever did. I have told of how they were planned and developed here and here. Pictures of the Upper Rosemary Border have featured over the months, but I will post  on it in detail in future. Today I wish to show you, in celebration of the coming of a new decade and in the high hopes that in 2010 I will again attempt such delicious excess, the profusion of flowers from scatterpacks in the summer of 2006-7. Most of the Lower Rosemary Border that year  was prepared and sowed to mixed summer annuals, known in South Africa as “scatterpacks”.

The Lower Rosemary Border starting to show colour. The cannas are in the bed just above the road and visible in the distance shots from my previous post on the Rosemary Borders

 I over-catered and sowed slightly more densely than recommended – plus we were exceptionally lucky with our weather and germination was wonderfully successful. I have seen scatterpacks literally scattered amongst shrubs and the individual plants and their flowers then showed up beautifully. But THIS border I pictured as excess – and boy-o-boy did I achieve it!

Evening light through the cosmos

If disasters such as shrivelling heat at the seedling stage or too much rain can be avoided, it is not difficult to succeed as long as one doesn’t start off with a residue of weed seed in the soil. Weeding is difficult and time-consuming and in fact impossible until you can see which are weeds and which desirables!

I sowed shorter seed on the edges, but will mix them in drifts in future. The young Rosemary hedge, growing from cuttings, barely survived the attack!

Here is an extract from my Moosey diary of 15 January 2007: the scatterpacks (also known as Meadowmix in SA due to the original trade name, and it seems called simply ‘wild flowers’ in NZ if I have understood correctly) which I planted in the Lower Rosemary Border were just coming into their own when I left in December. Now they are lovely! Mainly cosmos at this stage, it is infinitely better than the ‘species’ we harvested by the roadside. Flowers are larger, and there is more variety. There are lovely plants of the amaranthus family which I guess are celosias, gorgeous zinnias and many more; sunflowers, marigolds, daisies, dianthus – my experience is that different species will come to the fore as summer progresses.


What has constantly struck me in these borders where I have used a greater variety of plants and colours than ever before, is how often one achieves marvellous combinations by accident, and how seldom combinations actually jar and create problems.


Jewel colours against the water

For Moosey’s I assembled a range of collages to share my joy in the excess. Here they are: a firework display to herald the new decade!

And last but not least: one that was too good to reduce!

You want an encore?


This post follows on a post from the earliest days of my blog in late August, which you will find here.   It tells how I first planned the borders and how I feel about the results three years on. Let’s take a closer look at the thinking behind the design now. Three distance shots from the arboretum over more than 16 years give ‘the lay of the land’.

Six months after the house was completed, this shot from spring 1990 shows how Phineas, the foreman and a keen gardener, dealt with the vague terraces from the days when this was a potato land by turning the steep slopes between terraces into beds. In the foreground the young azaleas work hard at making a show. Across the dam the young Pin Oaks can be seen against a berm of browning pine branches, packed there after the trimming of the trees in the background. All of them have since gone. Those on the right mark the present Anniversary Garden.

February 2005 and the Anniversary Garden is taking shape, Alfred’s Arches have become a feature and what is to become the Rosemary Terrace, levelled when we had to have a bulldozer on sight some two years earlier, already has a markedly different feel to the lawns above and below it. The entrance to the Rosemary Terrace from the path was built and the large Italian jar on the opposite end was in place, out of frame to the right.

January 2007 and the Upper Rosemary Terrace is filling out, whilst the Lower Rosemary Terrace is solid with scatterpack annuals. The staircase is visible hard against the right-hand gum tree. Between the trees the bed of coloured-leaved cannas looks as good as it has ever done.

In the early days of planning the gardens along the axis from the front door I was concerned with how the lawned gardens on one’s left as you came down would differ from one another. With some imagination it was possible to see that the second lawn, being somewhat longer and considerably narrower, could be turned into a long vista towards a focal point. My dad bought into the idea and after I installed the Italian pot at the end of the vista, he decided a wall needed to be built, echoing the one below the house. I protested, rather half-heartedly, that the money could be spent more effectively elsewhere in the garden. He won the day, and I am eternally grateful, for this rather non-descript transitional area has become the most effective part of the entire garden, and gives us the most joy from the house.

Monty and Taubie playing on the Rosemary Terrace in March 2007, with the Italian pot which forms the focal point in the background. The Rosemary hedge is growing nicely.

The Italian pot never looked better than it did in February 2007. Note how the dark background necessitates lime green planting.

The garden got its name quite early on in my planning: I intended to mask the slopes above and below the terrace with two Rosemary hedges. The lower hedge has happened, successfully grown from cuttings planted in situ and thinned out later. The upper hedge, once the wall was built, became a rhythmic punctuation with clipped balls of Rosemary. Humph. They were planted, but never clipped. On my endless TTD list, “clip rosemary balls” hardly ever features. I would  like clipped balls along the way… but I don’t think Rosemary lends itself to such close clipping, and so this becomes one of the refinements I dream of… oneday, when the garden is a tourist attraction… oneday, when I am rich… oneday when I start looking for things to keep me busy…

The Abelia ‘Francis Mason’ squares around the pot have grown too tall and leggy since this shot was taken. There is too much shade for them to grow vigorously and fill out after clipping. The conifer has died of neglect – regular watering of pots is a habit I only succeeded in teaching my gardener who works in this area BECAUSE it had died. I am thinking of the next step, and seriously considering zebra grass, both in the pot and to replace the abelia. Any comments or ideas?

Looking in the opposite direction, with the bottom of the stairs on the right.

If one looks in the opposite direction, one sees the pots that flank the entrance to the Rosemary Terrace from the path on the axis from the front door. They were my 50th birthday present from my parents, and I treasure them! Getting the hedges level instead of following the contour is one of the challenges of 2009 we never got around to facing. To the left of the hedge Pride of India is in full flower. (Crepe Myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica, and actually from China!) It combines spectacularly with the mass of cosmos in the Lower Rosemary Border, an effect I can easily repeat and really ought to!  Above the hedge there is another tree in flower which is also sometimes known as Pride of India. It is Koelreuteria paniculata or the Golden-rain-tree, also from China.  The hedge we grew from cuttings of an evergreen viburnum bought years ago, I suspect Viburnum tinus; it makes an excellent hedge in my climate, dense, clothed to the ground and not needing too much cutting.

The pots at the entrance are also planted with Rosemary.

In Part 3 I will look at the planting in these two gardens. Prepare for a colour assault for Christmas, as I post collages of annuals from the Lower Rosemary Border!

The Rosemary borders part 1 – repost of ‘A walk around my garden Part 3’

A week has passed since my rather pathetic post on the Rosemary Borders. Amongst other problems the connection was so slow that the photographs were quite fuzzy. It has been a hectic week, starting off with a wonderful but exhausting 3 day hike in the mountains, three days on site in a garden I’m currently working on and including the annual visit to our Rotary Club of the District Governor. As I’m the current president it was very much my responsibility. I’m pleased to report it was a huge success. Reasons enough I guess to explain why I’ve taken a week to fix the mess and to post something new! So here goes; first a complete re-post of the existing info, then I’ll delete last week’s post, then I’ll add something new… that’s the plan, anyway!


I’m getting a little tired of my pic-with-caption blogs. Time for something more substantial. I need to spend time in the garden, camera in hand, to share the first signs of new life with you, but daylight hours are otherwise engaged at the moment… work, and Friday through Sunday: hiking in the mountains!

But I’ve also been wanting to continue the walk through my garden, so here it is: part three, or ‘The Rosemary Borders’. I will write linking bits, and quote from old Moosey diaries in italics.  The result will (hopefully) be a clever compression of what happened during the last three years, a bit like some of the 60s-70s-80s experimental literature playing with time-in-the-novel. Here’s hoping!

Building the wall and planning the Rosemary Borders, mid 2006. To the left of Alfred's Arches lies the Anniversary Garden, about which I shall still write!

Building the wall and planning the Rosemary Borders, mid 2006. To the left of Alfred’s Arches lies the Anniversary Garden, about which I shall still write!

23 July 2006

Let’s use the next pic to pick up on the Walk around my Garden. A quick  reminder: top centre is the living room gable, and that window looks out over the Ellensgate garden. On the axis from the front door lies Alfred’s Arches, with the Anniversary Garden to the left, then down some steps and to our right lies the Rosemary Terrace. There you can see the new wall. At the bottom of the big lawn on the very right of the pic a staircase is still being built and beyond it the wall continues. The bed above the wall is 35m long up to the steps and 5m deep. It has developed over the years as a rather short season display area for self-seeders and easily divided plants: foxgloves (to stay) and yellow coreopsis and rudbeckias (to go elsewhere).



Here follows my plans for the garden from 3 years ago. It is going to be interesting to see how the results differ…

My plans here? The soil is sandy so drainage will be good. It slopes north-west and will be warm to hot. I want to plant it for year round interest (so not too many herbaceous perennials!), with plants that must be low enough not to spoil the view of the dam (OK, pond!) I want an overall colour focus on muddy pinks, purples and mustards – think day lilies – but with a variety of other colours as well. Yellows and pinks must not be too bright. Shapes must be hummocky, with occasional vertical accents, and varied leaf colour and texture. At regular intervals just above the wall I want tight balls of rosemary.


On the far side near Alfred's Arches the bed was already densely planted. For the rest only a few plants were retained during the makeover.



Straightening out the upper edge which had undulated haphazardly before. In the foreground five 'Ballerina' roses which had formed a perfect clump but not been pruned for three years await attention.


Before we go any further – which of these objectives have I achieved to date? Winter shape and colour has been good, if rather subdued and, well… wintery. Colours have worked, except for the coreopsis and rudbeckias which returned with a vengeance and added way too much bright yellow. My mom loves their pluck, and so they stayed. Shapes are ok to good, textures awful. Everything is twiggy, small leaved and upright. As a result photographs tend to be fuzzy. (Not fuzzy like my original post – fuzzy as in too much fine stuff which results in leaves one doesn’t FOCUS on…) After three years several shrubs need rejuvenation.  And as for the daylilies… well they’re there for a day. What a disappointment they’ve been. Oh. And the balls of rosemary: rosemary never grows into balls – it gets pruned into them. As a kind school report would say: ‘there is room for improvement’…

And here is the garden 18 months later... across the dam Doubly is swimming and wondering what I'm up to. Along the bank are some of the many tree ferns that have self-sown over the last few years.

And here is the garden 18 months later… across the dam Doubly is swimming and wondering what I’m up to. Along the bank are some of the many tree ferns that have self-sown over the last few years.

A walk around my garden, part 2

This time we’ll really set off on that walk…  although the dogs’ expectant looks will show you that they thought I too often stopped to take a pic!

My purpose is to give you an idea of the layout of the garden. One of the many lessons I learn during my tour of England is how often the unexpected combination of formal and informal have delightful results, and whilst still there I started wondering how I would achieve this on the farm. It made sense that the formal gardens related to my parents’ house, altogether a grander and more conventional structure than mine: the existing steps directly in line with the front door gave me a starting point…

The view down the main axis from the front door. All the formality is seen against the backdrop of a natural woodland garden in the narrow valley. There are two lakes, or  dams as we call them in South Africa, in the stream which flows through the valley.

The view down the main axis from the front door. All the formality is seen against the backdrop of a natural woodland garden in the narrow valley. There are two lakes, or dams as we call them in South Africa, in the stream which flows through the valley.

That then is the first pic – the view from the front door. We gave the pots to my parents as a house warming present and planted them with miniature roses. Every two or three years they are replaced. However we don’t throw them out: they are planted as a border to the rose garden outside their living room, where they flourish and provide many more blooms than they ever do in the small pots. Only when my mom wants to prune them – she approaches all roses as if they were hybrid teas – is there a problem; and when I say ‘just shear them’, she is always horrified!

Stompie is my parents' dog, but moves in with me when they return to Johannesburg where they spend half or more of their time. I have four dogs of my own and will introduce you to them as we come across them.

Stompie is my parents’ dog, but moves in with me when they return to Johannesburg where they spend half or more of their time. I have four dogs of my own and will introduce you to them as we come across them.

Next we stand at the top of the stairs, Stompie patiently waiting for me to get going. To the right is the Ellensgate garden. At the end of the vista, through the archway, there should be a tall jet of water sparkling in the afternoon light. That fountain is only half-completed and is in fact a little forgotten these days – completing the lower part of the axis is one of the jobs awaiting me now that the school no longer takes up so much of my time. (So where is all this new time? says I…)

Doubly the Border Collie waits under Alfred's Arches. My male dogs have always been called after generals- a family tradition. I inhereited him with his mere corporal name (he has a double white stripe around his neck). Sentimental, beautiful, loving and compulsive in his behaviour, he is not bright enough for a higher rank.

Doubly the Border Collie waits under Alfred’s Arches. My male dogs have always been called after generals- a family tradition. I inherited him with his mere corporal name (he has a double white stripe around his neck). Sentimental, beautiful, loving and compulsive in his behaviour, he is not bright enough for a higher rank.

Now we are standing outside the gate of Ellensgate. I learnt about bergenia edging paving at Hestercombe in Somerset – possible the greatest lesson in economy of planting I ever learnt. Usually the bergenia is in need of weeding. The grass-like plant is an indigenous diarama which I have removed regularly… The top of the Abelia ‘Francis Mason’ hedge is supposed to be at paving height. These days it is 20cm higher. Come the spring growth it will be cut back more than usual! The Ellensgate Garden received plenty of exposure in part 1, and in the coming weeks will be exposed again as it undergoes a make-over.

I never realised how effective this would turn out to be!

I never realised how effective this would turn out to be!

Alfred’s Arches is one of the big success stories of the garden. I planted Salix caprea (pussy willow) as a plentiful and quick growing edging to narrow the focus, then tied them across the tops. They are now grafted and are cut twice a season, and create a delightful tunnel. They are called after Alfred, a remarkable young man, a creative and enthusiastic gardener, who used to take perfect care of my hedges; I had to fire him because of his uncontrollable cleptomania, the last time he stole the neighbour’s camera, which gave him a criminal record. I do miss him though, and his enthusiastic understanding of what we were working towards. On the left the willows are underplanted with a variety of herbaceous and annual flowers in a very narrow bed, which make for a delightful stroll down the outside of the arches: yellow and brown Rudbeckia hirta varieties, deep blue indigenous Agapanthus inapertus, and other odd flowers, survivors of a long gone scatter pack, are great conversation pieces when my mom and I take to the garden. Perhaps for this summer it is time to re-sow though, as the variety is getting less. On the right there is a low hedge of chaenomeles (flowering quince) which helps to keep the deer away from the roses in the adjoining Anniversary Garden. Some shade loving self-seeders – also from a scatterpack – surprise us here from time to time. In the heat of summer this is a truly delightful area, even though I never anticipated its potential.

With my folks is Taubie, a x-Bull Terrier and my most beloved dog of all time. After two thoroughbred Bull Terriers I swore I'd never take on that battle of wills again. But then she looked at me and I was smitten. I'd guess labrador has played a part in her bloodline: she is the most intelligent, obliging and amenable dog I have ever known, with a gentle and loving nature.

With my folks is Taubie, a x-Bull Terrier and my most beloved dog of all time. After two thoroughbred Bull Terriers I swore I’d never take on that battle of wills again. But then she looked at me and I was smitten. I’d guess Labrador has played a part in her bloodline: she is the most intelligent, obliging and amenable dog I have ever known, with a gentle and loving nature.

Here is a summer photo of my parents at the walk; cornflowers and Queen Anne’s Lace in the background. Unfortunately walks now are more and more difficult, but luckily most of the major areas are accessible by vehicle, and I load them into my 4×4 and we ride through the farm in low range at low speed. Truth be told though, until I can persuade my mother into a wheelchair, a circumnavigation of the big lawn is more than she can cope with. But that gives me an idea of how I can justify the wheelchair to her…

The Japanese Walk really is stil raw raw raw here, and it is not a good photo - but the hose I warned about is there!

The Japanese Walk really is stil raw raw raw here, and it is not a good photo – but the hose I warned about is there!

Just before the start of Alfred’s Arches we look to the right down the Japanese Walk. This is parallel with the view across the Ellensgate Garden into the White Garden in part 1. It is the most recently completed of my projects. Imagine the space between the slate paving and the various rocks filled with green moss… The path is designed to be wheelchair friendly, should it in time to come be needed. (Aha – I wrote all the above in May 2006!) The path goes as far as the entrance to the Anniversary Garden, then up a step to a less obviously ‘paved’ area which is still incomplete. It is known as the Japanese walk, because of the three Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) flanking the path. Once that concept was established, other japanesque elements came into play; the bed to the right (the edge in fact of the Ellensgate Garden) is planted thickly with beautiful specimens of Japanese bamboo (Nandina domestica); there are now two cut-leaf Japanese maples as well beyond the nandina. There is the bamboo infill in the pergola wall. And there is of course the future, when the pergola will be positively dripping with deep mauve wisteria flowers…

A slight problem: the bees have discovered the pots and a subtle modification is needed to restore tranquility to the Japanese Walk...

A slight problem: the bees have discovered the pots and a subtle modification is needed to restore tranquility to the Japanese Walk…

I must slip in another photo here: not one of last weeks walk-arounds: this is the plinth containing home made beer pots acquired from the home of one of our farm workers; our best bit of ‘garden ornament’, I think! Again, imagine it on a sea of thick, lush green moss… Three years on that ideal is far from realised, but this summer the wisteria will start to cover the horizontal plane.

And that is enough of the tour for now. So we’ll take a last look up towards the front door from the steps below the bottom of Alfred’s Arches, there where the fountain aught to be…

Next we will take a look at the Rosemary Lawn and the Rosemary Borders that stretch off to the right...

Next we will take a look at the Rosemary Terrace and the Rosemary Borders that stretch off to the right…

A walk around my garden – part 1

In May 2006 I took my friends at 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: )

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 …


Four months have passed since my last post; although it was not intended as a final chapter, it made an appropriate one. This is my 401st post, written after six years and some days of blogging. Officially it will be my last, although with the new owners of Sequoia Gardens we are planning a joint blog to cross-refer and edit from this blog, so I will in due course post a link; they have decided to continue letting the cottages, and so a marketing tool makes sense.

Late autumn at The House that Jack Built

Soon this will again be my ‘home’ on Sequoia, for I shall stay here as a visitor. It is three years since I put Sequoia Gardens on the market, nine months since the buyers appeared on the scene, but only now have we finalised the sale. Much has happened in the meantime.

My silence for so long was mainly due to my return to teaching. I helped out at Stanford Lake College, my old school 10 minutes away, for a term. Here are a few of the many shots I took as autumn turned to winter in this beautiful setting.

SLC autumn

SLC winter

slc MORNING SLC sillouettes As I started at SLC, I learnt that I would teach from  July at Mitchell House, a very different but very lovely private school in Polokwane, 65km (40 miles) away. At that stage I was well on my way to purchasing a house in our local village, which I consider my home town, and the plan was to commute. I bought a Volkswagen Polo Bluemotion and twice have managed to achieve 4l/100km (58.8mpg) on my 65km run to work! I don’t mind the commute, but any teacher knows that there is always grading to be done at home – and I am losing 10 hours per week to travelling. Almost on a whim last Friday afternoon I popped into an estate agent in Polokwane. On Monday I saw my new home and by the time we returned to Sequoia late on Tuesday, my offer had been accepted. Next Sunday I prepare to start camping out in my new home during the week. After fixing this home, it  will have cost me 25% less than the Haenertsburg home fixed, and will be a much more saleable asset. Thus three years of limbo start drawing to a close…

What are the gardening implications of this move? Small courtyard gardens in a much less kind climate; all very low maintenance but attractive within the limitations. Few of my plants in the greenhouse will make the transition to the new home. There is a borehole and a sophisticated automatic irrigation system, which adds to the lock-up-and-go quality of the property, and the front courtyard and pavement are well loved and beautifully shady – in fact on one side the pavement garden extends three meters across the neighbours’ property. Here it is, with my dirt-road-dirty Polo in the driveway.

New home

Street and entrance courtyard planting

As you can see, the front courtyard is well treed. Excessively so, and we will thin out the palms and unfortunately one of the best white-barked leopard trees, as the 4×4 and caravan need to be parked here. However thinning is needed, and only the one tree will be mourned. Most rooms open out onto the inner courtyard, where there is a small pool, some paving and planting boxes, and a small lawn for the dogs’ pleasure. I see fuchsias in hanging baskets in the side alleyway that the kitchen and living rooms look back onto, some roses added and a rather formal Moorish inspired tinkling  fountain, but the bulk of the planting needs to be hot-climate shade-lovers under the existing canopies.

And what about the future of Sequoia Gardens? Way back in December last year I posted the following:

Amaya's Rose

Take note of the windowsill just showing in the above picture. It is of ‘Sequoia Rose’ growing outside the guest room. I have often written about it. I dedicate this picture to a young lady, turned one this week, whose bedroom this will hopefully one-day become. She crawled purposefully towards the open window, pulled herself up against the burglar bars and tried to pick a bloom. I helped her, then put it in her hair. A real picture moment, but a camera was not handy.

Cuttings of the Sequoia Rose will go with us to Polokwane…







How appropriate, these three together!

Moraea spathulata

In 35 years I have never seen the most iris-like of all South African irises, Moraea spathulata on Sequoia. I have seen it 300m away on my neighbours’ property. I have often seen it on The Mountain, but never here. And then last week – there it was, flowering right next to a road on the farm. At last!

Farewell Gub

There are two people I consider to be my gardening mentors. One was our first foreman, Phineas Magwale. The other was our neighbour, creator of a beautiful garden and Wegraakbosch Nursery – Gub Turner. We would arrive on the farm, 30 years ago, and at least twice fill the car with plants from her nursery; the first loads for the farm, the last for the garden in Johannesburg. Copious cups of tea, and much talk of plants and gardening, and I would leave with my head spinning. We said farewell to her on Monday. She passed 3 days before her 91st birthday. Her family spent hours lovingly creating the flower arrangement on the altar, with a photo of her in her youth, and the stick with which she took her daily walk till the last weeks of her life. Fare ye well, Gub!


Sequoia Gardens is all but sold, and the next home bought. This coming week we will sign the documents to set the processes in motion. Officially my gardening days are over. The new house has no garden, only some lawn cut by the local gardening contractor. In theory I intend to keep it much like that, focusing my energies elsewhere. But the reality is that for the past 18 months we have been striking cuttings in preparation for the next garden, and my greenhouse is filled to overflowing. This is the sight I looked out on this morning… To garden or not to garden; that is the question.

A full greenhouse


My oldest friend, almost my twin, and her family spent a weekend recently with us on Sequoia Gardens. They had come to spread her mom’s ashes where they had spread her dad’s two years earlier, but also for her sons to be reacquainted with the farm and many childhood memories, and their families to get to know it. No greater tribute to my father and my dedication – not to mention that of our staff – over 35 years can be paid than to see the experience through her lens…

Thank you, Lynette!

And now I must pick a pic to add to this post…

Ons loop die pad tesame.


Or perhaps this one – The Mothers’ Garden, to commemorate Louis’ and my mother. I didn’t even tell you of that. And now it will commemorate yours too.



As the next stage of my life inches closer – or, as it sometimes feels, speeds down upon me – I realise that it is well over a month since my last post. Here is a fleeting report on the state of the nation. It is less chaotic here than in the South African parliament. 🙂

mid-summer lushness

Thus Endeth the Holiday Season


There was the promise of rain in thar cloud,  but depending on one’s point of view, none was forthcoming. I could hear it, I could smell it. I could even see it fall and see it on the water 80m away. But here where I sat on the veranda – nothing. As near a miss as you can find.:)


To my amusement a google image search of the above title – in Afrikaans as “Studie in Blou” – led me first to my own blog post from 2012. But so ingrained in me is the image of Pierneef’s painting by this name, that I had to link it to today’s post…

A field of irises

A strange iris, that seems to form its flowers from the leaves, is suddenly in flower. They tend to do this – nothing for weeks, and then a flood together, as though they have discussed it in advance.

Iris detail

Blogging about it has forced me to identify it – and the miracle of google (“blue iris flowers on leaves”) led me in no time to Neomarica caerulea  – the blue Walking Iris; it is described as a subtropical species from Paraguay and Brazil. However Davesgarden contains several comments from people who attest to its hardiness – and that indeed is a necessity here, for it flowers in a cold area near the water with regular heavy frosts on winter nights.

Iris closer detail 21

It is one of the most spectacular flowers in our garden…

But a Study in Green is fast becoming a more typical description for the gardens at Sequoia.  After a dry November, we have measured over 130mm in December, with half the days to date recording over 10mm. When this morning dawned sunny I was there with my camera, capturing the weight of green on the thankful trees, shrubs and lawn. The morning mist rising off the water delineates the layers of planting and accentuate my father’s avenue of Sequoias at the top of the arboretum – not to mention the impressive gums which already towered over the felled pine forest when the rest of the hill was but a dream back in 1997.

High summer dawn


Only one day so far in December with more than 40 views, and no-one to blame but myself. Rule number one is ‘Blog regularly’ and it is more than three weeks since my last post. And that with my material waiting to be used…

Self-sown rose

First up is the great fascination – and disappointment – of this summer: not one but three self-sown roses, all of which have buds that never opened. I  posted on this rose, growing over a rosemary bush in the Rosemary Borders, at the end of last autumn, but ascribed its unwillingness to open to the lateness of the season. I was wrong.

Self-sown rose aging

Here it is a week later. The little flower-spider (did you notice it?) long gone and some of the buds chewed by goggos (bugs) – and one bud making a concerted effort to open… It got no further. I find it interesting that three self-sown roses are near identical, some lighter, some darker, and all have flowers that don’t open. Never heard of this before.

New Dawn buds

Next up is the easiest of roses from cuttings, the vigorous climber ‘New Dawn’. It’s pale pink buds fade to near white, and growing into a thicket next to the water lily pond, it carried literally hundreds of blooms, and will continue to flower all summer. It is followed below by some shots of the neighbours. New Dawn at the Waterlily Pond

Yellow and pink water lilies.

Yellow water liles.

One of the great modern classics, and named after the man who dominated the National Trust gardens during the 80s and 90s – Graham Stuart Thomas, bred by David Austin. He has proved a stalwart in my garden!

Graham stuart Thomas

Down in The Garden Celebrating an Imperfect Universe two ‘Tausendschons’ grow into trees – a Prunus purpurea is the perfect foil to the slightly mauvey pink flowers, and on the other side of the garden the beautiful stems of Pride-of-India play host to the blooms. But as the leaves become denser, the repeat flowering – if indeed it happens – tends to go unnoticed. Which makes the surprise in spring so delightful. But perhaps someday, as has happened in other parts of the garden, the roses will grow through the trees and drape themselves happily on the outsides instead of skulking in the shadows.

Tausendschon in a Prunus purpurea

Tausendschon in a Pride of India

Tausendschon in a Pride of India 3

We move back to near the waterlilies – that is them just visible below at the end of the axis. We are looking down the Beech Borders where for a few weeks in November and into December the old pink Damask rose, ‘Ispahan’ (from which I believe Attar of Roses is made in Bulgaria), scents the air. The paler rose near the centre is again ‘New Dawn’. In the next photo we are looking up from right near the waterlilies.The Beech BordersThe Beech Borders from below

And here  is ‘Ispahan’ in all its rich dishevelment!


So far ‘Graham Stuart Thomas’ is the only rose here we did not grow from cuttings or seed. Here is one more – and the last: the magnificent Hybrid Tea ‘Just Joey’.

Just Joey

‘Jacques Cartier’ one year struck beautifully from cuttings – there are over 30 plants massed outside ‘The Plett’ and their scent often wafts all the way to the big house, for this mid-19th century Portland rose is a repeat flowerer. Below that, a detail shot.

Jacques Cartier at the Plett

Jacques Cartier at the Plett 2

Struck from a cutting by a friend, ‘Veilchenblau’ the first ‘blue’ rose, was introduced over a century ago. A rambler, it strikes easily and I must take cuttings to take into my new life.


Aunty Corrie’s Rose is propagated from runners rather than cuttings. Its scent and colour and general robustness are magnificent, but unfortunately it flowers for only a few weeks. I have never been able to identify it and name it for my aunt from whose garden nearby here it first came. It is almost certainly an old rose, predating 20th century Hybrid Teas and Floribundas.

Aunty Corrie Rose

Take note of the windowsill just showing in the last picture. It is of ‘Sequoia Rose’ growing outside the guest room. I have often written about it. I dedicate this picture to a young lady, turned one this week, whose bedroom this will hopefully one-day become. She crawled purposefully towards the open window, pulled herself up against the burglar bars and tried to pick a bloom. I helped her, then put it in her hair. A real picture moment, but a camera was not handy…

Amaya's Rose