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.

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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


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.

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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


Panorama from guest room -reduced

Saturday I did You Tube, the light sliding in. Sunday I did detail – and completed Monty Don’s The Ivington Diaries.

Detail - lawn and driveway

I have two disconnected issues top of (horticultural) mind at the moment, yet there is definitely a link. On the one hand there is the infinite and obsessive fascination with my own garden in every season and every mood, and the desire to describe it and record it. And on the other hand there is that rare occurrence, especially when one is skidding down the wrong slope of fifty: I have found me a hero.

Detail Gum and camellias

Over a year ago a dear friend, mother of varsity friends, lent me her copy of Monty Don’s TV series Around the World in Eighty Gardens. I was smitten. Not so much by the gardens, as by the man, and his passionate fascination with what makes gardeners tick, and gardens resonate.

Detail towards Upper Rosemary Border

I could relate. And I could learn. And above all, I could appreciate his intensity. I immediately sought out his  books, finding first  The Complete Gardener (I think –I’ve lent it to a friend.) It is a highly personal ‘how-to’ book. Then Louis gave me the book version of the DVD series, Extraordinary Gardens of the World; an extraordinarily beautiful book. Then I went onto the net and ordered The Ivington Diaries, compiled from 15 years’ diaries of his own garden.

Detail towards Ellensgate Garden

This is a unique account of one gardener’s responses to his garden, and his life. I kept marking pages to get back to. I used extracts in class to illustrate style and structure in writing. I moved with him through the garden as it developed, saying sometimes yes!  and sometimes really?, and all the time I felt as if I’d always known him.

Detail; steps below Mothers' Garden

An example: on 30 September 2001, recalling a conversation about 9/11, he writes: Someone said that things like gardening and cooking seemed unbearably trivial at times like these, almost disrespectful…But I am sure that this is not just wrong but a real misreading of the times…I am sure that certainties will now seem doubly precious. Verifiable honesty matters more than ever. The flash, the glib and all things phoney will be exposed in this new, rawer light as the dross that they are. Growing things, making something beautiful, eating simple, fresh food – these things matter now more than ever. I often think of how Aldous Huxley, after years of intense exploration, came to the conclusion that all religious and spiritual learning could be summarised into two words: ‘Pay attention’.

Purple Beech in the Beech Borders

Pay attention.

I like that!

Monty Don – The Ivington Diaries, 2009, Bloomsbury, ISBN 978 1 4088 0249 6


Before Sissinghurst there was Long Barn. The Nicholsons (Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold) moved here soon after their marriage, made their first garden and called Long Barn home from 1915 to 1931. During my 1995 trip I was fortunate to be part of a private group who visited Long Barn. I believe the house still belongs to Mr and Mrs Brandon Gough, and Mrs Sarah Gough (with her dogs!) was our gracious hostess on the day. In scanning the slides I took then, I am pleased to see I managed to capture something of the beauty of the garden, still a loved private space, and still remarkably similar to what it was in the 1920s when the Nicholsons lived here.

1 Looking towards the terrace

Harold Nicholson extended the original building, dating from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries by adding in 1915 the 16th century barn forming the wing to the right, brought from across the road. They then set about planning the garden…

2 Long Barn from Lutyens' bedsLutyens, who had added an old barn to Great Dixter a few years earlier, must have loved Long Barn. He was a friend of Lady Sackville, Vita’s mother, and in 1925 he and Harold planned six raised L shaped brick beds to give structure to the lower garden. This photo I took from amongst them.

3 One can sense the spirit of the Nicholsons

The rather formal structure combined with carefree cottagey planting is typical of the way Harold and Vita worked together.

4 A newer feature extended from one in Vita's day and no doubt influenced by the Yew Walk Although the alley existed in Vita’s days, it was shorter and not accented with a focal point at its far end; compare this to the Yew Walk at Sissinghurst which surely inspired this later development.

5 The White  garden at Long Barn is a modern development and tribute Without in the least imitating Sissinghurst, this garden, complete with sitting area that evokes the Erectheum overlooking Sissinghurst’s White Garden, pays tribute to the Long Barn’s historic connections – a clever, stylish move by the Goughs.

6 An immaculate garden in its own right before any historical associations Even if I had known nothing of the Garden’s link with Vita and Harold, it would have been a great privilege to stand on this terrace and admire the prospect, the garden, the house and the solid oak furniture… For anyone who has read and loved Jane Brown’s remarkable book, Vita’s Other World it is doubly satisfying!


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 inside front and back covers of Clive Nichols' book show the twin borders at The Old Rectory near Reading in summer and in winter.

A post in which the garden photographer Clive Nichols shares his skills set me thinking, or to be more precise, set me salivating… And I decided to share my enjoyment on my blog. I’m definitely not paid to do so, and if this reads like advertising copy, forgive me: it is pure enthusiasm for the way in which he captures the beauty within beauty!

It is the going back to the gardens in other seasons that I really envy!

Clive Nichols is one of the UK’s most famous garden photographers; in fact one of the world’s great photographers in any genre I believe. He recently contributed a guest blog at Landscape Juice Network, a gardening network aimed mainly at UK Landscapers to which I belong. It is well worth exploring at You will find his contribution at

Clive in fact has his own webpage, which I remember first finding years back whilst trawling the web. Visit it at   even if you do nothing other than stare at his home page for a few minutes – and I promise you there is much more to see!

Do you also find photographing white plants in a dark setting difficult? Nichols gives advice: I should read it again!

I remember reading about him in ‘The Garden’, the magazine of the Royal Horticultural Society even before  I discovered his book ‘Photographing Plants and Gardens’ (ISBN0715301357).  It is from this book that I have copied my pictures (“For what is the use of a blog without pictures?” said AliceAnastasia…) I have owned the book for nearly 15 years.  It is still my most important reference on garden photography!

The post on Landscape Juice is about winter garden photography - go take a look at it and drool...

Ask me who I most wish I were… I guess Clive Nichols comes pretty high on that list. Not only for his ability to find the perfect composition, the perfect lighting and then photograph it with the perfect camera – perfectly.  But because he spends so much of his time visiting perfect gardens!

GARDENING BOOK REVUE: Anatomy of a Rose: The secret lives of flowers by Sharman Apt Russell

Anatomy of a Rose: The secret lives of flowers by Sharman Apt Russell,  Arrow Books,  2002,   ISBN 0 09 942956 X

This was one of those bargain table books that you buy simply because they are so cheap; R31.00 I paid for it – about £2 or $4. It lay around for months, and my first dip into it was not very inspiring. Then I picked it up – and discovered a gem. Sharman Apt Russell is a poet explaining science with the wonder of a child. In the process she constantly refreshes our amazement at the miracles of nature, whilst feeding us with intrigueing scientific information. It is perfect toilet reading, written in thought-chunks, but cleverly structured around themes so as not to become bitty. Every now and then there is a passage of great beauty and truth; in fact it was one of these that made me decide to write this, the first of (I hope) many reviews.

Here it is: “Some 200 ooo years ago, human beings evolved to think creatively outside. Grass and sun and trees were the natural setting for thought. Carefully, we watched the other animals. Today we experience delight when we are allowed to do this again. When we feel intelligent in a meadow, we feel right at home.”  (p 154, Ch 14)