Back steps with potplants

I am in Johannesburg, helping to nurse my father and proving the maxim that in the modern world your office is where your computer is. After many views from the stoep of late – see the last pic of the previous post – and many pics of the view side of the garden, I thought it was time to share the view out the back french windows of the lounge, looking up the slope. Especially as we recently neatened it up a little.

Back steps

Clay pots alternate with blue glaze pots in a near symmetrical arrangement, with blue salvia and heliotrope in the front blue pots followed by two pots with miniature pineapple lilies, gifts from a neighbour. The red flowers belong to Nieu Guinee Impatiens. At the foot of the steps grow two of my favourite plants. They are also  in pots so that they can be moved to the greenhouse during the winter as they do not survive our cold. On the left is a blue potato flower and on the right a yesterday-today-and-tomorrow. There are also pots with struggling maples and blue hydrangeas here.

Greenhouse and steps

Talking of the greenhouse, here it is again one year on – it has proved its worth over and again, both for propagating purposes and for overwintering. Lastly I must brag about the bonsai. Dug up by my dad from our firebreak where over years this poor chinese elm was chopped to the ground each autumn, he gave it to a dear friend and neighbour who is a great bonsai grower. She trained and nurtured it over several years and when they moved to a smaller home, my dad bought it from her. Now, as he too scales down his life, he has given it to me to take back to Sequoia…

Bonsai Chinese Elm


Garden as seen from verandah

I was going to start this post with a quote or a fine example. Something from John Brookes, or Beth Chatto, or Penelope Hobhouse or Garden Design for Dummies. Something about focal point plants, or a little more literately – full-stops and exclamation marks. But I have neither the time nor the inclination to search for such a quote.

Dark Eucomis in the Upper Rosemary Border

We all know such plants. Always (?) vertical (thus exclamation mark), they are strong enough in a composition to bring the eye to rest (thus full-stop). An example: the above Eucomis  or Pineapple Lily, surrounded by frothy small-leaved plants – in this case Lonicera nitida, Rosa rugosa and penstemons, about a third from the right in the border you see in the first picture.

Morning mist from the stoep

This picture possibly best illustrates what I  wish to talk about tonight: the vast scale of my two punctuation marks. The view from the stoep (veranda) of the Big House is across a series of descending horizontals with the dam at the bottom of the valley followed by the road on the opposite side and finally the expanse of the arboretum. Contrasting with these horizontals are the vertical lines of the two gum trees.

Spring view from Big House 2

The front gum, larger and considerably older, was claimed by my mother as HER tree whilst they were on honeymoon back in 1954. Even then it dominated the valley from all angles. Thus, over the years, we have had plantation trees, garden trees, and Mom’s Tree.


Even though from some angles the second tree appears as tall or even taller, the ground is at least 10m (30 foot) higher where it grows. 0ne of the plans for the next year or two is the layout of the Mothers’ Garden, commemorating Louis’ and my mothers (about which you can read more here), which faces her tree. Looking back to the bench which already marks the top of the Mothers’ Garden, you can see what we are heading towards…

Golden light of sunset - in the lowest bed the canna leaves begin to show up

Hold it. This pic doesn’t yet include the bench I’m talking about. Try this one…

Bluegums, house and Mothers' garden from arboretum

These trees form an exclamation in any season…

Gum at first lighht

Garden as seen from verandah 2

Sunset from stoep

Liquidambar formosana in arboretum

They exclaim from unexpected angles…

Big Gum reflected

076 sunset across lilypond

Reflections and silhouettes; both accentuate the power of these trees. Even from inside The House that Jack Built, their silhouettes can dominate a view if the light is right.

075 sunset across cottage gdn

6 Salvia, grasses and trees at sunset

And so often they are part of a sunset composition – either catching the last light or seen against a glowing sky.

Summer sunset

But let’s get back to a more naturalistic view of the garden for our final photo…

There. I miss the icon of my garden, the curved bridge reflected in the water which one sees from The House that Jack Built, where I used to live. But this is pretty good as garden focal points go!


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  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_spiral  and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fibonacci_sequence   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


Start of the Garden Celebrating an Imperfect Universe

A very large yellow flower in my garden!

Welcome to April Fool’s Day!

No. This really is my current obsession, and I’m preparing a post on it. But I’m away from home and my picture archives, so it will have to wait a few days. Let me just tease you by saying that yesterday en route months – even years – of playing with ideas fell into outrageous place and in an instant the design for The Garden Celebrating an Imperfect Universe was there; I spent the next 300km refining it. Outrageous but executable, with the potential to become my most iconic garden space…

And the Bell Loader, on loan from where it was working in the Pine plantations, helped hugely on Wednesday to start the whole process. And if you find this all a little rough – think crystal chandeliers as well. Smile


1 The house that Jack Built in spring

I have always said that the bridge across the overflow of Freddie’s dam is the icon of my garden. It forms the focal point of the view from The House that Jack Built, which for ten years was my permanent home, and my holiday home the ten years before that. I miss the bridge, or more precisely the way in which the early morning light plays on the whole composition day after day as it rises behind the house.

2 Autumn sunrise over my icon

Each day is different, each season has its beauty.


Sometimes it is the afternoon light that I notice, as in this shot with its high summer greens.

4 Summer afternoon  light

It is a year since I moved up to the big house, where much of the garden is also  of my composing, and living with it on a daily basis, I’ve come to appreciate the subtleties of this view – but I still miss my bridge…

5 View from front door

When I heard that the theme for this month’s photo competition at Gardening Gone Wild  was the genius loci, the sense of place, of a garden, it was inevitable that the bridge would be  the focus of my sifting through the archives, looking for my entry.

Bridge (3)

Besides which, I have long wanted to blog about the bridge… Yet, in searching through my archives – a bit of a hit and miss affair, for my computers have needed to be  reformatted this week and my external drive for photographs is on the blink, and I really don’t have the time to indulge anyway – I saw several photos that made me wonder if the bridge should indeed be the theme. But the bridge it is.

bridge in autumn (2)

Several qualities define the many photos. They reflect the seasons, or the quality of the light, or the reflective quality of water.

bridge in autumn

Few of them contain strong structural shapes other than the bridge.

4 White hydrangeas at the bridge

Some zoom right in on the bridge, or even just parts of it.


Others are photostitched panoramas which cover an impossibly wide angle in trying to capture the moment.

panorama (3)

panorama 1 June

panorama further edited

There are scenes from inside the house…

From inside

…and even scenes without the bridge Winking smile


Yes – as in without the bridge… this scene from the mid-nineties is positively naked!

view of dam from house early 1997

Light, colour and reflection are definitely the key triggers that make me reach for my camera. But which of the many images captures the genius loci – and why? Is it this dramatic autumn shot, as warm sunlight on hot colours meets subzero blue light on frosted grey foliage?


Is it the beauty of autumn with its unbelievably rich colours that really captures the spirit of my garden?


Or is it in the stark geometry of the winter garden that the true beauty lies? Does the removal of all colour in fact bring forth the truth – the opposite of an autumn view?

Ye olde icon - winter view in sepia

Is the power of a summer storm more telling than a wispy dawn?

misty autumn bridge

The big picture or the telling detail?

The Bridge

And finally it is the telling detail which wins the day. Not the framing of the bridge by the white hydrangeas. Nor the touch of colour from the beautiful indigenous pink River Lily, Schizostylis coccinea. It is the breath of wind which stirs the perfect calm of the reflection, the reminder that the exquisite counterview is the sum of a series of random events in nature, and that the truest beauty in a garden is never the work of a human hand, and never lasts for long.

This last shot, one I have treasured for years, captures the genius loci, the spirit of my garden, like no other. It is not chocolate boxy, or even pretty. It is above all serene and expansive. Which is how I’d like to think of my garden. This then is my entry into the competition at Gardening Gone Wild. You can see all the entries here and learn more about this month’s competion here.


1 The Italian Pot at its best

At its best the Italian pot which marked the end of the vista down the Rosemary Terrace looked like this. Yet even then the conifer seemed windblown and the Abelia ‘Francis Mason’ cubes were out of scale and straining at the lead. But the perceptive might have noticed the past tense in the above. Because things are changing.

2 Map of Sequoia Gardens The map – click on it to enlarge – shows the new visitors’ entrance I am working on. The red loop show the anti-clockwise movement of vehicles through the new parking area. And the new entrance will be along the axis of the Rosemary Terrace, past the pot whose sole purpose was to close the vista down the long, narrow terrace in the past. A beginning and an end are not the same I have realised. (Besides – the pot composition was seriously in need of attention, the abelias out of hand and the conifer departed.) Not seen in the photo below, lost in the cube of abelia at the end of the lawn, is the pot…

3 Rosemary Terrace in 2006 Now the Italian pot will be one of the first things one sees on entering the garden, and beyond it the terrace flanked by the Rosemary Borders.

4 From the new entrance How to treat it? For long I considered four clumps of zebra grass to replace the Abelia, then realised they were (a) too seasonal and (b) even more out of scale. Then on impulse I spent too much money on too many plants to give a complex mix of yellow and coloured foliage and orange flowers. And half of them quite tender to boot. Mistaaake… They stand forlorn, waiting for me to figure their future. Meanwhile I found some lovely young box plants in my own nursery. They can form, four to a hole, much smaller, neater cubes around the pot.

6 Cleared But what IN the pot? No longer only an exclamation mark at the end of a vista, it needs to be a welcoming first focal point too. And it is at an awkward height, the lip too close to eye level. Does one put in simple low bedding? Or a trailing foliage plant? What will be multi-seasonal? Low maintenance?

5 A blank canvasThis photo shows how the abelia hedge behind the pot has been removed for the width of the terrace, and gives an idea of the arch that will be cut through the dense maples to frame this view from the entrance. The old concept of yellow foliage against green no longer is valid. The pot is beautiful as it is. Does it stand empty? And suddenly a vision from a friend’s garden comes to me: a large Chinese jar filled with water, and a pump set to boil just below the surface right in the middle, thus creating little concentric waves which gently move in and out. Eureka! And I need to get electricity to the new entrance anyway!

3b Doubly looking down the terraceBack to the past. Here the late lamented Doubly looks down the Rosemary Terrace from the pots which mark its entrance from the path on the axis from the front door. The Upper Rosemary Terrace is newly planted.

9 Looking good - except for the edges And here he is again, some time later. The borders are looking good, the edges appalling, and the Rosemary hedge, planted as cuttings, reads only in the imagination. The viburnum hedge at the end of the terrace has never had a perfectly horizontal top. That soon must change. These borders – more particularly the Upper Border – are the closest to conventional borders I have. Maintenance and design (or visa versa?) on them need to be upped substantially. For South Africans don’t come to look at formal gardens; not on our mountain anyway. People need to be wowed before being led out around the dams and up into the arboretum…

10 Rosemary Border

This rather randomly chosen picture shows that the border is worthy of close inspection. But its real strength is when seen at sundowner time from the stoep (veranda) of the Big House, backlit by the late sun, the dam a black shadow beyond it.

11 The Lower Rosemary Borders in their prime I love this shot. It has an old-fashioned artificial quality, like an enhanced Edwardian postcard. The cosmos, the Golden Rain Tree and the  Pride of Indias are in bloom, the light golden, and all is well with the world. There will, by the way, be a single jet of water rising through a bed of river stones just to the left of the hedge. It will be visible from the front door down that axis. Semi-completed several years ago, it awaits the installation of electricity for the pump.

12 Upgrading the borders

There is much work to be done. But it has started. Beneath the roses visible in the wide shot of the Italian pot as it looks at the moment, there stands a yellow bucket. I had just used it whilst planting five different coloured Phygelius in shades exactly matching Rosa mutabilis. At the moment it is ‘Cornelia’, rather pinker, that dominates the composition. But I have no doubt that in years to come there will be a real show-stopper to greet visitors as they enter the garden!

Rosemary Terrace in B&W Late this afternoon I went for a walk in the garden. It was a glorious day after two sharp showers during the night. Roses and many other plants scented the air. I spent time photographing the Rosemary Terrace and Borders. Only when I started photographing the roses – about which a post will follow! – did I realise the camera was somehow set on black and white. So here is yet another very old-fashioned photo, taken from the path and looking back across the whole of the Rosemary Terrace area. Ubiquitous ox-eye daisies and an indigenous diarama (angels’ rod) in the foreground. I think I shall be spending more time with black and white…


‘Tis a while since I posted twice in a day! But important things have happened this weekend, and there is a decision I wish to record…

The House that Jack Built First – here is The House that Jack Built, fast getting ready for the spring season. There is still a lot to be done to the garden so that it says more than ‘end of a long winter’ when visitors arrive – but we are getting there! And then there is The Big House…

The Big House in earliest spring Last night I slept in the main bedroom for the first time – a week short of a year, Saturday to Saturday, since I first slept there when the vigil with my mother started. The Big House is becoming mine. And with it I feel myself unfurling like a spring magnolia. There is space to fill… It is a luxury I have not known since I sold my house in Johannesburg. But I love cosy, and did not miss space much, except that I also collect clutter. Then I moved into Trailertrash Cottage in January. Half the size of my cottage, and with a limited view, I soon felt claustrophobic, hemmed in by my endless generation of paper, living in my own detritus. I – and six dogs. And a winter which didn’t seem to end. Possibly Prunus cerasus  'Rhexii'

Can you see why this afternoon’s walk did so much to lift my spirits? I write this in short sleeves in front of the open window at night, and I revel in my blossoms and my magnolias. Above is a double white purple-leaved plum – perhaps Prunus cerasus ‘Rhexii’, below is the common but beautiful crabapple, Malus floribunda, and below that one of my many bushes  – of various sizes, colours and flowering habit – of Magnolia x soulangiana. All photographed this afternoon.

Malus floribunda Malus floribunda 2

magnolia x soulangeana I said there is a decision to record. It was one of those flash insights that make you wonder why it took you so long to find. I’ve been planning guest parking for day visitors – expensive and inconvenient. I suddenly realised how to solve it, simply, with the minimum of levelling, with easier entry and departure and with more space, hidden away from the main garden… and then I realised that the entrance to the garden would then naturally be along the axis of the Rosemary Terrace – my most formal vista. Bring them in to the formal and the manicured, and then let them explore the natural. Aha! Excitement builds. And the grooming of the garden looks more and more like an adventure and everless like a chore!

Rosemary Borders in 2006 A photostitched photo from 2006 – two pots flank the entrance from the front door axis on either side of me, and there is a high viburnum hedge behind me. At the far end of the lawn is the Italian pot surrounded by four abelia cubes. An ‘arch’ will be cut through the maples beyond it and a pergola will mark the new entrance from the car park which lies beyond the maples. This is the Rosemary Terrace, flanked by the Upper and Lower Rosemary Borders: the heart of my formal gardens.

MY RONDEL GARDEN – or: To let go or to hold on?

Rondel in bloom 1999

I scanned this view from a 1999 slide. Let me start by saying: I’ve never once in the 14 years of its existence taken an overview photograph of my Rondel Garden that really pleased me. They all lack a focal point, and the effect is always bitty, and the glorious old roses with which the garden is filled, no matter how lushly in bloom, look spotty. Besides, the garden has been in terminal decline for years, and I don’t know where its future lies…

But let me start with its inception – or rather its conception, which had an air of the immaculate about it that still fills me with wonder, and is reason enough to resurrect it.

Creating the Rondel Garden Laying out the Rondel Garden

I lift the text which follows from a post at Moosey’s. At that stage my trusty Frans Seale was still the gardener in charge here, and the sense of loss was not nearly as acute as it is now. Since then the irrigation system was damaged and the problem not picked up till several roses had died and there has been disastrous pruning, some on my direct instruction (the Sequoia tree now looks like one of those artificial monsters that hide mobile phone antennas :(…) Time has not stood still for me either. This garden is essentially a shrine. Is a shrine to be considered holy, or merely a marker on my path through life? Here then the story behind the Rondel Garden; you will understand why going to Sissinghurst was so important to me…

Rough plan of Rondel Garden with seating area at the bottom of the circle

An old plan of the Rondel Garden. The tiny circle at 12 o’clock represents the Sequoia tree. There is another outside the circle at 3 o’clock.

20 October 2006

Yesterday I took the first photos of the season in the Rondel Garden, and it is time to tell the story of this most personal of all the spaces in my garden.

The Rondel Garden is where the ashes of Francois, the first love of my life, are buried. I dreamt of the garden in great detail, right down to the name, a week before he died of cancer in 1994. When I went in to the hospital I told him about it, he liked the idea, and we spent many happy hours planning it together. He had originally asked to have his ashes buried across Freddie’s Dam from my stone cottage under the round slab which marks the centre of the Carpet Garden. I built it at the same time as the cottage in 1989, the first of the formal features on the farm, as a surprise tenth anniversary present for him. It is the point where everyone stops to look at my house across the dam, and it troubled me a little that they would be standing on him. View across Carpet Garden towards Rondel Garden

  View across the Carpet Garden towards the Rondel Garden in 2006.The Sequoia tree, not much more than a sapling when the garden was being laid out, has since been pruned higher to let more light in on the garden. It now looks horribly artificial. The cottage is out of frame to the right.

 When I built the cottage I was adamant: it would stand between the pine trees on the edge of the meadow looking out over the dam, and there would be no garden – only herbs, a lemon tree and three climbing Iceberg roses in the pillars. I was gardening all over, but not near the house. In the back of my head was the possibility of a flower garden 60m away behind the house, where there were some graves, only one of which had a headstone. It is dated 1892: the nephew it seems of the person to whom the farm was originally deeded. There were a few graves in a block, then a space of a few meters, then a tiny grave of a child with a crudely carved headstone which must have contained an inset plaque, long since vanished. Nearly five years on I was still vaguely thinking about the possibilities of this garden. 1996 This 1996 photo shows the house still surrounded by pine trees in its meadow.   The raw Rondel Garden can just be discerned  to the left of the lone pine, and  the pine that obscured the view frames the left side of the picture.

Francois and I shared a love of gardening and of roses in particular. For our thirteenth anniversary, some weeks after the cancer was diagnosed, he gave me the most beautiful book ever produced in South Africa: Gwen Fagan’s “Roses at the Cape of Good Hope”. This beautiful book was our introduction to the old-fashioned roses, and the start of our last great shared passion. We would set off in late October to see the old roses and, until exhaustion would suddenly set in, rush around the few nurseries and gardens where they could be seen. I started reading more widely about the old roses, discovered Sissinghurst, and then in the serene summer of 1993-4 I sat reading about great gardens and gardeners in the perfection of our suburban Johannesburg garden which we had created together, and occasionally went in to check on him where he now spent most of the day sleeping like a new baby.

That is the background to the dream. The dream, an incredibly detailed and realistic one, was this: a round garden up where the old graves were, a stone at the very centre in the space between the graves, marking Francois’ ashes, and a series of beds each containing a different type of old-fashioned rose – gallicas, albas, centifolias etc. There would be a path below the graves dissecting the circle, with pie-shaped beds below that. There would be a seating area looking down on the stone across a small thyme lawn and then across to the Carpet Garden, and two larger beds on either side of it. There would have to be a fence (roses need to be fenced against the deer) and a hedge all around the circle. And it was to be called the Rondel Garden.

Frans in the Rondel Until he retired, looking after the Rondel Garden gave Frans Seale great joy. The thyme lawn was at its best when this photo was taken.

Francois made suggestions: use a selection of the old single-flowered HT roses for the hedge; plant a bay tree on either side of the seating area. I still have the original drawings I made to explain the Rondel Garden to him, and the notes I made as we discussed it, including these requests.

Dainty Bess Irish Elegance

Golden Wings

Mrs Oakley Fisher The hedge consists consisted of four plants at a time of these four single HT roses from the 1920-30s: top left, Dainty Bess – still commercially popular, Irish Elegance, Golden Wings and left my favourite Mrs Oakley Fisher. These roses suffered the most when some of the irrigation stopped working and no-one checked on them till many were dead…





It was a few weeks after Francois’ death before I got to the farm.

Needless to say, as soon as possible I went up to the old graves. I stood where the stone would go, and looked over towards the Carpet Garden. I could not see it. There was a huge old pine tree at the bottom end of the meadow, and it was directly on the axis. What is more the axis moved awkwardly, diagonally across the slope and at an odd angle to the line of the graves. The central concept in the design could not work! I pondered; I looked around; I moved a few meters this way and a few that way; I measured. And before too long I had my answer, and it was in all ways an improvement. Axis from gate into Sawtooth Oaks The plow at the end of the axis from the second Sequoia, across the stone, and through the gate and the oak trees. Right front the turn towards the Carpet Garden.

Growing within the circle, and at a point perpendicular to the main axis which runs below the graves and through the stone, was a young Sequoia tree. By moving another young Sequoia 5m it would be outside the circle at the end of the main axis; the main axis ran parallel with the planting of a grove of young sawtooth oaks (Quercus acutisimma); my circle was perfectly quartered. By taking the axis into the grove a few meters, then turning through 90 degrees, I would face the Carpet Garden – not at an odd angle, but square on, and directly across the contour. Extending the axis from the gate into the trees, I placed the old mule-drawn plow on a plinth. Thus the dogleg approach was born, and within the expanse of beautiful nature, a formal series of perpendicular axes fell into place; the dream had only to be very slightly tweaked before it could be turned into reality…

The approach to the Rondel Garden The approach to the Rondel Garden. Looking back from the top of the steps, the eye travels across the meadow towards the Carpet Garden.

Here we are now, 10 years next week since the party I gave for many of our friends where we unveiled a plaque on a stone in a garden dripping with old fashioned roses and nicotianas. How has that garden matured?

The answer, I too often think, is: not well. Most of my beds are hopelessly too small for the blowsy old roses. The circle should have been twice the diameter (but of course it couldn’t be.) The garden is not well enough cared for, with often unsatisfactory pruning and feeding regimes. The roses peak at the same time as our rainy season starts, often resulting in a total mess. By mid-summer the garden is a depressing tangle full of black spot and mildew, with most roses no longer flowering. Several important roses have died; others have had to be moved as they were simply too big or too close together. And yet.Lamarque on the approach arch Lamarque on the approach arch when the garden was in its hayday.

 It is a magical spot, the coming-into-being and the geometry of it carrying almost psychic significance, the very shortcomings adding to the romance. As I stood this morning photographing it – after a night of soft rain so that every plant was heavy with water and bowing in thanks – I was overwhelmed by the lushness of it, the opulence and the promise of delights to come. I felt it was the most beautiful thing I have ever created.

Footnote: before the garden was completed, but after the main structures were laid out, a freak wind tore the old pine apart and it had to be cut down. The line of site between the Carpet Garden and the Rondel Garden was open…

Rondel entrance gate Said to be the most scented rose in the world, Madame Isaac Pereire grows across the entrance gate. The stone under which the ashes are buried lies at the centre of the circle, with the second Sequoia at the end of the axis.

And here we are, back in the winter of 2010. I hurry past the Rondel Garden, eyes averted, depressed at the sight and overwhelmed by the implications. There are many reasons to rethink this garden. The scale simply does not work. There is too little sun for the roses…

Do I move out all or most of the plants as I’ve been thinking to do, creating large informal island beds to house them? What do I then do with the delightfully symmetrical bones of the garden which will not be too difficult to uncover? Turn it into a garden of easy annuals? Low perennials? Vegetables? (too far from the house, too close to the monkeys…) Low clipped shapes only? I don’t know. But soon I must decide if the revival is to happen within the next six weeks or wait another year…

Time. Time and money. Sigh. Oh for 40 hours in the day and a bottomless pocket!




1 I've got the Hydrangea Blues

I promised a walk around my hydrangeas, so let’s set off… Under the oaks on Oak Avenue, near my stone cottage, there are many mopheads in shades of blue.

2 Pick a shade

Because of my acid soil, blues are particularly good and I have shades from pale through powder to rich dark blue. A particular favourite is almost turquoise, an amazing colour in a plant. Those with a mauvish tinge would be pinker, even pure pink in alkaline soil.

3 Growing in shade 

After last week’s sunny hydrangeas, let me stress that these are planted under a dense but high canopy of pin oaks and gnarled Ouhout  trees, with little direct sun ever reaching them except in the early morning. 

4 White hydrangeas at the bridge

There are several areas in the garden where hydrangeas play an important role, and we will stop to look at a few of them. The white hydrangeas across Freddy’s Dam were picked to show right until the last light and to reflect in the water. It is time I clear a little under the flowering cherries and lift the canopy, for the depth of white in under the trees is all but lost. On the other hand I love the denseness when you cross the bridge and climb up the sheltered path where foliage meets overhead…

5 White hydrangeas and schizostylis coccinea

Here they are again, seen from the bridge today, the ripples caused by Taubie dog taking a swim in the heat. In the foreground are several shades of Schizostylis coccinea, which is usually scarlet as the name implies. The scarlet species form grows wild on the farm, but these were planted.

6 Shades of white

The white can be absolutely pure, but it is never so for long. The immature blooms are greenish, as they mature they often get a blue cast, and as they are splattered with rain and start to age, first pink and then wonderfully rich wine-red and blue metallic colourations (that’s the only word for them!) appear. The pinking has started on some of the older and more exposed blooms in the previous photograph, and the masthead shows you what they look like by late April, 3 months hence.

7 Hydrangea glade 1

One of the most satisfying gardening afternoons I’ve ever had was after a particularly frustrating day at school. I went home and instead of marking, threw two massive axes out into the garden. I had thought about it for long, but the sheer scale of the planning was exhilarating. The first follows the contour from below the Rosemary Borders and in the opposite direction towards the beech above the Beech Borders. The second runs perpendicular to it from the beech across the contour, through the Beech Borders, across the lily pond and then cuts through a stand of young poplars on the opposite slope, across a sweep of blue hydrangeas and onto an Acer saccharinum and beyond across the arboritum to the conifer planted by my mother at the official planting of the arboritum on my birthday in 1988. So many serendipitous placings came together on that day, some of which I had planned over years, others which were pure chance.

8 Hydrangea glade 2

It took several years after old Frans planted the hydrangeas for them to make a show, and there was plenty of weeding to be done in the early days, but he kept at it, and for the past two years these hydrangeas have been of my favourite incidents in the garden.

9 Hydrangea Glade 3

Here they are again, this time from the other side, where one comes upon them suddenly in their gap among the poplars…

10 Detail from vista 

Here they are again, for I couldn’t resist including this photograph, taken this afternoon. And now, although we are not yet halfway through the walk, I think it is time to take a rest, and to continue our explorations later…

PS: This is my first post written using Windows Live Writer – thanks to our great guru and friend from Blotanical,  Jean from Jean’s Garden. The only problem was loading what was a rather large file through my iffy internet, more than made up for by the slickness of composing without the irritation of uploading. And I love being able to chose my font, the borders and the watermark. Now it is only the narrowness of the blog which irritates me – but try looking at it at 125% magnification!