Wondering how to share with you my dream, I went to Google Images. I did not really find what I want, but this image captures the spirit if not in any way the subject of my dream.


an early 20th century card by Josef  Madlener

I have asked myself the question: what if I won the lotto before I leave Sequoia Gardens. Would I stay? What would I do to develop the gardens further? I must admit that I think I would leave, for in my head I am ready for the next stage of my journey. But I would regret not completing three projects: The Garden Celebrating an Imperfect Universe, about which I have often written, e.g. here

The boys find a perfect universe

The potential of this garden, the size and simplicity of the idea, the audacity of it makes it my greatest loss; the project I would most like to complete.

Next in line is a recent concept,  and one which is so far beyond my financial reach or any practical implementation in the way I envisage it, that I allow myself to dream ever bigger. It is impossible – so don’t even consider the possible! That is where the top picture comes in. I was dreaming of a magical space – a spiritual place, a chapel or a meditation retreat under the avenue of pin oaks. I cleaned the site up a little in this photograph.

My cathedral space

Under these tall, upright pin oaks there is an space that can easily be levelled. The trees soar like the pillars of a gothic cathedral. In winter their traceries meet overhead, but in summer the leaves form a dense roof high up. Cleaning up and levelling the space beneath them is very possible – in fact it would be my first project should I stay. But then the dream kicks in. Beautiful as this space is, it cannot protect one from the elements. A simple glass-roofed structure on slim supports will protect those gathered beneath. Simple. Oh, exquisitely simple. The supports would be cast in specially prepared moulds; or perhaps carved from a softer material. They would be the attenuated organic shapes one finds in the best Art Nouveau work; picture the entrance to a classic Parisian Metro; or beautiful Art Nouveau stained glass. Perhaps loops and curves, great bone-like shapes.

paris_metro_elev_b1305601010270 97839cd5ab66d56b175160f4271f15d3 images image-3

Did I mention stained glass? The roofs would be clear – except for swirling tendrils creating the structure. But perhaps at eye level – or higher – between the pillars – there could be stained glass such as one finds of the period; a botanical, illustrating our native flowers; or perhaps allegorical scenes. Or even glorious unstained glass…

a b c d e

Imagine our natives immortalised in beautiful stained glass…

schizostylis-coccinea 16-lobelia-erinus gladiolus-dalenii-2 ouhout-thicket impatienssylvicola agapanthus-inapertus begonia-sutherlandii

Oh right. . There’s a third dream. But it doesn’t quite  flow from here, so let’s keep it for later…

(I see now – yesterday it was the 5th anniversary of my blog… happy birthday to me!  That is quite an achievement, I think Smile)


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


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


Often on my blog and at Blotanical I’ve referred to Moosey, or Mary as she is not often known, and her wonderful website at www.mooseyscountrygarden.com  where I have over the years contributed to the forum.

Let me start by stressing that this is in no way a commercial website. Its origins lie shrouded in the mist of time, long before blogging was common. She happened to have, in no particular order, a son who was into programming, a love of gardening, children spread across the world with whom communication was important, a journal-istic streak and a healthy dose of chutzpah. And a camera. One thing led to the next, forums were introduced to the family site and gradually Moosey’s became the modern equivalent of a French salon or a Greek acadamy. Over the years many gardening friends from around the world have met there, and no amount of one-on-one blogging gives the sense of community which Moosey’s at its best does. At its heart remains Moosey’s daily journal – a humourous, chatty, self-depreciating record of (mainly) her life in the garden. Go take a look.

Some two years ago she made the following comment on one of the forums: My latest ‘scheme’ is to build a stone tower which looks out over the pond… I am scared by the process and trying to be sensible – will I have the long-term stickability to get the tower finished? Hee hee. WATCH THIS SPACE…”  Well the tower didn’t happen, but recently she spent her first night in Pond Cottage, the progress of which we had heard about on and off for months. That set me thinking about something I had written in response to her tower plan… At the time I was intrigued by the extraordinarily vivid picture in my head which made me write this little story…

Meanwhile I had been thinking about writing about Moosey here. But the deciding moment was when I found the ‘picture in my head’ in a book I hade not seen for 15 years… (And thereby also hangs a tale I shall not tell now!)

Moosey's Tower Here then is the story as I told it back then. It gave me great pleasure at the time, and it does so still now, and I think I’ve figured the moral: it really does have something to say about the Amazing Moosey and her site!

Moosey’s Tower… it sounds like the name of an art movie. Here’s the plot: a rather strange lady, quite shy, musical, an animal lover and avid gardener, achieves fame beyond her wildest dreams through a smash-hit website created by her webgoof son. Terrified of all the fame, she starts to build a stone tower in her garden, intending to lock herself away from her fans. But word gets out, and one of her goofiest fans starts an international ‘send-a-rock-to-Moosey’ campaign. Soon the local postal service is having to acquire huge trucks to deliver the avalanche of stones arriving from around the world. Being at heart an extremely nice and considerate (if, as we said, rather strange) lady, she feels duty-bound to add every stone to her tower, and her life becomes a dizzying spiral, up and down the stairs of her never-to-be-completed project…

There must be a moral, but I don’t know what.

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 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 mooseyscountrygarden.com 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.


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?


1 Cannas

This I have to share! On Friday our local Garden Club took a 90km trip to a beautiful lavender farm  and its energetic owner, a charming woman who creates beauty as far as she goes. There I met  her neighbour for the second time. We are distant relations; our grandmothers were cousins. Questions were asked about my garden and when I said that my cannas had been very good this year, she invited me to go across to see hers, as they were her pride and joy in a lovely garden. Off we went and luckily along went my camera!

d 2 Cannas c 1 Cannas
b 3 Cannas a 4 Cannas
f 5 cannas e 6 Cannas

I saw cannas in colours I’d never seen before: soft yellows and oranges, gorgeous peachy shades, something she called puce, which I always thought was grey-brown, but I see the dictionary defines as dark red or purple-brown; it is pictured top left, and I would describe it as a dusky red. Leaves in every shade of green, through brown or red-tinged to the dark leaves I have. And bicolours, spotted, striped and fringed, some overlaid, so that when you see a petal from below it is quite different to the view from above.

3 Cannas 

And all of them planted in a gorgeous muddle, so that the distinctions between the various shades created a rich texture, and even the pinks which I avoid with my many bright oranges, looked lovely in the mix.

4 Cannas 

The whole set in a garden of equal richness, a cottagy mix of colours and plants that I love.

5 Cannas

And the garden in its turn is set in flat farmland plains, with beautiful mountains in the near distance.

6 Cannas

Something really excited me – and that was the way the cannas were at times combined with roses. Usually their colours blended, but my mind started racing… There are many lovely roses that I have always thought too brash and not used. I have visions of combining them now with cannas.

7 Cannas

Other plants can after all contrast dramatically as well as tone in with cannas…

8 Cannas

I have the perfect place for this new planting: right at the entrance to the farm where I am fixing up the Croft Cottage to let out to holiday makers.

9 Cannas

There they can form a dramatic welcome to visitors and contribute to the Croft Cottage’s own immediate setting. Here it is, pictured below: on the far left the hydrangeas and cannas that have featured on my blog during the last ten days can just be seen and the barn is hidden by the tree separating the area in front of Croft Cottage from the massed cannas. To the right is an elm tree (Ulmus parvifolia) and a Pin Oak (Quercus palustris)  that form the lower end of a dense planting along the road. At the moment they are underplanted with azaleas, with the area on their sunny side (on their left) due for development as part of the Croft Cottage’s garden.

Croft Cottage taking shape

I shall replace the azaleas in the shade with a rich mix of blue hydrangeas, and, on a smaller scale than a little further on, plant the slope with a mix of my cousin’s cannas and  brightly coloured roses against a backdrop of climbing roses, clematis and honeysuckle on trellises. What a colour-burst to greet visitors over the Christmas season, the height of our summer holidays! Especially visitors from Europe and America, escaping the cold of a drab winter… I am so excited!

10 Cannas

And so a visit to the garden of a fellow canna enthusiast and distant relation, a beautiful garden of the type I most admire, an unexpected interlude in a lovely afternoon, inspired the perfect solution to a problem I am currently grappling with… I can’t wait for cousin Audrey to visit so that I can show her my garden and how she has helped me to find a solution!

11 Cannas

Thank you, Cousin Audrey!


Phineas Magwale in October 2006, with his lawn that reached the dam before the house was completed in the background.

 Before we tackle the New Year and the new decade, I want to pay tribute to two men who passed on to the great garden in the sky during 2009. Both of them played a huge role in shaping Sequoia Gardens as it exists today. Both retired during 2008, having scaled down their active involvement during the previous years. I originally wrote on them at mooseyscountrygarden.com and you can find them in context here and here.

Phineas Magwale was the foreman on the farm for over 25 years. At least 50% of the really worthwhile stuff I know about gardening on a large scale I learnt from Phineas. When, in ’89, both my father and I started building, Phineas said to my father: “My lawn will be down to the dam before your house is finished.” It was. Part of Phineas’s plan was a set of erratically spaced round beds in the lawn. They go against all the ‘rules’. They were Phineas’s idea.  In part at least they will stay for ever in his memory. At the time my father was alarmed. “He is making the garden much too large,” he said, “I pay him to manage the plantations and all he wants to do is garden!” So guess who gets blamed for the fact that the gardens got a little out of hand around here…


The view from the terrace is unimaginable without Phineas' effort!

  I include a complete article published in our local paper a few years ago. It is transcribed verbatim and with the minimum of editing from a conversation I had in Afrikaans with Phineas. Some Afrikaans is retained, but the story remains clear without understanding it. I’ve added a few (=…)translations. There should really have been a follow-up or two, but ‘life happened’ and eventually the paper ceased publication. It is a fascinating tale from the days when black people were often looked on as possessions, and at best relations were distinctly paternalistic.

I must add how Phineas came to us. Back in the early 80s the old foreman was due to retire and my father battled to find a replacement. We had just started gardening on the farm. We all lived in Johannesburg, 400km away, so we were a weekend presence, on at best a fortnightly basis. Eventually he decided to look for a gardener in Johannesburg who was a rural man disillusioned with city life. He asked Patrys, their Joh’burg neighbour’s gardener, to ask around. Within two days Patrys arrived with Phineas in tow: Grey Mists where he had learnt his trade is barely 5 km from Sequoia! He had been in the city only a few months … 

Here is the article: 


PHINEAS MAGOLE tells his story to Jack Holloway
You want to hear why I know so much about the mountain and its people. Its because I listen and I remember. From when I was a young man I listened when we were walking across the mountain at night to go and hit the drums at someone’s place. People would talk about the farms we crossed over, and their owners and their people.
Phineas shows a large map he has drawn on a piece of cardboard for our talk; names of families and places indicate relative positions and the Broederstroom flows through it. Names like DoBilsclof (Duiwelskloof), Lein Flip (Lionel Phillips) and Kholins (Collins) appear on it.
No, he laughs, I didn’t write it all myself. Jan helped me. I am still learning with the teacher from Thusaneng, but it is difficult for an old man to learn to read and write. You see me doing my homework during the lunch hour. 

The world that Phineas describes. Sequoia lies in a valley on the very left near the horizon.

But you ask how I came to the mountain. I was at Mooketsi, at Olyfberg, where I was born on a farm. I saw I was working for nothing, ek kry nie geld nie, ek kry niks nie, so I ran away. Then when I run away I go to another place, I look for work, they chase my father away. They say if your child goes away, you too must go away. Yes, I was still young, ek was gegroei, maar ek was nie so baie groot nie.(=I was grown, but not so much.)

So we went to another place, and my father stayed there, but I went to Grey Mists, I went to visit my oompie {=my uncle), then my uncle went to the owner, Mr. Mackenzie, and said the piccanin (=young man/boy) of my brother is looking for work. I grew up there; I arrived and I didn’t know what I could do.

So my Uncle went to Baas(=Boss or Master) Grey Mists and said the piccanin is working on the farm, and if his baas comes for him you are going to fight. But Mr. Mackenzie said I don’t mind, I will tell him I am paying you, he is not paying you. Then one day that baas of mine, he came, he sends my father, he says my father must come and fetch me, but Baas Grey Mists says “no, you can’t have him,” so he says “why can’t I have him?” So Mr. Mackenzie says “because he’s my boy. You don’t pay him. You give him nothing.” And its true. I had to wear a stertriem (=traditional loincloth), I didn’t have trousers. And I told him: “How can I work? I work for nothing. I don’t get money. I don’t have land. I don’t have chickens. I have nothing like that.”

Then they took me to court. I go, I win at the court, together with Baas Mackenzie. We won the court. So it came that I stayed there. He won together with me at the court and then I stayed with him. He said he would do every thing for me, I also had to stay with him. I said to him: “Baie dankie.”(= thank you very much)

I worked for him in the garden, I worked for him in the garden, worked in the garden, I saw I was winning in the garden. I said one of these days I will learn in the house. I learnt in the house, when I was finished in the garden at the end of the day, I went inside, I washed the dishes. I learnt, I learnt, I came right. One day they said “Cook!” I now start cooking, I learn to cook, they say I must waiter. I waited there.

Now I stayed there a long, long time, until he died. Then I stayed there a long time with Mrs. Mackenzie, but that is another day’s story.  


Phineas in April 2003. He never had a driver's licence and his sit-on lawnmower was his pride and joy!

Frans Seale helped me more than any other person to realise my garden dreams. And I must admit: if South Africa was not a country with cheap labour and poor job opportunities, much of what we have on Sequoia would not be possible. Also – as I realized when I was in Europe – European taxation would make it impossible for a man of my income to live like this!  

We usually have several labourers on the farm. They are mostly only semi-literate (neither Phineas nor Frans could read or write much more than their own names). Our staff are quite willing to do the right thing, even if sometimes they just don’t understand what is going on in the white man’s mind, leading to some frustrating misunderstandings. Inevitably when one finds someone more literate and more aware they end up moving on to better paying jobs, and I have helped and encouraged them to do so. In fact one young man who used to work for me during his school holidays is now an aircraft technician and owns a house in Johannesburg. When he comes to visit his parents – labourers living on the neighbouring farm – he sometimes brings his wife and son and pops in for a visit. Staff who have joined us over the last few years are more literate perhaps, but I find they are much less able to instinctively do ‘the right thing’ by the garden, even if they are easier to train in the theory of what they are doing.


I love this portait I took of Frans; it captures his gentle olde-world quality.

Frans Seale (see – ha – leh) was  my right hand man. When I started building my cottage in 1989 I asked Phineas to find me an assistant. Two days later he arrived with Frans. He met him passing by in the road. Frans was unemployed, having last had a seasonal job in a tomato canning factory 40km away. He seemed to me too old and overweight for the tough building job I had in mind. I asked if he could dig foundations. Very quietly he replied: ‘I can try.’ His foundations were perfect; works of art. And Frans stayed. Any job demanding unhurried patience and a good eye he would tackle and complete perfectly. Don’t get him to work too much with others, don’t make him a manager. But give him a (verbal) list and enough time and he would quietly, proudly and joyously get the job done.

Long before the cottage was finished I started planning life after the building. I asked him to take cuttings, showed him how, and waited. Only afterwards I found out that some of the cuttings he’d been striking were from plants that really don’t lend themselves to such propagation… I would often not get to the farm for as long as six weeks at a time. I always knew that Frans would look after things as well as I could myself. And Frans obviously loved the quiet rural life. 

Back in late 2003 the nusery was very much still Frans' domain.

Frans is of the Balobedu tribe, famous for being the tribe of the Rain Queen, Modjadji. A few years ago a new Rain Queen was ‘crowned’ in mid-winter, and a strange, unexpected thunderstorm (a summer phenomenon) swept through the area during the ceremony; several years ago she died, leaving only one female heir aged two years… so we are still uncertain when the next Rain Queen will be announced, and many people, white and black, say that is why our rainfall patterns have been so unpredictable of late… 

One of Africa’s most mystical figures, the Rain Queen is said to have been the inspiration for Rider Haggard’s famous novel ‘She’, the story of a mystical and powerful African queen. Read more about her history here


Queen Modjadji VI. The hoto appeared with her obituary in the Sunday Times of 19 June 2005.

I am certain that this background goes some way towards explaining Frans’ almost mystical serenity, and some of his strange habits and little rituals. His son, who worked for me for a short while, then went off to study to be a sangoma or ‘witch doctor’ and a source of immense pride to his father. 

I had just one problem with Frans. He never quite understood the link between names and labels. As long as a plant has a label, all is well. The result is that we have had some strange losses, some mystery seedlings and trees – and I still can’t safely let strangers loose to choose plants in my nursery. But mostly,  locked away in his non-reader head, was a vast store of information about the plants and the activities on the farm. I ask him, he taps his temple, his face contracts, and then he either shakes his head in sad bewilderment, or he smiles proudly and gives the answer. And it is seldom wrong.