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

2View from my house - early 1990

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

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

felling the plantation 1997

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

Across main garden with plantation cut

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

Dad with his dog and his arboritum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liquodamber avenue

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

Sequoia avenue May 97

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

With the dogs in the Sequoia Avenue

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

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

Bankie Christine

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

Seat overlooking the older part of Quercus Corner

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

My father and his arboritum, autumn 2009

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


A view of the arboretum from the house - early autumn 13 s

This is the view that greets me in this new month. Everywhere leaves are subtly changing colour – becoming paler, or darker, yellower or redder in preparation for fall.  Autumn on Sequoia Gardens has begun!

PS: below is another shot, taken with my cell phone on 2 April – a rare (but becoming more common now) sunny morning; often  we start with cloud in summer.

Sunny autumn morn 130402


1 Mothers' Garden hedges planted

The hedges are planted! After more than a year in which the rectangle of barren earth needed constant explanation, the Mothers’ Garden is laid out, the hedges planted and the central yew trimmed dramatically in preparation for training as a pyramid. I hummed and hahed before realising the obvious… The pillars of the lower steps must be visible and the yew must not obscure the dam. But it is surprising how long it took me to realise that a pyramid would be the ideal shape. Since the newly laid grass path has a topdressing of compost similar to the beds, it rather disappears at the moment. And in the harsh light the irrigation pipes are the dominant line. But I promise you: when you sit on the bench looking across this view, with the curves of the New Old Rose Garden to your left, the big lawn and the blobby rhythm of the Upper Rosemary Border to your right, and an assortment of trees framing the view and protecting your back… it is, I believe, potentially the most beautiful spot in the garden. You can read about the planning of the garden here. We have revisited the choice of roses and made some changes. Hopefully when we go to Johannesburg at the end of the month we will collect the 26 roses due to go in here. Although quite frankly at this stage I’d be happy for the hedges to settle down first.

2 Ellensgate to new Mothers' Garden

Here is the view from across the big lawn. To the left you can see where we dug up the grass for the paths and are still digging for other lawn work. In the process the upper border is being squared off and enlarged. This will give a new area for annuals and other flowers. I want to start collecting dahlias, as there are a great many old varieties around Haenertsburg. There is a whole new development waiting here! In the process the lawn is now finally surrounded by straight lines – the wavy top border, its shape never really planned, was more and more of an anomaly.

3 Alfred's Arches

When I turned my head from taking the last picture, this is what I saw. With a bit of imagination you can see the water-spout beyond Alfred’s Arches. Last year I decided the Arches, of pussy-willow, had to be cut down and grow out again; then I relented, but in the winter decided that the Arches really were looking tatty. Now I look at them as they start to fill out with young green, and I find the rustic rhythm totally enchanting. What to do? I guess there is so much else that needs doing that this is far from a priority!

4 arboretum reflected

The dogs and I make our way down the Arches, past the Garden Celebrating an Imperfect Universe (much more of a priority!) and down to the Makou Dam. Where we stop to enjoy the reflections and the thousands of backlit plants in the arboretum.

5 Scilla natelensis on Makou Dam

Along the edge there is a self-sown clump of the beautiful local lily, Scilla natelensis. Usually they choose stony well-drained slopes, but these, perched on the edge 30cm above the water, are blissfully happy. Which makes me so too.

6 Siberian Iries on the makou Dam

Around the corner on the dam wall grow the clump of Siberian irises we first planted there 20 odd years ago, and which we thought had disappeared. As you can see – they are back in force! Then we stop to collect stones for a rosemary bonsai I am preparing as a birthday present for Felicity, my dad’s care-giver and my adopted sister.

Rosemary bonsai

Here it is, settling in in the greenhouse. I know nothing about bonsai and have never attempted it before. I’m sure my rocks overhanging the container break every rule, but I’m quite pleased with the way I managed to arrange the gnarled plant as though it had grown out from amongst the stones, just like the ones I found growing in the garrigue when I was in the south of France… But onward and upward (to quote my blogging friend Frances…)

7 View of formal gardens from arboretum

I stopped to photograph the pink flowering cherry, but it was the view of the garden that intrigued me. Look how neat the hedges are on the left, and how good the Upper Rosemary Border is looking with its regular shrubby rhythm. To the right of the red azaleas (which are looking great against the long blue line of the rosemary hedge) there is over 100m2 of recently planted scatterpack. It is germinating nicely and a green haze lies across the ground there. I’m hoping for a fortissimo display by December. And in the bed below that the cannas are beginning to make an impression.

8 Dogs at the mollis and copper beech 

This is the area I particularly came to see:  the mollis azaleas in shades of yellow and orange near the darkest of our three copper beeches. Let’s take a closer look.

9 Copper beech and orange mo;;is

Difficult to capture the luminous darkness of the beech without the orange of the azalea looking washed out by the strong sunlight.

10 Dark orange mollis

So we need to take a look at the azalea on its own – and even then the light is far from ideal…

11 Yellow Mollis

The yellow one, in the shade, is easier to capture. But what I can’t share is the heavenly scent of these azaleas.

12 Orange mollis

For richness of colour, delicacy and perfume these azaleas are a match for the best roses can offer – what a pity that they flower for only a week or two!

13 Dark yellow Mollis close-up

I spend some time here, treasuring the moment, enjoying the scented shade.

14 Taubie among the azaleas

Taubie agrees and joins me; Mateczka and Abigail snuffle around happily, chase down paths, then come back to check all is OK with us. Monty is away patrolling his territory, probably entertaining visitors at the Cheerio tea-garden, relishing his role as the alpha male (human and otherwise) of the valley…

15 Mollis and Copper beech in arboretum

All in all it is a good place to be… especially at this time of year.

16 The Avenue


New seating area

I promised a view of the completed seating area; like most newly completed garden features, it makes an unsatisfactory subject: not even I can see the Coralbark Maples planted in the three pots to the right; the foreground is decidedly raw and the various stumps beyond the seats make no visual sense. Not to mention the fact that the very utilitarian garden tap, deliberately included in the design, rather dominates the foreground despite the presence of Abigail. But last Sunday I came upon two ladies enjoying their picnic lunch here, even before the garden was completed. Mission accomplished.

The season would not be complete without a few sweeping views of the azaleas in flower. So here goes. All these photos were taken up in the arboretum, specifically along the bank of azaleas that rises all the way up the slope between the tulip trees which form The Avenue.

Azaleas at a junction 

Azaleas en masse

Azaleas in popping colours

Azaleas in toning colours

azaleas up the avenue

Lastly some views at the Lilypond, where the wisteria has spectacular long trusses and the Mothertjie rose has now grown to flower throughout the indigenous  Rhamnus prinoides tree which hosts it known as a Blinkblaar (Bright Leaf) or, more confusingly considering our dramatically flowering American versions, as a Dogwood.


lilypond 2

lilypond panorama 1


I am in Johannesburg, busy with a marketing expo for Warriors, but I hear the garden is again wet and cold. An ideal build-up to the spring fair, especially as we planted up pots and annuals during the week, and sowed over 150m2 (150 sq. yards) of scatterpack – the annual meadow mix flowers which were spectacularly successful several years ago, but which I’ve not repeated since.

After all the close-ups over the last two posts, lets take a look at the bigger picture. The arboretum is often now a closed view down a path, suddenly opening up to bigger views and even distant views, and from some spots a panorama down onto the main formal gardens in front of the big house. The thousands of azaleas planted here are starting to flower…

Along the top edge of the arboretum there is an avenue of crab-apples, looking magnificent en masse.

And even more magnificent in detail…

This is Malus floribunda – and abundantly it flowers! Malus purpurea might not be purple, but as is so often the case with plants, ‘purpurea’ indicates a darkness of leaf and flower. I love these dusky shades!

Near the top end of Freddie’s Dam there is a viburnum which has a short magnificent flowering season when its scent spreads far and wide. I’m certain I know what it is called, but I don’t have my resources with me to check… beyond it against the water is the purple new-leaved maple I referred to in my previous post.

Here is a close-up of the flowers – both beautiful and scented. For the rest of the year it is, like so many viburnums, a very non-descript shrub.

And here it is again because – well, why not?

Nearby are some dogwood trees – Cornus florida. Their ‘flowers’ are in fact bracts which start expanding in August and last through to October –much longer than the fragile blossoms!

In the close-up you can see the tiny flowers which are surrounded by the bracts.

I also have a red version of which I am extraordinarily proud.

Another shrub or small tree which does well with  us, and of which I am proud, is Magnolia, considered to be one of the most primitive flowering plants.  This one is M. x soulangiana. It has a fist-sized fleshy flower, heavily scented of… soap. That is merely because I got to know the scented soap before the flower. It only slightly dulls my pleasure in it!

So where does that leave us? With more blossoms to explore, in particular the various pyrus (pears) and prunus (cherries, almonds etc.); here is a taste. I’ll need to get home and get my camera out for more.

One last indulgence. Wisteria. In particular the wisteria and japonica together in the Anniversary Garden.


wisteria and japonica

One last one… in the bed up against the house the first diaramas shoot from nothingness to ther mauve flowers in only a week or two. They combine rather dramatically with the last of the orange aloes…


There is only one plant that can match the old roses when it comes to voluptuous soft pinks or – even more unusual – rich pinks that age to almost neon shades which become overlaid with a blue-grey bloom: the camellia … which insists on blooming for me in winter.

Old rose camellia

The problem is that my winter is not suitable for camellias. Two kilometres away and several hundred meters away from the water, I have neighbours who hardly ever have frost, and whose plants face away from the morning sun. Now you should see the sheer excess of THEIR camellias, dozens of cultivars and hundreds of bushes.

Camellia walk

Mine face into the morning sun and regularly show frost damage. However when we have a few warmer nights in a row, such as this last week, and now that the bushes are larger and dense enough to have shady sides, one can find  a few near perfect blooms. But even on bitterly cold mornings, the pink camellias call one across the valley from behind the gum trees – and you tend to go, even when you know that from close by you will be disappointed.

Semi-double pink camellia Salmon pink camellia Pink Camellia
Palest pink camellia Shaded pink camellia

PS: I can’t get away from the latest garden developments: next to the big lawn in the far right of the photo above, taken from the arboretum, you can see the ground work that has been done on the Mothers’ Garden. And we’ve started digging the holes for the roses that are being transplanted into the new Old Rose Garden…


Liquidambar formosana in arboretum

The story of late autumn colour continues. Liquidambar formosana does not colour nearly as dramatically as the more common L. styraciflua. But it turns very late in the season, slowly and impressively, and suddenly this last week I’ve become aware of the trees planted along Park Lane in the arboretum and at the entrance to the farm, behind Croft Cottage. Coming to think of it – these ‘lesser’ trees have been given very important places, and they rise to the occasion more successfully with every passing year! So here they are; surrounded by wintery trees and even more wintery perennials, shining in the winter sunlight.

Croft Cottage against L formosanum



Bit of a cheat again: these pics were taken on the 10th, but I’ve not been out with the camera since, and I am compiling this on Thursday night, as there won’t be the opportunity to do anything again before Sunday. So let me share with you two long exposures taken at 6.30am of a late autumn morning. That makes it first light. The view from the stoep – or veranda – is glorious. The first pic looks slightly to the left, the secon, to the right, includes one of the pillars through which one sees the view.

First light


Early autumn from the living room

The overwhelming impression at the moment is of autumn, warming up like an old Alfa, before roaring off impressively. (OK, if you don’t get that image, it’s rather boyish for a gardening blog…) This is the view from the living room window. In the foreground the Ellensgate Garden is aligned perfectly with the living room; beyond that the wisteria-covered pergola in the Anniversary Garden, to the left the junipers that flank the axis from the front door. The blue flowers that featured two weeks ago are in the foreground, and the orange crocosmia in the Ellensgate Garden immediately behind them. But to show you those two colours will mean blowing every other colour out of the water. Perhaps try enlarging the photo…


Scilla natalensis first came into our garden as something gleaned from the veldt (or the neighbours?) by old Phineas in his early days with us. He told us it was a wild plant – and he’d known the area all his life. He planted the first large bulbs in the top corner of what is today Trudie’s Garden – the closest plant in fact to our original trailer ‘cottage’. They are still, nearly 30 years later, our proudest stand. Here they are, photographed on the 12th of this month.

Scillas in Trudie's Rose Garden 12 Oct 2010 When the pine trees across the dam were cut down, the arboretum was planted. In the first spring – or to be quite truthful: in that first year it was ‘first summer’ – scillas that had lain dormant, or at least unseen, beneath the pines for 25 years flowered tentatively. Over the next few years more and more appeared in the arboretum, soon developing to full strength.

Blue Moon and  Scilla natalensis 13 Oct 2006This picture was taken one day less than four years before the above shot, and of the exact same plants. These dates are important, because moisture makes a huge difference to the flowering time and the size of the leaves at flowering (and the size they grow to later in the season). Being in the cultivated garden, and more specifically amongst roses, these scillas are watered copiously. The next photo, taken in the arboretum in a dry year more than two weeks later shows that the flower is as impressive, but the leaves have hardly sprouted.

Scilla natalensis when water-stressed 29 Oct 2006 The photo below was taken in our local Haenertsburg Grasslands, a totally wild area, in late September of 2007; there had been rain in late summer and also some welcome winter rain.

scilla in the veldt 22 Sep 07 Lastly a close-up to show the delicate colouring of this beautiful flower. This post is inspired by Gail of Clay and Limestone who started the tradition of Wild Flower Wednesday on the fourth Wednesday of every month. (Clicking on coloured script  on my blog will always take you through to the relevant links.)

Scilla natalensis close-up