Never before have the months leading up to spring been this dry; but twice that I  know of we have had much drier years, where the water stops flowing from the dams, even if seepage means there is still a slight inflow. Those are desperate years. This year the sponge of the mountain is still quite wet after two lots of extremely good rain in early 2012, but I’m pretty certain we are at the beginning of a dry cycle. We don’t really feel climate change in South Africa – we are used to cycles of good years and bad years. In fact the last 40 odd years, from my perspective at least, have been less extreme, not more so. Unlike the UK we have not swung from one record to the next these last 20 years…

Freddie's Dam overflow

The memory of those two dry years remain. In fact my own memory of the drought of the 60s and my parents’ recall of the drought of the 30s when my maternal grandfather had to give up farming and move his young family to the city, add a spiritual dimension to the need for rain. And that is why on Friday afternoon’s damp walk, with the week’s rainfall figure heading towards 100mm, I listened to and looked at the gurgling stream and I heard my late mother’s voice say: “Oh if only my father could see the water flow on this farm!”

Taubie drinking from the stream

These shots were taken in poor light on my phone. There were many more – but most too blurred to even consider as snapshots… In the upper photo an unusual view of the rear end of the Icon Bridge, and dogwoods and blossoms and fresh greens in the distance. In the lower photo Taubie celebrates the water in her way, drinking from the brim-full overflow of Freddie’s Dam. Two more shots are worth sharing:

White Cornus florida - dogwood

a white dogwood – Cornus florida and the first leaves on my favourite Japanese maple, one which has the most delicately red young foliage which turns green within weeks.

The Japanese maple with red young leaves

Later: the rain stopped after 101mm. Sunday was gloriously sunny and I went on a long walk with my camera. There are 65 photos I titled and added to the shortlist from 100s. The screenshot of that selection I include now because it best of all illustrates the sudden brightening, the change in the colour palette as spring kicks in… Over the next days – expect some spring colour here!



Makou Dam in August

By mid-August I find new material difficult to come by. Remember it is our February, when even the joys of winter have become tedious. True, as I took the staff’s children up to the tar road to catch the school bus this past week, it was perfectly light on the way there and the sun rose as I returned, burning red against the escarpment sky. Red because of the dust and smoke: not only is it drier than I can ever recall, but August, traditionally our windiest month, is true to form. Result in our high biomass and forested area…. worse fires than normal at this time of year.

Winter across the Makou Dam

Today, Sunday, is gustier than I can recall, although one does tend to forget such horrors, and the wind is chilly; during last week, according to one report, there was snow in all 9 provinces on one day for the first time ever. Result: a biting wind, although our night time lows remained above freezing. In our protected valley the much more insidious effect of slowly dropping still air brings more cold than a wind which stirs things up and evens out the temperature gradient between places.

Protecting the tree ferns

This strange bit of land sculpture  – a forest of bamboo stakes – is Lucas’ effective solution to  protecting the young tree ferns from the porcupines who, just as in the drought of the 90s, have taken to eating out the hearts of the tree ferns.

4 dogs

It is a while since all four dogs featured in one photo and there is not a great deal else to share. So here they are, from front to back: Monty, x Jack Russell, alpha male of all  species including human in the valley, showing he’s done a few more miles than in his youth, but still going strong; Taubie, x Bull Terrier/Border Collie, oldest and most beloved of all my dogs, the matriarch; Abigail, daughter to Monty and a Dr Seuss creation, tiniest and busiest of the dogs, who works hard all day with the staff and then turns into the sweetest of lapdogs at night; and Mateczka, Rhodesian Ridgeback and the puppy, even though she is nearly three and by far the largest. Watching her and Abigail play is one of lives great joys!

Rosemary Border in August

I’ve kept this shot of the Upper Rosemary Border for last, because it really doesn’t show anything new. However it is very satisfying to see how good this border can still look at the windy tail-end of winter!

1 White Helmetshrike

Stop Press: after days of keeping my (rather unsatisfactory) long lens on the ready, I have just photographed a White Helmetshrike through the guest room window. I remember first seeing them on the farm in the late 90s, once only. Rather humorous looking with their large yellow serrated eye-wattle and grey ‘helmet’, they move in groups and are very noticeable as they flutter their way along in small bursts. They have been a regular presence the last few months. Roberts’ Book of Birds speaks of “irruptions westwards in times of drought”; having looked up irruptions, a new word to me, (Ecology – to increase rapidly and irregularly in number) I come to the conclusion that here we have yet another sign of drought. Is it that they do not like our mountain in the wet?

2 White Helmetshrike


Metasequoia glyptostroboides

We’re back with an advertising break: above is the Dawn Redwood, which goes by the cumbersome name of Metasequoia glyptostroboides; “next to sequoia, like a glyptostrobus’, a name about which the inimitable Hugh Johnson has the following to say: “…an indication perhaps of (the Japanese taxonomist’s) state of scholarly indecision, rather than of his barbaric ear.” (p113, Hugh Johnson’s Encyclopaedia of Trees, ISBN 0 85533 546 7) Only four Glyptostrobus are known in cultivation, none in the wild. It is a deciduous member of the Swamp Cypress family.

Here starts the advertisement – for this very book and author, at his best when telling the tale of the Dawn Redwood, discovered in 1941 in eastern Szechwan, China. It was 1948 before the first seeds germinated at Kew and in Boston.  The newcomers grew away happily though, and some young plants of the first Kew germination were sent to the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens, then one of the important cities of the British Empire. (The subsequent history of these gardens is a sad tale of third world neglect however…) My neighbour and gardening guru was a friend of the curator – and thus some of the earliest seed from a cultivated tree was germinated by Gub Turner (whose sister created Cheerio Gardens which is today run by Gub’s daughter and granddaughter…) and my dad in turn germinated seed from Gub’s tree… we have several growing in the arboretum. It is distinguished from the Swamp Cypress (Taxodium)  by having branchlets and needles which are opposite, whereas the Swamp Cypress’s are alternate. But the easiest way, says Hugh Johnson, to recognise the Dawn Redwood is by the unique habit of having the next year’s buds underneath the branchlets – clearly noticeable here.

Swamp Cypress Here is a Swamp Cypress, photographed two days earlier, for comparison. Both colour a lovely cinnamony colour with the fresh green showing to the very end. A good example  of either is one of the loveliest trees imaginable!

Big House The way the Big House suddenly appears in a gap from the arboretum is lovely – and the fact that it happens so seldom these days is an indication that some ruthless opening up of vistas through the arboretum is due. It is difficult to believe that it is only 12 years ago that this area was planted. The white horizontal to the right of the yellow tree top left (a golden Melaleuca) is all that can be seen of my current home, Trailertrash Cottage. It is a trailer home which we erected in 1981 when my father inherited the part of the farm that did not have a house; in those days, believe it or not, this valley was mostly grassland with a few self-sown pines; until the late 50s seed potatoes were grown here, and the mule-drawn plough is now installed as a focal point in my garden. The eelworms remain to plague us… Oh: until I moved in in January of this year with all the paraphernalia to feed and sleep six dogs on the deck, plus assorted gumboots, buckets and brooms, the trailer home went by the much more elegant name of The Plett.

Acer palmatum detail A detail of the Acer palmatum in the above view; the most elegant of all our trees!

Croft Cottage From near my previous vantage, a view to the right; neither the huge stems of the two big gum trees, nor the Japanese maple and azaleas are the subject of this photo, but rather the red gable sticking out to the left of the gum tree. That is Croft Cottage, now nearing completion. With The House that Jack Built, its function is to help increase the income off the farm…

Hydrangea close-up A teaser for a post to come: over 80 of yesterday’s pics – and an equal number at least over the last weeks – are for a post on the wonderful pearlescent colours that my hydrangeas take on as the season progresses… watch this space!

Mateczka Taubie

 The dogs however were not impressed with the hydrangeas – the walk was well into its second hour – and Mateczka decided a snooze was a good cure for boredom!

1 2

Then on again (flowering cherries give the main colour) followed by yet another wait. Read my lips, says Mateczka.

3 Flowering cherry 4 Chinese maple
5 Pride of India 6 Q velutina

I, meanwhile, get more and more caught up in the leaves. Clockwise from top left: Flowering Cherry Prunus ‘Tai Haku’ ; Chinese maple Acer buergeranum ; Quercus velutina has the largest leaves of all our oaks and Pride of India or Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica), usually best known for its lovely mottled, pale and smooth bark and its crepe flowers, also turns beautifully in our climate; in the following picture the ones at the bottom of the front door axis can be seen from the arboretum.

Lagerstroemia indica Darkest red Japanese maple The darkest of our Japanese maples has lost most of its leaves. I love its beautiful bark and shape where it leans across the stream, its beauty slim and ethereal after the heavy dark velvets of its summer clothing.

Liquodamber avenue We’ve reached the furthest edge of our 6 ha (15 acres) of garden – the avenue of Liquidambars which marches up from the stream to the Sequoia grove which gave the farm its name. My father germinated all these trees about 30 years ago from the seed of a single tree. It is amazing how they differ, and how each tree – in fact each limb – colours in the same way and in the same order year after year. It was his success with these Liquidambars that lead to the birth of the arboretum idea.

Liquidambar detail The five-fingered leaves of Liquidambar  styraciflua often lead to them being mistaken for maples – the corky ridges on the twigs are diagnostic though, as are the alternate leaves, whereas maples are opposite.

Cornus florida A young dogwood (Cornus florida) in the Dell, a rather unsuccessful development next to the Liquidambar avenue. The soil here is sandy, less fertile and moisture retentive than elsewhere, and the original planting was followed by several years of lacklustre rainfall. However I am looking at the area with new eyes… there is room here for consolidation. Drat! More work! 😉

Cornus florida detail Besides of the most beautiful autumn foliage, C. florida has a graceful shape, and leaves which curl back, revealing a softer, more silvery shade of both the summer and the autumn leaf colour. And soon this tree will start producing its abundant spring bracts, either in white or if I am very lucky, in reddish pink. Truly a tree for all seasons – for most of the winter one can watch the flower buds swell and the bracts slowly open before the leaves appear. It is called anticipation!

Hydrangeas and maple As we make our way back I again photograph hydrangeas (my best ones are here under Oak Avenue near The House that Jack Built, and under the Tulip Trees in The Avenue in the arboretum… a little seed-grown Japanese maple is slow but lovely. And as we slowly make our way home, sunset comes closer, and I am pleased I took my tripod along…

Sunset Sunset in the lily pond



The grasslands on the Haenertsburg Common can give  a magnificent spring floral display, especially if the long grass was gently burnt during the winter, and there is sufficient early rain. I don’t have that (I’m working on it!) but my summer meadows, which start maturing around now, are pretty good.  Here Doubly is waiting to see if this will turn into a walk or whether he has followed me out under false pretences.  Below is the jewel in our meadow’s crown – Gladiolus dalenii. It is strange that there are two completely different strains: one in bright yellow and orange which flowers in autumn, and this one, more common in our area, which flowers around mid-summer.  This one is quite colourful – often they are a soft lime-green with brown markings. (Incidently – we mark summer from around mid October when the spring flowers are over to Easter or later – over 5 months we call summer! Spring is less than two months, as is autumn, which leaves only about 3 months for winter… But I am thinking of all in the North today, for whom the longest night has finally come!)