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


watching the last light s

Every few years a tropical cyclone – sometimes downgraded to a tropical storm – affects our weather for a few days, bringing incessant but unstormy warm rain. We’ve just had one, which brought a total of 254mm over 3 days.

Makoudam overflow

Going out on Thursday  – top photo – as the sun broke through just before sundown (the west being very much drier than we are), we could hear the stream in stereo, the various cascades thundering away. Here is the overflow of the Makou Dam, the two pipes carrying ten times the volume they normally do.

makoudam after the rains

This is the emergency overflow of the Makou Dam, constructed after the 2000 cyclone somehow didn’t manage to destroy every dam in our valley, although each one of them overflowed over the main wall, causing some damage  to the foundations of the walls as the water gathered momentum. This overflow only came into use, to the best of my knowledge, in January 2011 when we measured over 200mm overnight. (Obviously overflowing rain-meters made the figure a bit of a guess. But if I compare the level of the river in flood after my carefully monitored 90mm + 159mm over 2 days, then that figure makes sense. Or it might even have been more – some people claimed over 300mm fell that night. I slept through it and found a full gauge!) Be it as it may: the emergency overflow again came into use this week as the level of the dam rose by a good 20cm.

Freddie's Dam overflow

This week’s storm dropped about 240mm during its most intense 36 hours. (That is 9.5 inches)  In 2000, following on what was already obviously going to be a 70-year record rainfall, we measured 625mm (25 in.) in 36 hours. I remember saying to my father as we watched the rain falling in sheets and the water lapping the top of the dam wall: “I always feared loosing the farm to fire. I never expected it would be water.” Luckily my fears were unfounded…

Somewhere in the above photo is the spot where ‘Cascade Rose’ germinated and from where I removed it a few weeks before last year’s heavy rains – read more about it here.

Blue hydrangeascut through the poplars at the end of the Beech Borders axis

Photos are stolen during a week like the past one – and the perfect  shot I’d love to take of the blue hydrangeas in the cutting through the poplars that mark the furthest part of the Beech Borders axis, is yet to be taken. But I will share nevertheless.

Blue hydrangeas at the end of the Beech Borders axis

Their blue is as glorious as the agapanthus I wrote off in my previous post – work and the weather has precluded a return to that stand, but below are my own examples along Alfred’s Arches, photographed on Saturday in lovely full sun.

Agapanthus inapertus at Alfred's Arches

And today – Sunday – I discovered two growing wild in – wait for it – a boggy area. Which I guess goes to answer the question raised by my previous post: yes, this agapanthus does like to have wettish feet! Here they are against a backdrop of Swamp Cypresses, photographed with my cell phone which as usual appears to have had a well-pawed lens Sad smile

Agapanthus near swamp cypresses

The hydrangeas benefitted from the sun on Saturday afternoon’s walk – here are two more shots, taken in The Avenue in the Arboretum:

Hydrangeas in the Avenue

Avenue hydrangea close-up

The water again featured heavily on that walk, and as I was about to take this shot, Abigail came dashing across. I rather like her hasty exit stage left…

Abigail crossing the stream

Rather lovely I think. But the last two shots for today I took up the hill at my neighbour’s house- way beyond the highest point you can see on the first photo, but the gum tree plantation belongs to her. Her meadow is rich with flowers at present.

Biebuyck's meadow

And on the other side of the house she has a stupendous view across to the Iron Crown, the highest point in Limpopo. A wonderful place for sundowners… Slightly to the right of the peak and just to the right of the tree jutting out in the middle horizon, you can see our lovely village of Haenertsburg nestling in its pristine grasslands. But the Haenertsburg Grasslands deserve a post of their own!

Biebuyck's view

In need of TLC

I awake in the middle of the night, without reason, and gradually descend into an anxiety attack, something which happens to me much less often than it ought to. So I get up and write this.

The water spout 

A visitor to my garden, someone I know and would have thought to  – literally and figuratively – understand the bigger picture, told me during the week that my garden was in need of TLC. I looked at her blankly. “There are pots with nothing in them,” she explained. I looked her in the eye, struck her off my list, and said flatly before moving on: “What you see is what you get.”

in need of TLC

The pots do not have nothing in them. They have weeds. Which ironically makes them a lot emptier. And the dustbin lid which for eight years covered the dustbin reservoir beneath the water spout, still lingers longingly from a prime position. At the end of the festival week it is still there, although she did not mention it. What you see, lady, is what you get.

The Italian Pot and Rosemary Terrace

What I see is the opposite of her statement. When I popped home from school unexpectedly midweek I saw four people sitting on the bottom end of the big lawn, weeding out my beloved yellow gazanias from the turf. Lucas, my foreman, is a much neater person than I am, and clearly he is working towards having a perfect lawn. The fact that I would consider strimming the grass up against the wall on  the Rosemary Terrace of higher priority is not important. Truth be told, there is a whole team giving the garden TLC. And when one considers that no matter how you argue things, most of them earn a pittance and are pleased for a job, their TLC is to be very highly prized.

Breath deeply.

Ouhout forest

The Ouhout Forest is the most natural and possibly the most beautiful part of the garden. Self-sown trees and grasses, all in their natural environment. But even here a judicious pruning out (again) of dead branches and twigs will be an improvement. We will get there.

garden at Croft Cottage

During autumn Lucas planted up a corner of raw earth at the recently completed Croft Cottage. I wondered if it would survive the winter. Last week the first ever visitors were greeted by a charming display of red, blue and lilac annuals and perennials. There’s TLC for you.

First rose in New Old Rose Garden to bloom - Pink Grootendorst Rosa hugonis,- first to flower


The first roses are blooming in the New Old Rose Garden, to where my staff transplanted 125 out-of-ground roses and some 75 bagged seedlings and cuttings in late winter. There’s TLC for you. (They are, for the record and the curious, ‘Pink Grootendorst’, a rugosa as the thorny twigs show, and Rosa hugonis, always the first to bloom.)

Bench which will overlook the Mothers' Garden

Whilst we installed and fine-tuned the irrigation system, they watered all these roses daily with a hand-held hose. At least 90% will survive the move. There’s TLC for you.

Freddy's Dam

They have managed the edge of the Makou Dam – so unobtrusively that I barely notice a difference, so well that for the first time in several years I saw not one, but five Iris sibirica in bloom this spring. I thought we had lost them! There’s TLC for you…

Iris sibirica and Cyathea dregei

And so it is  to my staff  I dedicate this photo of Mateczka, my closest garden-walk companion, an unfurling tree fern, Cyathea dregei, and a Siberian Iris. And to you, lady, with all my love (take a deep breath): a basket of raspberries !


Winter on the Makou dam

I know choosing lifeless cannas, straw-like lawns and endless grey twigs is bound to invoke a rather cheerless picture of winter, but I’m not there yet. That happens in early August; the way Northerners feel in Feb. At this stage I am still revelling in the water which seems so green now that it is so cold, the monotones and the shutdown that happens after heavy frosts. Perhaps the next photo, of Leonitus ocymifolia  gives a cheerier impression. This is a self-planted wilding, and its winter baubles give me more joy than its furry orange salvia-like flowers do, sticking out of the balls in fours and fives in summer. It is so wintery, and yet so graphic. Now all I need do is get there early in the morning and catch the baubles frosted in the first sunlight. Deal!

Wildedagga Leonitus ocymifolia

I watched for the otters, but the water was still. A Woolly-necked Stork flew over, but either we disturbed it or it was on its way to nest elsewhere anyway. I think they have found the bluegum rather chilly of late. Two Black Ducks flew over at low altitude, complaining, and moved on to Freddy’s Dam. The dogs ratted amongst the cannas, and Mateczka took herself on a mad run, slicing through the cannas at times for the tearing-silk noise it made. God was around also.


Makou Dam panorama

We’re five days into the second week of June, and I only post now. I did not even realise I was running late; besides end-of-term, I have also been replacing my car and a lot of time and energy has gone into that! We’ve had REAL weather, and I’ve been able to prove a theory I’ve held for some time: when there is bad weather out there, ours gets better. My night-time temps went up dramatically. We are sheltered from the wind in our valley, so we don’t feel the wind chill factor  much. Instead the air turbulence prevents the coldest of the air from drifting down our valley, getting ever colder. And so, where others experienced colder weather, ours was warmer, around 5 degrees C. However June has been cold enough for everything to be decidedly wintery, the tree fern fronds brown and broken, the grasses bleached.

Swamp cypress twig 

Those trees that still have autumn colour are therefor precious – and of these the cinnamon swamp cypresses are currently the most precious! So here is my official pic-of-the-week – a twig of swamp cypress, Taxodium  distichum. Several of them feature around the Makou Dam, pictured above. To left and right there  are three in full glory, but further to the right,  on the very edge of the dam, is one that has lost its leaves completely. There are four in the centre, of which one still wears a hood of leaves; the others are bare. Curious.

Swamp cypress twig detail


Mateczka at the Makou Dam weir

For the second time in 3 days, Mateczka features – this time with the weir which didn’t feature, if you get my drift. If not, and you would like to, read my previous post. What it all boils down to is that the rainy weather continues and the stream is gurgling merrily. For water-starved South Africans this is always a joy, even when they live, as we do, in a wet part of the country. When the sun broke through unexpectedly earlier today we took a walk. By the end of it the day was hot and almost cloudless. We’ve measured 104mm so far in December – that’s over 4 inches!


Between late afternoon and dusk I take a walk – and whereas on other days the drabness has depressed me, today its subtlety has filled me with joy. So I concentrate on capturing the colours of deepest winter in my photographs…

1 The last photo first – deep dusk on the stones of the path at the Cottage Garden

The Beech Borders first draw my attention to the photogenic nature of the theme…

2 Beech Borders The Beech Tree and seat, backed by a semi-circular hedge of witchazel and lime

Then the seat, and the textures in the composition keep me busy – meanwhile the dogs are ratting in the tall grass behind me, unconcerned that the walk is interrupted.

3 Beech Borders seat I could of course claim that the colour scheme is considered and deliberate…

How could I a few days ago have found this sight depressing?

4 Beech Borders seat and hedge A carpet of leaves, evenly strewn, and soft light – a glow…

And nestling in this season’s death lies next season’s birth.

5 Beech twig Beech buds seem to hold more promise than most other trees…

And the promise is reinforced by the spiraeas, sporting minute flowers even before all autumn leaves are shed.

6 Spiraea flowers in mid-winter Each flower no more than 3mm 1/8in across

Whereas the memory of summer’s flowers are… well… faded…

7 Verbena bonariensis in seed Verbena bonariensis’s tiny but intense purple flowers produce plentiful seed

…Some less so than others…

8 Everlasting in winter Everlastings never quite lose their colour, the remnants of summer’s gold hidden in winter’s amber.

A lone grass seedhead sways  over the last leaves of the water lilies.

  Survivor of mower and marauder, strimmer and scythe…

The light off the Makou Dam is cold as moonlight.

10 Makou Dam And earlier in the week we saw four otters play in the water

Browns seem to be plated in silver…

11 Bracken Bracken leaf near the Makou  Dam

 In the arboretum the hydrangeas which once marched up the hill in blues and whites under a canopy of tulip trees now wear neutral fatigues.

13 Hydrangeas under the tulip trees - winter  Though even now their colour contributes drama …

Witchazel is Old Gold in the gloom – highlight rather than colour.And  the leaves are the richest deep brown.


Texture is all…

15 Seeds 16 Branches

Seeds and branches 

…And Mateczka’s colouring fits in perfectly.

Mateczka among the swamp cyprusses Here she is among the Swamp Cypresses at the far fountain.

Bark detailing becomes prominent, and the thin layer of fallen leaves and twigs contrast with the water in the stream.

17 At the stream The darkest of the Japanese maples has quite a different winter charm.

Nearby the most dramatically wintery of our many tree ferns salute passersby.

18 Tree ferns Almost evergreen in a frost-free climate, ours are decidedly seasonal!

Below I played with a different format – do you know how much purple there is in these browns!

19 Quercus velutina
20 Bench under Quercus velutina 3
20 Bench under Quercus velutina

Have I mentioned texture before…

21 Bench 22 stump

Bench and stump in Quercus Corner; a good rest in the furthest corner of the garden.

 Heading back towards the House that Jack Built I photograph the hydrangeas along Oak Avenue.

23 Oak avenue Is this what I really saw, or is the camera becoming creative with the available light? Fact is, the hydrangeas under the verticals of the trees made for an impressive composition…

Finally – well, near finally, for from here we move back to my first photo – we see the view from The House that Jack Built…

24 The bridge and halfmoon meadow I have always called the bridge the icon of my garden – and for the first time in years the half-moon meadow is cleared and echoes the curve of the bridge.


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



IMG_5765 Immediately behind this point a rustic set of steps goes down to where the overflow pipe for the Makou dam empties into a pool and then gurgles down a furrow against the ridge before spilling over a waterfall and down into the bottom of the valley. It is a shaded spot, always with the sound of running water; one of the special spots in the garden, and one which we too seldom visit, and could do more with. Mateczka definitely thinks so! She stormed up and down on the crackling leaves, leapt in and out of the water and let the other dogs understand: this is FUN!

IMG_5742 IMG_5744
IMG_5750 IMG_5754
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And I too found it fun to take my camera down there in mid afternoon, knowing that the walk might continue till sunset… I love the way the dogs at times are only blurs in these slow-shutter photos, taken with a tripod. And as you can see, Stompie tottered along gamely, but stood still to enjoy the ambience… she stayed with us for most of the walk, but eventually came home on her own to lie down on a soft blanket and await our return.

Autumn azalea This autumn’s clocks are out of line; some things are late, even very late, others are early. There are trees not turning because they think it is still summer, and flowers blooming because they think it is already spring… This azalea flowering against the russet leaves of a Prunus sargentii is a case in point.

Yellow deciduous azalea And this poor deciduous azalea thinks it is both autumn and spring! I can’t remember this ever happening before – but how lovely, even if the flowers are rather feeble.

Berkheya setifera Berkheya setifera is listed as flowering  Sep-Feb, and yet today I chanced across this colony growing wild in the arboretum, and looking even happier than I’ve ever seen this cheerful flower look before!

Berkheya setifera 2 The autumn of the azaleas

Here you can see its robust, hairy leaves as well; and then I couldn’t resist yet another shot of the autumn of the azaleas.

IMG_5791 IMG_5793

Frustrated attempts at photographing a VERY tiny flower… mainly because a certain puppy kept thinking that it was a great opportunity to lick my ears whilst I was down on my knees…

IMG_5792 …in the process all but sitting on the flowers… but after some harsh words…

Lobelia erinus …success!!! In fact, brilliant success, two of the best macros I’ve ever taken…

Lobelia erinus 2

And so here in all its minute glory I present to you…the wild form of the garden lobelia – Lobelia erinus! And although the walk is far from over, it is after one in the morning now – and so I think the post must end and the walk continue tomorrow!