This is a legacy site. Please click here to view current site. X
country, houses

The botanical farmhouse

Greg Cox

There are no conventional cupboards in the kitchen of Johannesdal, the farmhouse in Pniel, Western Cape, belonging to Chris Willemse and Dané Erwee. No sleek, handle-free sliding shelving; no modern glass cabinets arrayed above a marble-topped counter. Instead, a rustic wooden unit, reaching almost to the ceiling, stands against one wall, and houses assorted plates, glasses, platters, bowls and cutlery. The top shelf is accessible only via a perilously perched ladder… This appreciation of the old and venerable as much as the new is emblematic of the couple’s personal and professional life. It’s evident in the amassed objets, art pieces, books, tapestries and plants throughout the house – and extends to the farm gardens themselves. In 2000 they came across a bamboo-grass-covered strip of land, to which no road led. It had a singularly beautiful location – in a tranquil valley, flanked by the Groot Drakenstein mountains. Although access was challenging and infrastructure would have to be installed from scratch, with the assistance of architect Henri Comrie, they gradually developed their vision for their home. Today, the project (16 years and counting) has the grand proportions of a country house, yet with the welcoming warmth of a family farmstead, sitting graciously amid nursery gardens, magnificent rose beds, manicured lawns and an expansive swimming pool.

An antique table stands almost in the garden, among various plants and pots

Chris trained as a horticulturist, Dané as a landscape designer. Their vocations equipped them to combine their skills into Okasie, the floral-design business they founded in Stellenbosch, and to create the farm that supplies it. There’s a mutually beneficial synergy between the farm and the business. Chris and Dané grow as much as possible of what they incorporate into their creations, an approach that allows their unique flair to come to the fore. Unlike most florists in the Western Cape, who tend to source their blooms from the same few suppliers, they grow plants and flowers that are not commercially available and thus ensure a unusually varied selection, whether for corporate functions or weddings. The pair lament the omnipresence of the visual bookmarking tool Pinterest: it’s taken what should be clients’ individualistic and creative imaginings and damped them down into a ‘cookie-cutter template’, they note. ‘We strive to do something different. Using a conventional base of, perhaps, roses and proteas, we add aquilegias, clematis, pomegranate branches, waterblommetjies…’ They’re also excited about the resurgence of the once-ubiquitous hydrangea: ‘One of the loveliest blooms, in its hues of blues and whites,’ they say.
There are many interesting nooks in the house; this corner is stacked with artworks, including one on the rear wall – a table top onto which Chris and Dané attached a rabbit head (a gift from the Okasie staff)

Dané is the magpie. ‘I can’t do minimalist,’ he declares with a wry smile. Chris, by contrast, loves squared-off corners and uncluttered order. The property reflects this duality – there’s a formal rectangle of lawn, fringed by neat serried ranks of young trees hiding the plant nursery, and there’s also an uncultivated, wild stretch of fynbos, which is destined to stay that way. Energy is a word that crops up frequently in their conversation, in both a psychic and a physical sense. They’re keenly aware of the interdependence of people, animals and plants – of the ‘vibes’ that create atmosphere, and affect mood, happiness and positivity. And on a day-to-day level, they constantly have a project on the go, either planning or executing it. It’s a demanding lifestyle but it’s one they both relish. Nothing is static – ‘with new things, there’s always growth; we are never bored’. The unmistakable trend today – particularly in the Cape Winelands – is for a property to ‘wear many hats’. This house, too, is not only the home and platform of the Okasie business, but also doubles as a guesthouse (you can hire the whole place for a minimum stay of three days) and as a popular location for film shoots.
Dané with an armful of magnificent snowball viburnums

Inside, winter frosts are buffered by indoor fireplaces and heating is provided by warm water underfloor. In summer, however, the house really comes into its own, providing a cool haven day and night. The changing seasons suit the different plants here. Those of English provenance thrive after the dormancy of the winter months; by contrast, indigenous plants and slangbos flourish in the heat of summer. The long-term plan is to allow the creepers and ferns that are climbing the exterior walls to grow unfettered and cover the building, softening its angles. ‘One day,’ says Chris dreamily, ‘it’ll  look as though the house and the farm just grew into each other.’ And they wouldn’t have it any other way. This home was published in House and Leisure's Jan/Feb 2017 issue.