Garden, Gardens

past times: an old westcliff garden is transformed into a botanical delight

Christoph Hoffmann

Let’s be honest – there are few locations that beat the Westcliff's angled, leafy roads; in particular, this elevated street with its perilously sloped sites that unfurl beneath the Parktown ridge in Johannesburg. Theresa and Mark Cotterrell moved here 17 years ago, taking on a neglected 1905 home and its rambling garden. ‘The property had been used as a shebeen,’ explains Theresa, ‘and the garden was a complete forest of self-seeded Celtis trees’.

Viburnum topiaries soften the stone walls of the front garden.

On the plus side, the property soon revealed a good set of bones, including dramatic terraced views at the front, and an untouched stretch of sloping veld at the back. An avid gardener, Theresa had always been inspired by her family home in Zimbabwe and hoped to capture a sense of that bountiful, subtropical atmosphere. ‘We envisaged masses of frangipani and msasa trees, but of course soon realised that they wouldn’t survive the Joburg frosts,’ she says. Plans were changed, masses of trees and debris were removed, and what evolved is a heady mix of rambling English formality with a distinctly highveld soul. With its numerous levels, hidden paths and symmetrical stairways, this garden just commands a walk-through. From the generous covered patio, it’s hard not to get a little awestruck by the view of the pool – a circular blue disc that dominates the upper terrace and beckons you to dive right in. Lower down towards the road, things remain shipshape with viburnum trees trimmed to lollipop spheres and groomed beds brimming with ‘My Granny’ roses, pansies and delphiniums. Looking back across the lawn to the building’s gracious archways, there’s a rare sense of a home and garden being as one. A rose garden, once a parking area, becomes a multicoloured spectacle in high summer.
Phygelius aequalis adds colour to the steep southern slope of Mark and Theresa Cotterrell’s Westcliff garden.

Theresa and Mark commissioned Patrick Watson to assist with the design, particularly on the sweep of rocky veld behind the house. ‘We kept the existing terracing, restoring it where necessary,’ explains Patrick. ‘I like to preserve things, and any element of history adds interesting layers – that’s what makes Europe so fantastic.’ Patrick is also a fan of geometry. He developed a semicircular stream, which circulates from the top of the hill, culminating in a colossal water feature below. Close inspection reveals that the boulder is not hewn from the cliff face, but is actually a chunk of artificial rock. ‘It’s essential to work with craftsmen,’ says Patrick, referring to the Worth It Landscaping team who handcrafted the feature. ‘The texture is almost the same as the adjacent architecture; it has a wonderful stylised realism.’ Gravel pathways lead up the slope, turning at orderly intervals to reveal what Patrick terms a ‘natural, Joburg, English garden’. Filled with flowering shrubs, this southern side is romantic in its approach. ‘It’s a very hands-on garden,’ says Patrick. ‘It required a lot of complex horticultural decisions – what to prune, what to let grow, and we’ve included some slightly less run-of-the-mill plants.’ Leucosidea, Pacific yew, lily of the valley and torch lily are just some of the favourites he mentions. And keeping the entire garden in peak condition, gardener Thomas Nyamugafata regularly applies a carefully aerated compost tea.
Iris pseudacorus flourishes in the pond beneath the outsized water feature.

Patrick Watson designed the meandering pathways that connect the house to the steep hill behind.

With Theresa’s love of collecting plants, this is a garden that will continue to evolve. Just formal enough to fit its distinguished past, it’s sufficiently personal to suit its busy owners and their six children. ‘The sense of tranquillity is extremely rewarding,’ says Theresa. ‘It’s quite magical for entertaining, and we always look forward to coming back home.’