Travel, Gardens

Spirited Away at La Rive in Franschhoek

Spend long enough in this Franschhoek private guest villa’s garden of secret nooks, paths and vine-cloaked arches, and you might believe you’ve spotted a sylph.
Adel Ferreira; produced by Gemma Bedforth

From Dirkie Uys Street, you’d never guess what lies behind the sedate 1872 thatched house. ‘It’s at the back that the magic happens,’ says Wayne McLachlan, manager of La Rive villa in Franschhoek in the Western Cape. The cool, old Cape interior opens onto an enchanting garden anchored by a rectangular pool. Star jasmine, double wisteria, potato vine and climbing Iceberg roses ramble over pillars, arches and walls; winding paths lead to hidden nooks, benches and burbling water features; small sculptures, gentle and childlike in spirit, suggest the presence of the fey. 

Peaking during its first flush of roses from late October, the garden is a romantic landscape of pastel colour and filigree foliage, designed by landscaper Gillian Gage in a ‘labour of love’ after the property was purchased in 1993. During the house renovations, the worst flood in 40 years sent a torrent of water down the garden’s natural slope, directly through the house (fortunately the furniture hadn’t been moved in). To minimise flooding, a reinforced wall was built at the back, low mounds were created on the lawn to divert water unobtrusively into the river flowing down the side of the property, selected flower beds were raised and, ingeniously, 10 French drains were installed around the pool – square pits containing wire trays filled with gravel, with barrels for planting positioned on top.

   

‘The owners are busy businesspeople, and this is their sanctuary; hence the calm, subdued colours: whites, blues and purples with touches of apricot,’ McLachlan says. The lower garden features clipped eugenia and manicured borders filled with a profusion of English-garden style plants: day lilies, irises, agapanthus, plumbago, lacy white ‘bridal’ viburnum, columbine and penstemons in pinks and mauves, and roses: yellow Ryk Neethling, peach Just Joey, pale pink My Granny, and Deloitte and Touche, which starts out pink and blooms into orange. 

Up a brick stairway with a pergola, past a stone wall that Gage had painstakingly constructed, overseeing the placement of each stone, awaits the upper garden. Beneath the trees, in shady leaf-strewn beds of snowdrops, arum lilies and assorted hydrangeas, is a pensive Dylan Lewis sculpture of his son Joel as a child. An elevated reading bench overlooks the koi pond, fringed with bog irises and guarded by two old trees, a pomegranate and a coral tree, the space’s only splash of vivid red. 

Stepping stones lead to the ‘new’ garden, created from a cow pasture bought from the neighbouring Dutch Reformed church. Its bespoke metal gates with decorative leaves and robins were set into a high wall that’s been left to age gracefully, complete with storybook moss-filled cracks. Here, the design motif is the circle, from a circular paved path to a round pond.
The mood is wilder, as seen in drifts of irises in pink and blue, pale pink watsonias, blue agapanthus, tree ferns, clematis growing up a trellis, and a series of arches thick with potato vine inspired by impressionist painter Claude Monet’s garden in Giverny. At the end, running along a line of oaks, is the stream, its banks secured with gabions concealed by ivy. 

Among the established trees framing the garden are a liquid amber, fiddlewood, English planes and elms, an old pepper tree, and various oaks, including 100-year-old common oaks. La Rive’s trees are pollarded annually, shaped and opened up internally to allow birds to fly through, to create dappled light for the plants growing below (ferns, plectranthus, and spotted arum lilies, a ‘saving grace in winter’), and treetops are kept trimmed to retain views of the Franschhoek mountains.

Although La Rive has borehole water, the focus is now on nurturing the perennials, rather than the annuals, to conserve water. Head gardener Elton Davids, who has tended the garden for 16 years, is assisted by two gardeners.

 ‘Children love to explore the garden,’ says McLachlan, who covers the ponds with safety nets for young visitors seeking flower fairies and water sprites. They know it’s the late summer evenings that are the most magical, when the whites of the Iceberg, solanum creeper and perennial phlox seem luminous. Then, anything could happen.