houses, Gardens

Joburg’s Shepstone Gardens is a mix of verdant glamour and intriguing concealed spaces.

A Theatrical Garden Filled with Hidden Treasures

Christoph Hoffmann

There’s something of a Napa Valley vibe happening on the slopes of Joburg’s long-standing suburb Orange Grove, and this is largely due to the alluring, verdant wonder that is Shepstone Gardens. Owners Chris and Lorna Rayner moved to this stretch of Hope Road 38 years ago, which over a century ago was all about fruit farming, and they gradually bought several neighbouring properties before expanding into the wedding-venue business in 2006. 

‘It was a massive undertaking,’ says Chris, ‘and very much a building-driven project. The essence of what you see now is 30 years old but bar a couple of trees, it’s all been constructed and planted from scratch.’

And that’s the real standout feature of this garden – the sense of long-established lushness that in parts looks more like a California wine farm than suburban Jozi. ‘I wanted to design something with public appeal,’ says Chris. ‘I took my original inspiration from 18th-century English gardens – especially in terms of the views and the different levels. That said, we went a bit more frivolous than you might in a private home. For me it’s about a sense of theatre; about not divulging everything at first glance.’ 

A meander along the gently curving pathways reveals constant notes of surprise. For starters, there’s very little lawn but rather a series of glimpses that defy you not to explore. Cool, dark ponds, towering palms, hidden courtyards – each nook and hideaway demands that you pause awhile.

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At the front of the garden, an archway of shocking-pink bougainvillea draws the eye towards the Sandton skyline. Stairways appear almost out of nowhere, leading up to the sun-baked winter rockery or luring you down one of the garden’s many intriguing tiers. ‘I’m a staircase nut,’ says Chris. ‘Stairs invite you to go somewhere. While the base should be visible, it’s preferable not to know where you’ll end up.’

Plant-wise, this is a garden of contrasts, and one that fits happily into areas of deep shade and blazing sun. In the cooler parts, lofty tree ferns are underplanted with clivias; dappled ponds are filled with arum lilies and Louisiana irises. On the sunny inclines, succulents create a blaze of colour, while hardy shrubs like golden dewdrops create undulating textured ‘walls’. Greenery softens the stone pathways, surrounds fountains and spills from hanging baskets.

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‘Much of the mystery comes from areas of light and shadow,’ says Chris. ‘And that’s the thing about Joburg; it’s uniquely benign. You really can plant anything. Against the mountain we’re protected from frost, so plants like bougainvilleas just thrive.’ Another of Chris’ favourite features is water. ‘Ponds add an extra dimension – the reflections put the sky into a space. It’s the first thing I’d put into any garden.’

This garden is a bit of a character, with some assertive California glamour amidst its English-country charm. ‘You’ve got to be bold – and brave,’ insists Chris. He and his team have knocked down several structures as the garden progressed, and they’ve also seen stone walls buried as new ideas popped up. ‘Not even the most renowned European gardens would have remained as their owners originally designed them,’ he says. ‘Plants change, climates change, as do fashions. It’s important to look back at what you’ve done, but to keep on adjusting as you go forward.’  

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