It’s an inordinate privilege to spend time in a garden that’s the size of a large park. For Jo Smart, a self-taught gardener who grew up on a Free State farm, it’s something to be cherished on a daily basis. ‘It’s big,’ she concedes, looking out across two hectares of emerald lawn and rows of towering trees. ‘The previous owners planted the most amazing things so we’ve inherited huge Liquidambar trees, sprawling pin oaks and an avenue of cypresses. Oh, and a magnificent Ginkgo biloba that must be 60 years old or more.’
When the couple moved to Siteka Country Estate in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands 10 years ago Jo immediately recognised the inherent character in the neglected beds, water features and stonework. ‘I loved the history and the fact that this was originally a farm. Despite my inexperience I knew we could create something with far more depth than a brand new garden,’ she says.
An established ash-leaved maple hugs the timber bridge. In the foreground is an informal mix of erigeron, oak-leaf hydrangeas and silene.
Back then the most challenging task for Jo was knowing where to begin. ‘The space is so enormous and there was so much to plan and fix that, to be honest, it was quite daunting,’ she says. A passionate rose lover, Jo decided to begin close to the house, planting rectangular beds of different varieties. ‘Originally I had a mix of rose bushes in six different colours. It was a bit of a fruit cocktail, I suppose, and the purple ones made me feel quite nauseous! Later on I changed these to shades of pink and red, including “Garden Queen” and “Roberto Capucci”.’ As befitting a rural setting, resident duiker and bushbuck soon made short work of the blooms. ‘We solved this by fencing off the main rose garden and building chicken-wire cages around all the other roses. I also learned to make vast quantities of a chilli-garlic spray that deters them to some degree.’
Jo’s gardening style is informed by her love of English plants. In addition to roses she’s drawn to classics such as foxgloves, delphiniums and the many varieties of salvia. ‘I’m all about country garden informality and fortunately the foxgloves grow like weeds in this climate. I’m also a firm believer that if a plant is happy you need to let it be. So many plants have self-seeded in our garden and I love that; I’m far more of a collector than a landscaper,’ she says. Of all the things Jo has learned from this garden, patience is perhaps at the forefront. ‘In the first couple of years I did an incredible amount of work and spent alarming sums of money yet I couldn’t see any difference,’ she says. ‘It takes a year or two just to identify what’s what and you’re nervous to strip out anything in case you’re making a mistake. After four or five years, however, I began to see the garden coming together and although it continues to be a work in progress it’s been incredibly rewarding.’
The circular pond is surrounded by erigeron.
While Jo may have inherited a garden with good bones it’s her innate skill and commitment that have led to something quite exceptional. ‘Many passionate gardeners grew up on farms; it’s that connection to the earth that grounds us. My three older sisters are all mad about gardening and I’ve learned so much from them. I remember they were always wandering around the garden when I was a little girl and I thought it was such a waste of time! Now I do it every day and I love sharing our garden with friends. On summer evenings we’ll have supper outdoors and it usually begins with a wander around the lawn.’
With its backdrop of trees, vivid beds and abundant mists, this garden is an ever evolving spectacle. ‘The resurrecting part was a challenge and the roses are fairly high maintenance,’ adds Jo, ‘but ultimately it’s a peaceful place with wonderful birds and wildlife. We definitely see it as a legacy – something to nurture and protect.’
Originally published in HL November 2015