Garden, Gardens

Country Oasis

Connall Oostebroek

From the front entrance of Quiet Mountain Country House, just north of Johannesburg, there’s a view of the Magaliesberg over an expanse of lawn framed by hedges of iceberg roses. A fountain dances in the middle distance. Nearby, old-fashioned rose gardens grow in raised geometric beds. More roses clamber up a gazebo in a quiet corner. Paths wind past a dam with swans, along dappled walkways beneath a long, overgrown pergola, through screens of bamboo, and on via banks of clivias, and hydrangea borders. A chain of secret gardens cluster around the main house and cottages. Behind the dam, a glade with a row of lemon trees fills the air with sweet citrus scent. It is an enchanting place. The garden’s most arresting feature, however, is immediately in front of the house: a deep bed of soft, herbaceous greenery that explodes into colour each spring and flowers well into the summer. Here, too, a bed of vegetables, herbs and salad ingredients grow to supply the kitchen (there’s another lemon tree at the door). It’s all drawn together and made coherent by an avenue of pine trees and a long, low, gently undulating privet hedge that runs the length of the homestead. This oasis at the foot of the mountain range was created gradually over 30 years by owners Terence Barker and John Nelson-Berg. ‘It’s been slow progress in harsh conditions,’ says Terence. When they first moved to this former tobacco farm, the landscape was covered in nothing but black stubble after a fire. Except for a few surviving blue gum and karee trees, it was featureless. ‘It was such a wonderful position, though,’ adds Terence, so he and John weren’t put off. Instead, they set about creating a garden to live up to the setting. ‘The idea was to create various areas and new vistas,’ he continues. The garden took shape gradually, starting with the trees – tipuana, palms, various oaks, maple, Sophora japonica, and an avenue of ash – but the ground was hard. ‘We were confronted with clay and shale.’ They had to cut huge holes into the stone and fill them with tons of compost. ‘Weekends were spent with a book and a hose, reading while moving from tree to tree,’ recalls Terence. The ground may have been hard, but there was a lot of rain in those days, and the seasons were more temperate than they are now, encouraging lush plantings. You can still trace the path of a spring that flowed through the garden, which has since dried. The parterre immediately in front of the house is made up of formal beds ‘like giant plant pots’ filled with river sand. ‘Over the years we have trucked in tons of compost and topsoil to fill them,’ Terence continues. Mixed plantings of spring flowers, including dianthus, sweet peas, nasturtiums, violets and poppies bring the fireworks. ‘There are geraniums and lots of lavender, and Nandina domestica, which is traditionally planted at the entrances of Chinese and Japanese temples,’ he notes. Sage does particularly well in the climate here, so the green-grey leaves and pink and purple flowers of salvia proliferate, eventually giving way to the vegetable garden. ‘We’ve always grown vegetables. At times we’ve even had enough to sell at the markets.’ Similarly, the rose gardens were enabled by raised geometric beds on the wide lawn. ‘We’ve had to move the rose garden about three times as the trees have grown and areas have become shady.’ The garden at Quiet Mountain has evolved over the years, its borders shifting and its plantings changing. Recently, the harsher climate and a shift in philosophy has seen the introduction of more indigenous, water-wise plants and trees, especially aloes, combretums (bushwillow), Kiggelaria africana (wild peach), and karee. ‘It’s becoming an African English garden,’ says John. Yet in winter, they continue to plant their poppies and calendulas. ‘It’s still pretty good in spring,’ claims Terence in a giant understatement. This article was originally published in the November 2012 issue of House and Leisure.