Serene garden

Text Tess Paterson Photographs Elsa Young When Martin Viljoen and Youngmi Ra first saw this garden, in the Johannesburg suburb of Morningside, it was firmly rooted in a 1970s time warp. ‘We bought impulsively as we loved the area,’ says Martin, a solar-energy specialist and self-taught gardener, ‘but what we got was an old, flat-roofed house with a kidney-shaped pool that was miles away from the veranda. There were over 20 fir and pine trees, a host of syringas and about 1 000 rats. It looked a lot like a little Bavaria, and the first thing we did was remove most of the trees, much to our neighbour’s trepidation.’ The couple then flattened the site, and devoted 18 months to building a sleekly pared-down house inspired by Youngmi’s native Korea (see Think Space in HL August 2007). ‘When it came to creating the garden, we wanted it to be a good fit style-wise, yet to retain a sense of home,’ explains Martin. ‘Each of the rooms overlooks either the garden or a private courtyard and this gave us a wonderful opportunity to use focal points like the antique stone statues that we found in Korea.’ Martin and Youngmi’s vision for the garden was ‘simple and green, without too much colour’. ‘I’ve always loved trees, water and stones,’ says Martin, ‘and working with these elements helped to create the sense of tranquility and peace that we were after.’ The couple travel extensively and it was during numerous trips to the Far East that their creative ideas began to gel. ‘We visited a forest on the Korean island of Jeju, and that gave me the idea for the timber walkway,’ says Martin. ‘The ponds were inspired by the Banyan Tree resort in Phuket, and we borrowed several elements from our visits to Kyoto in Japan. Some of the gardens there are over 1 000 years old, and the caretakers’ philosophy of patience is quite remarkable.’ Standing on the raised timber walkway that frames the garden’s perimeter, it seems unimaginable that the hustle of Sandton is just minutes away. The only sounds are of birdsong and the distant thrum of a lawnmower, and the overwhelming impression is one of peace. ‘The walkway is the invitation into the garden,’ explains Martin, ‘and we’re hoping that the trees will eventually create a forest canopy.’ It’s only when you take a closer look, that you realise so many of the plants, which Martin sourced from Nicolas Plants (, are indigenous to the highveld. At the start of the project, Martin researched the natural history of this riverine area (a tributary flows year round at the bottom of the property). The upshot was a lengthy list of highveld species that flourished here before the land was carved into suburbs. ‘Before the black wattle took over there were dogwoods, bladdernuts, cheesewoods, bushwillows – the variety is endless.’ Planting a natural forest, Martin created an indigenous green barrier between their garden and the neighbours, only removing the last of the firs once the new trees had reached a reasonable height. From wild pears and paperbarks to tree wisterias and sourberries, he’s planted 72 trees so far. While the main garden is less structured, with meadowy grass merging into low maintenance ground cover, the front entrance has a distinctly Korean/Japanese aesthetic. Wild olives, buddleia and yellowwoods were developed into bonsai by Martin on a large scale, and giant bamboo conceals some of the walls. Throughout, Martin and Youngmi have imbued this garden with personal touches, from the striking entertaining pavilion to the large-scale ceramic vessels bought in Korea. It’s a successful combination of highveld roots and Eastern serenity and, while they’re reluctant to call it a legacy, they’ve left this corner of Joburg a greener place. This article was originally featured in the March 2013 issue of House and Leisure.