‘It’s a different world,’ concedes Joburg-based artist Clive van den Berg, taking in the rolling views of his holiday escape just outside the town of Marquard in the Free State. When Clive and his partner Rocco de Villiers first set eyes on the property – 40ha of rolling farmland – they knew instantly that they could live there.
‘I’d been looking for a place to make a garden from scratch,’ says Clive. ‘Of course this was a typical farm garden – pretty ramshackle with no levels and the entrance facing the wrong way.’ Undeterred, Clive brought in a bulldozer to create a spacious lawn on the northwestern side and then began formalising the beds.
‘Large-scale gardens need a certain sense of structure but we decided to take a more relaxed and spontaneous approach to the planting.’ Central to the design is the classic Free State farmhouse: a sandstone gem with 4.5m high ceilings and French doors overlooking the veld and koppie beyond. ‘In its modest way the house is quite grand,’ says Clive. ‘The garden needed to echo some of these lines and to contain it visually. The way to do that was to establish boundaries as well as areas of transition and, in that way, create a series of garden rooms. What I didn’t realise at first is how these areas would naturally evolve and expand towards the veld. While it starts out formally, it definitely gets wilder at the edges.’
While Clive has an instinctive eye for form, colour and detail, he’s also blessed with patience – a crucial trait for any gardener, especially one given to experimenting. ‘Selecting the plants was total trial and error,’ he laughs, ‘and I soon learned that what thrives in our Joburg garden wouldn’t necessarily survive the rigours of the Free State climate. The winter temperatures can drop to –9˚C, and everything dies back. This was another reason for choosing a more structural layout as you need to have something underneath to look at.’ With the onset of spring, though, the day lilies bounce back and the neutral landscape makes way for riotous pockets of colour. ‘We separated the existing rows of wild garlic and planted them into fields – it looks spectacular for many months of the year and complements the subtle blues of the agapanthus.’
Irises in hues of brown, white and mauve put on a spectacular spring show and, by summer, the 150 rose bushes that Clive planted come into their own. ‘The one species from our Joburg garden that proved an enormous success is the red hot poker,’ he adds. ‘We’ve also planted a 30m long hedged walk and created a shade garden and, thanks to the cattle manure and home-made compost, the soil is wonderfully healthy throughout. Clive’s next step is to plant more roses – he’s especially drawn to the old-fashioned cabbage and hybrid tea varieties in gentle shades of mauve and faded apricot.
He’s also looking to plant a grove of mountain trees, such as wild olive and Cussonia, and is experimenting with indigenous bulbs. ‘I’ve learned that with the simplest things you can transform your environment but you can’t force it, you have to work with nature. The most important lesson is to take a look at what’s there already. If a plant has survived benign neglect, it’s sure to thrive when you give it some attention.’
Over the past five years Clive has grown to appreciate the seasonal repetition – the process of preparing the soil, watching plants grow, and letting them flourish and fade. ‘This garden has both surprised and disappointed – plants that flower spectacularly one year can simply disappear the next – but it continues to give us enormous pleasure and, already, I see its character starting to emerge.’ clivevandenberg.com
This article was originally featured in the April 2013 issue of House and Leisure.