When British-based jewellery magnate Laurence Graff bought Delaire wine estate on Stellenbosch’s Helshoogte Pass in 2003, his intention was to transform it into a luxury hospitality, food, wine and art destination with the same sparkle as Graff Diamonds. He replaced the existing buildings with a curvaceous new restaurant and winery and brought gardening doyen Keith Kirsten on board to create an authentically Cape garden that would provide colour year round. As one of the world’s top 10 contemporary art collectors, Graff envisaged this garden as a large, living backdrop for his South African sculptures: today, over 30 works by Deborah Bell, 11 Dylan Lewis cheetahs, and pieces by Anton Smit and Lionel Smit are artfully placed around the grounds.
A sense of the indigenous was preferred, although Kirsten wasn’t limited to local species. ‘The architecture allowed us a more contemporary style in the garden,’ he explains. ‘There were no gabled buildings here, so we didn’t have to stick to hydrangeas, oak trees and iceberg roses, which fit so well with old Cape houses.’ After much debate, the 150 large bluegum trees at the estate’s entrance were removed in what turned out to be a three-month job, leaving a virtually blank canvas. With relish, Kirsten opted for the likes of Madiba hybrid king proteas, various strelitzias including the vibrant yellow Mandela’s Gold, and mature aloes and cycads. Designing and replanting the entire site was a two-year process and the estate officially opened in June 2009.
Four years later, ‘arriving at that front entrance puts a lilt in my step,’ grins Kirsten. Here Mediterranean plants happily mingle with indigenous species, producing a riot of colour and abundance. Honeysuckle and apricot-coloured Crépuscule roses climb the walls, overhung by cascades of red and orange bougainvillea; purple statice, which grows wild in Greece, is paired with pelargoniums; anchoring conifers interspersed with wild olives give the impression of an Italian hill-top copse.
‘The marriage of complementary, non-invasive Mediterranean species with fynbos and other indigenous plants gives a constant flow of colour throughout the year,’ Kirsten explains. The aloes bloom in July and the proteas begin flowering in winter; buddleias come into full flower in the peak of summer, as do the sky-blue salvias, which last until the winter. Between the eye-catching strelitzias, pincushions and Watsonias, the wild garlic and fragrant Hottentot’s kooigoed, a three-ton sandstone head by Anton Smit gazes across the valley.
Achieving this show-stopping effect wasn’t simple. Situated on a steep mountain pass, the entrance garden had to be terraced into an amphitheatre suitable for cascading plants by means of gabion walls – stone-filled cages stacked and wired together to form retaining walls. This, as Kirsten puts it, ‘was a mammoth task’. Indigenous Phyla nodiflora (Lippia) daisy lawn, which grows flat and therefore doesn’t require mowing, was planted in level areas. (Delaire Graff’s garden team may be 16 strong but lugging lawnmowers up the amphitheatre weekly would have been a logistical feat.)
Kirsten’s trademark exuberance was somewhat restrained by the owner, renowned for his sense of precision and attention to detail. Kirsten was pleased, in fact, when Graff told him the garden looked ‘too wild’: ‘This was just the feeling we wanted to achieve but Mr Graff preferred a more manicured, tidy look so we redid the restaurant entrance one weekend while he was here. We pulled up plants and replanted to get it just right, and it’s matured well.’ The entire estate, in fact, has been designed to blend into the landscape over time, from the copper on the restaurant roof, which will eventually turn green, to the ‘living walls’, their stone bricks already almost entirely covered by the bright green foliage of Virginia (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and tickey creepers (Ficus repens).
Beyond the sharp bend, the driveway is a colourful display, inhabited by a graceful figure by Anton Smit. Beds are punctuated with Strelitzia reginae and softened with a carpet of Carissa macrocapa (Natal Plum), Cape restios and Kirsten’s beloved confetti bush – ‘the most rewarding plant for Cape gardeners because it’s so versatile and tough, and it flowers most of the time’. Plants selected had to be able to survive the site’s often harsh conditions – wet, windy winter nights when the temperature drops to near zero and 38°C heat in summer. Along the driveway, hardy plants include Sheena’s mini gold hedge (Duranta), double diamond agapanthus, and dune crowberry (Rhus crenata), which thrives along the windswept South African coast.
Environmentally sensitive gardening is a theme throughout the estate. The vegetable garden to serve Delaire Graff’s two restaurants was planted according to the organic and biodynamic principles promoted by both Graff and chef Christiaan Campbell. A drip irrigation system was installed to prevent spray water loss in the Cape’s high winds, and the 350-plus indigenous species provide glorious variety to encourage biodiversity. Look closely and you may spot nests within the living walls, and sunbirds flitting over the fynbos: nature’s artworks.
This article was originally featured in the August 2013 issue of House and Leisure.