Elgin Forest

Text Gill Cullinan Production René Slee Photographs David Ross You would be hard-pressed to believe that Fresh Woods, Peter and Barbara Knox-Shaw’s exquisite Elgin garden, was once a pine plantation on a windswept hill. The wind can still be fierce, but after decades of enthusiastic gardening and hard work, the bleak forest has been transformed into a magical garden that delights its owners and those who visit during Elgin Open Gardens each November. Peter’s family moved to Elgin, about an hour’s drive from Cape Town, in 1950 when his father retired, and his parents began establishing a garden. Peter’s father planted a formal garden with a symmetrical (and alphabetical!) bed of Hybrid Tea roses, but his mother was more inclined to let nature dictate the form, and things gradually took on a more romantic character. Peter, aged six, was given a part of the garden, which he planted with indigenous bulbs. Years later, on returning to South Africa from the UK, Peter and Barbara gardened alongside his mother, planting a number of indigenous trees. Later they switched their focus to an international garden specialising in roses. One of the site’s main challenges is the lack of light. The back of the house is the only area that gets direct sun, and this is where they have planted drought-resistant plants (such as Puya castellanosii, Scilla natalensis, Kniphofia bruceae and echiums) that thrive in the heat. In the front, old wild roses climb above head height. Here you’ll also find treasures such as an Eastern rose that opens pale and burns a deep crimson. The whole garden resonates with birdsong. ‘There are 140 types of birds here,’ says Peter. Thrushes hop over the lawns and robins, sunbirds, white-eyes and sparrows flit between the trees and bushes. ‘Whenever our birding friends walk into the garden all sorts of birds show themselves,’ says Peter. ‘We have black sunbirds, a barn owl, a very rare warbler, and a pair of olive woodpeckers breeding here for the second year in a row.’ Grysbok, duiker and steenbok also frequent Fresh Woods. ‘They leap over the fence and shelter here,’ says Peter. ‘We love seeing them even though they eat the lettuces in the vegetable garden.’ When you enter the newer forested section, the air is scented with pine needles and pittosporum, and small branches crack underfoot. Plants grow from moss-covered tree stumps and tiny cyclamens cover the forest floor. ‘The idea is to get things to look as natural as possible,’ says Barbara, ‘but it requires a lot of intervention. We want the plants to express themselves but we want the association to be in harmony.’ You can feel Barbara and Peter’s excitement as they inspect each plant, whether it’s the dogwood about to burst into flower, a night-scented impatiens, the handkerchief tree or wild primulas from China. Barbara points out a rhododendron that has seeded itself into the bark of a fallen log. ‘In China these are called Cuckoo plants. I thought it was because they are parasitic, but it’s actually because the blossoms are as clear and beautiful as the first call of the cuckoo,’ she says. Barbara and Peter both have their favourite plants so there are lively discussions about planting, but it’s a team effort. The third team member is John Baatjies, who has tended the garden for the past 25 years. John is an expert at annuals and light management while Barbara enjoys propagating seedlings and is ‘extremely talented at raising difficult things,’ says Peter. ‘In a garden this size we have to grow everything from seed,’ says Barbara, ‘and we wouldn’t do it any other way.’ Barbara is also involved in arranging a number of plant events, and she and Peter have been opening their garden to the public since 1991. Elgin’s Open Garden initiative is one that creates a buzz in the valley each year (see box below). Preparation never stops; the winter months are spent opening paths and thinning the forest to let in more light. ‘The open season is important to us,’ says Barbara. ‘If we didn’t open the garden we wouldn’t have something to work towards and we’d never get the garden looking right.’ For Barbara and Peter every minute they spend in their garden is a chance to catch a plant at its most beautiful moment. ‘Walking around and seeing something you’ve raised from seed coming out for the first time is very exciting,’ says Peter.

Go See: 

This year, Elgin Open Gardens will take place over two weekends - 3 and 4 November, and 10 and 11 November 2012 - and will include 25 open gardens in the Elgin, Vyeboom and Bot River districts. Other events include art and sculpture exhibitions, wine tasting and a farmers’ market. Keurbos Nursery, 021-848-9146; Barbara Knox-Shaw, 021-844-0154 or 078-021-2101. This article was originally featured in the November 2009 issue of House and Leisure.