Garden refuge

Twenty-five years ago, when newly married Kim van Niekerk moved with her husband, Ian, to the Van Niekerk farm in Bedford, Eastern Cape, she joined a family that had lived in the area since the 1700s. Ian’s childhood home was originally the coach house on the Kimberley-to-Grahamstown ox-wagon route: the spot where weary travellers would stable their horses, replenish their supplies and overnight in the tavern before continuing their journey. Ian’s mother, Ola, had established a garden around her homestead, but the garden around Kim and Ian’s pretty Victorian-style house, built in 1904, was bleak. Faced with the challenge – ‘I’d never touched a plant,’ says Kim – she had to learn quickly. ‘When the Irish, English and Scottish immigrants came here 200 years ago they brought seeds with them from the UK, and there’s been an enthusiastic gardening community in Bedford and beyond ever since.’ As Kim discovered, this community generously shares its gardening knowledge, ideas and, importantly, plants. She embraced the locals’  philosophy, and has developed an English-farmhouse garden bursting with traditional and unusual plants grown from cuttings or seed. Kim started by pulling out old pomegranate hedges and apple trees – something that, with hindsight, she wouldn’t do now. She’s since replaced them and added windbreaks, ultimately planting more than 100 trees, even beyond the garden boundaries. ‘There was lots of trial and error,’ she says, ‘and a friend of mine once said that my garden tended to go for a walk in a wheelbarrow as I tried things in different places.’ She believes in the edible-garden concept, extensively interplanting with herbs and vegetables, and using ecofriendly fertilisers or home-made compost. Ola’s and Kim’s gardens are unfenced and form one large, lush garden separated by a subtle boundary – an old water furrow. ‘We’re responsible for our own gardens, but we plant very similarly,’ says Kim. ‘In some areas I’ve done slightly more formal planting, such as in my kitchen garden. I learnt everything from Ola and now she says that she learns from me.’ Because of the tough winters, Ola and Kim focus on colour for spring in the foliage skeleton, most of which is self-sown. The garden is known for its aquilegias, but is also filled with larkspur and old roses, cleome and Inca lilies, elderberries, scabiosa and lots of herbs. Many old-fashioned plants do very well here, such as forget-me-nots, several varieties of acanthus spinosus and cardoon, vitex trees and poppies. Seven varieties of fig trees, all more than 60 years old, still bear delicious fruit, and cuttings from old apple trees quickly take root. What sets this garden apart from its English counterpart is that the fence is there to keep out kudu in search of roses. ‘During the drought I’ve had to go out there with my baking tray and wooden spoon to shoo away the buck,’ says Kim. ‘What’s more, they have poison in their saliva, so I have to cut back the bushes they’ve eaten.’ The climate in Bedford is similar to that in Johannesburg: winters are accompanied by heavy frosts and summers are warm, but Kim faces a number of challenges peculiar to the area. ‘The neighbouring farm is called Brakfontein, which gives you a clue as to the quality of our water,’ says Kim. The brackish water doesn’t suit hybrid roses and tends to deprive plants of iron, muting their colour to a bronze pink, but she counters this by diligently feeding the soil. ‘I have a lovely depth of soil,’ she says, ‘but I have to work on it all the time. Mulching, good compost and overplanting make a big difference, and I flood the garden once a week when I have access to pumped water.’ ‘The garden is a refuge,’ says Kim. ‘At the moment we’re in the middle of a terrible drought and the rest of the farm is a dust bowl, so we need the garden for relief. We really enjoy the foliage contrasts, the wildlife and the birds, but what I love most about it is the propagating, as well as the surprises thrown up each spring. It provides food for our souls.’ She deliberately uses non-hybrids so that she can collect seed, and she allows cut seed heads to fall in the garden. ‘Non-hybrids aren’t always easy to find, but if you ask around you’ll be surprised by what’s out there. I feel that this garden shows how we have come full circle, as people now appreciate the gardens and plants that their grandparents might have grown.’ Kim's Tips on Propagating:

  • Take cuttings on a waxing, not a waning moon. In autumn do the hard wood and in spring the green wood.
  • Take from a stem with flowers.
  • Stand the cuttings in water overnight. Use willow-bark water or, if unavailable, add Disprin to the water. Then push them into a porous mixture with no nutrition (you want to force the roots to look for it).
  • Put them in the shade of a tree; you don’t need a greenhouse. You can use a plastic bottle as cover for the delicate plants.
  • The most common mistake is to plant seeds too deep and to overwater. Cover them with a blanket of dried horse manure (rubbed until fine) or peat.
  • Don’t plant in the heat of the day; plant in the evenings.
  • If you are reluctant to take cuttings or grow seeds yourself, buy seedlings from a nursery.
This article was originally featured in the February 2010 issue of House and Leisure.