In a city sprouting hipster hotels like nouveau beards, those who book into the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel come for something different. They’re drawn, many from Europe in darkest winter, by the promise of sunbathing beside a pool while Lion’s Head basks overhead, birds flit among pink hibiscus flowers, and the fragrance of frangipani wafts across the lawn. There’s an air of comfortable tradition at the ‘Nellie’, which opened in 1899 and has hosted international heroes; indeed, from the moment you enter the driveway, lined with 90-year-old palm trees, you can’t help sighing with relief that some things never change.
British-born Paul Rice, the hotel’s head gardener for over 30 years, admits he’s led ‘a charmed working life’ gardening alongside six dedicated men including Taliep Davids, a Mount Nelson gardener for 28 years, and William Africa, 25 years. ‘Each man has his section of garden that is his pride and joy,’ explains Paul.
‘The gardeners are free to express themselves, and they have a lot to give.’
Briefed to keep the surrounds looking fresh and colourful all year round, the team painstakingly repairs lawns after events, replants pots and beds for different looks in winter and summer, and tends the spectacular herbaceous borders: here, roses, perennials and foliage are planted with dahlias, petunias, cosmos and other bright beauties – ‘everything that will flower for the end of the year, when the garden has to reach a crescendo,’ explains Paul.
The garden may be a settled, restful place buffered from the city, yet it’s tweaked and rethought regularly. Garden advisor Dr Shirley Sherwood, the renowned botanical art collector, pays annual visits, walking the gardens with Paul and discussing ideas and plans. For the third year, the garden has also provided an outdoor exhibition space for works by local sculptors in conjunction with Everard Read Cape Town.
The garden’s colour palette echoes the hotel’s famous pink, grey and white paintwork: white Icebergs grow beside pink Duet roses, while Senecio cineraria (‘dusty miller’), salvias and shastas provide a base of grey. Blues and dashes of red add ‘oomph’ to the tranquil pales, as seen in the ring of bright pink petunias surrounding the main terrace fountain.
Historic buildings have been incorporated over the years, with appropriate plantings following. When Faure Street, one of Cape Town’s first residential streets, was acquired, the road was turned into lawn and ‘yesterday, today and tomorrow’ bushes planted liberally outside the Victorian terrace houses. Helmsley Place has been classically landscaped with dietes, Syzygium paniculatum, topiary balls, and dipladenias and green foliage in pots on the terrace.
At the Garden Cottage Suites, a row of restored historic cottages, each scented garden is enclosed by a picket fence and clipped Syzygium ‘lollipop’ hedge. Here gardener Andrew Stevens plants painterly tableaus of pink dahlias and cosmos, yellow-centred cream zinnias, cleomes and salvias, with touches of red and orange. Reminiscent of farm labourers’ colourful gardens in dusty Cape villages, these are English-style rose gardens planted with perennials and filled in with annuals and seasonal colour. In private courtyards at the back troughs drip with red flowers and foliage and bougainvillea climbs the walls.
William Africa, a ‘dahlia man’, is responsible for the show-stopping border near the main swimming pool. His huge dahlias mingle with roses, pink and white petunias, Verbena bonariensis and light pink cannas. In William’s patch, as in the garden as a whole, runs something perennial. ‘It’s love,’ Paul says simply. ‘Tending this garden is a discipline and very strenuous but, if you love the work, it’s a joy.’ mountnelson.co.za
This article was originally published in HL May 2015