Garden, Gardens

Northern Oasis

Christoph Hoffmann

Not many people get to spend a lifetime in an idyllic mountain setting, let alone become the caretaker of a slice of the blossoming Magoebaskloof in Limpopo. Avocado farmer Jane Hillary, Cheerio Gardens’ custodian, is one of the fortunate few. ‘We grew up with nature,’ she says, looking out over Cheerio’s startling spring kaleidoscope. ‘My grandmother would pack us into her Land Rover and drive as far as Mozambique and Zimbabwe to look at plants. My grandfather was a great naturalist, too, but as a teenager you’re not as appreciative as you could be. It’s really only in the past 10 years that I’ve truly become interested in gardening. I suppose that’s the way life leads you.’

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Jane’s aunt, Sheila Thompson, was the renowned creator of Cheerio. ‘She inherited part of my grandfather’s farm, and began developing it after WWII.’ When she was posted to Langebaan as a member of Jan Smuts’ army, Sheila spent all her free time foraging for indigenous plants. ‘During her leave she’d head back to the family farm in Magoebaskloof and start planting. Cheerio really started out as an indigenous garden, but the moles and bushpigs put paid to many of those plants.’ As for the garden’s name, it’s an affectionate nod to an eccentric neighbour, Major Wolff, who would wave and say ‘Cheerio!’ each time Sheila walked past.

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Sheila had a great capacity for friendship, and Cheerio’s enormous Magnolia campbellii trees arose from her acquaintance with the curator of London’s Kew Gardens. ‘My aunt would exchange bulbs and seedlings and wrote numerous articles on plants,’ says Jane. ‘It’s well known that she befriended the physician to the Emperor of Japan, and the upshot was that he sent her azalea seeds and cherry pips – some of our old cherry trees grew from these Japanese seeds. The wonderful thing was that the acid soil was just perfect for these plants. As children growing up on Cheerio, we’d run wild – the soil is so rich and red that it stained our feet.’

Sheila grew everything organically, and Jane has kept to this ethos. ‘Of course she never stopped weeding,’ says Jane. ‘We still use our own compost and have never used fertilisers. Apart from the odd tree fern and parts of the indigenous forest, the garden is pretty much exotic. People say “go green, go indigenous”, but the reality is without these exotics we wouldn’t have any of this magnificent colour.’

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Jane’s neighbour, horticulturist Jack Holloway, concurs. ‘Most of us who garden on the mountain have reverted to the things that really work. Azaleas are one of those, as are the flowering trees like peaches, cherry and crab apples.’ While spring may be the most talked-about season, Jack finds the autumn even more beautiful. ‘I do find spring a little schizophrenic,’ he says, ‘when there’s no greenery but a mad abundance of colour. I’m happiest in autumn, when the Japanese maples are a blaze of deep orange.’

Today, Jane’s biggest tasks are the ongoing pruning of trees and shrubs, as well as re-planting as vegetation gradually dies out. ‘We’ve had great success with new combretums and Cape chestnuts which thrive here. It’s important to keep the spirit of the garden intact, while letting things evolve.’ Cheerio is still busiest during the Spring Festival, when visitors revel in the profusion of blooms. It’s also become a sought-after wedding venue, run by Jane’s daughter Sarah. ‘It’s wonderful to share the garden and to see it being appreciated,’ says Jane. ‘Sarah is actually the fifth generation to live on the mountain, and the fourth involved with Cheerio; my great-grandfather worked here with the woodcutters from Knysna. This area has that effect on people – you never want to leave.’ 

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For more information, visit cheeriogardens.co.za.

This article originally featured in the September 2014 issue of House and Leisure.