Oppenheimer Garden

Text Graham Wood Photographs Connall Oosterbroek Blue Skies is a private part of Brenthurst Estate in Houghton, home to one of Johannesburg’s most famous and spectacular gardens, the Brenthurst Gardens. Bridget Oppenheimer, wife of the late mining magnate Harry Oppenheimer, moved to Blue Skies from the main house at Brenthurst in 2001, immediately raising the profile of the surrounding garden. For many years Blue Skies had been used only occasionally to accommodate spill-over guests from Brenthurst. For this reason, no significant work had been done on its gardens since the 1980s, when Dick Scott, estate manager at Brenthurst from 1974 to 1998, overhauled it in close collaboration with landscaper Beth Still. Mrs O called on horticulturalist Arthur Mennigke, who still maintains the garden at Blue Skies, to revamp it before she moved in. The site is steep and difficult to negotiate. ‘Beth Still put in stone terraces, which we kept,’ says Arthur. ‘They still give the garden its character.’ Mrs O wanted Arthur to simplify and modernise the planting, and to introduce colour. A new section, Gordon Hill, had to be included, too, effectively doubling the size of the garden. It had been part of Villa Arcadia, the Herbert Baker house next door that once belonged to randlord Lionel Phillips. Arthur chose to make the most of the views up and down the terraces rather than treat them as walking areas. He accentuated their formality by introducing golden Duranta hedging. ‘We picked up on the lines of the terraces and extended them where necessary,’ he says. Each level of the terrace is dominated by one type of plant material. On one level there is Nandina domestica ‘Pygmaea’. ‘It turns a nice red in autumn, and is yellow and green in summer,’ says Arthur. On another terrace there is a koi pond, and a herb and veggie garden on yet another. The house opens onto one of the top terraces, which – because Mrs O goes into the garden every day – Arthur treated as what he terms ‘a high-profile area’. ‘This section of the garden has a very English country garden feel,’ he says. In spring, flowers from this section of the garden are picked for the house. Arthur has filled it with lots of annual colour: roses, daffodils, larkspurs and poppies. Mrs O loves scented plants so Arthur included the likes of azalea mollis, stocks and freesias, too. A number of large trees were preserved, including an impressive Dais cotinifolia (pompom tree), which flowers in the spring. ‘It’s special because of its size,’ says Arthur. There is also a Quercus suber (cork oak) that remains one of the biggest trees on the property, a number of jacarandas, and gum trees that hark back to the very origins of Johannesburg. (They were planted by one of Brenthurst’s first owners, Edouard Lippert, who planted forests in the late 1800s to supply the mining industry with wood.) They remain because of their heritage status. ‘They are, however, difficult to garden under,’ says Arthur. Most of the planting under them is indigenous – strelitzia, Tecoma, Orthosiphon labiatus, which blooms in spring and autumn. ‘Its pink flowers pick up on the Dais cotinifolia,’ he adds. Mrs O wanted the new Gordon Hill section to be indigenous. ‘With colour!’ adds Arthur. The land here is very steep, so he planted lots of plumbago and Cape Royal grass, which helps to stabilise the steep banks. ‘The blue plumbago picks up on the name Blue Skies,’ he says. ‘It is dense and thick so it creates a nesting zone for birds.’ He planted indigenous trees, too: Bauhinia, Acacia sieberiana and Acacia caffra, olives and Diospyros lycioides. Arthur uses only organic fertilisers at Blue Skies, and avoids pesticides. ‘It’s important for people to see that you can have an exotic garden and an English country garden using organic principles and products,’ he says. Arthur Mennigke, also known as The Naked Gardener, can be contacted on 083-308-2504. This article was originally featured in the August 2012 issue of House and Leisure.