Garden, Gardens

Small Miracle

Text Graham Wood Production Mariette Theron Photographs David Ross Architectural designer and art collector Ruth Lipschitz might describe the site of her Forest Town, Johannesburg pad and garden as ‘a postage stamp’, but it’s actually an old tennis court. Behind the split-pole fence you can still see the old metal rail that once marked the court’s boundary. It seems that the space has found a second life in the architecture and design of this small, neat garden. The Palladian structure of the house allows for high double doors that open onto a series of diminutive ‘exterior rooms’, which blend seamlessly with the established treed surroundings as though they have been there forever. Ruth’s idea was to be unobtrusive. ‘I didn’t want to impose anything on the landscape,’ she explains. ‘It was about being part of it.’ The age of the area and its sense of place appealed to her. ‘At the same time, this isn’t a manor house,’ she says, so it called for very specific treatment. ‘It’s too small to make it something it could never be.’ ‘The garden,’ explains Ruth, ‘is disciplined, detailed and measured. It’s structured and geometric – and very carefully organised.’ It’s also versatile, functioning as an entertainment area, providing a place for grandchildren to play and private areas in which to relax and sunbathe. In addition there’s an abundant herb and vegetable garden on what was once a municipal alleyway. Ruth didn’t have a preconceived idea about the design, but took her cue from the stand itself, designing the house and garden together. She had already drawn up the plans, laid the sandstone paving and planted a number of trees when she called on the services of landscaper Leonard Rubin. While he laid each of the concrete flagstones exactly to her specifications, he made a few tweaks of his own: moved a tree, extended the pond and brought in drifts of grass-like plants. ‘Gardens change over time, not just with the seasons,’ says Leonard. ‘Trees grow and become more shady, and the plants that are suitable for the area change.’ ‘The garden is like a secret behind the gatehouses of this suburb,’ says Ruth. As you climb a flight of stone stairs from the driveway, you catch glimpses of focal points such as water features and sculptures, while doorways and passages seem to create a promise of what’s to come. As Ruth walks through the intricate space, her commentary shifts between an architectural designer’s detached analysis and an owner’s spontaneous enthusiasm and affection for her garden and plants. ‘The natural choice would have been to put a path straight from the stairs to the front door, but I blocked that with a water feature and built diversions and deviating paths,’ she says matter-of-factly. Then she points out that she loves the ‘light, shade and drama of the cool evenings’ and the constantly changing patterns of the foliage. She calls attention to the ‘patches of sun and privacy’, the way the dappled effect from the leaves contrasts with the regular, striped patterns cast by the fence, and the sense that the plants and stones seem to soak up the ‘earth tones at sunset’. The maples, stinkwood and silver birches create a foresty feel. The birches can be messy, Ruth says, but make up for it at night when they are spotlit to appear dramatically sculptural. Water lilies, weeping anthericum, mondo grasses and wild ginger soften the middle ground. The structure might be spatially rigid, but it’s really a frame for a constantly changing show. From the burst of colour from the bougainvillea to the ‘beautiful white wave’ of the agapanthus in bloom, and the forgotten yellow bulbs that spring up each year, there is always a surprise here. And there are always a few tennis balls lying around, knocked over the wall by the kids next door – an apt reminder of where it all began. Leonard Rubin Exterior Design, 082-704-0686,


  • Stick to a simple plan. Design only a few areas and contrast geometric paving, decks or pathways with mass bedding, planting in drifts. Simplicity is the key to the successful design of small spaces. ‘If you introduce too many elements,’ says Ruth, ‘you risk losing the original idea.’
  • Use a limited palette. Don’t plant too many different varieties. ‘Limit yourself to 10 plant types,’ says Ruth. • Create the illusion of space. Put in plants with fine foliage near borders, or soften walls and fences with ivy to blur the boundaries. Ruth has extended the visual borders of her garden by pulling in the surrounding forested landscape so that it appears to be a seamless extension of the area.
  • Up the volume. The ‘exterior rooms’, while small, have a high canopy, making them seem much larger than they are.
  • Find focal points. Ruth, an avid collector, used ceramic pots, sculptures, potted plants and even a dugout canoe to make visually arresting features (that are low on upkeep), and to accent the garden at key points.
  • Be water-wise. Put water features where they’ll catch sunlight and leaf litter won’t fall in. A pond in a dark corner can be dank and unappealing. Avoid spots where tree roots might cause damage.
  • Plant for the future. Trees age beautifully, as their bark and branches grow and change in texture. Ruth made a canvas for a patina of moss and lichen to grow on and evolve, and used cementitious paint to encourage signs of ageing.
This article was originally featured in the March 2010 issue of House and Leisure.