In the 32 years Marguerite Steyn and her husband Lourens have been living in Wellington in the Western Cape, they’ve always opted for a low-maintenance, structured town garden – but Marguerite secretly wished for a sweeping green wonderland overlooking a stretch of water. ‘Our daughter was getting married and we couldn’t seem to find the right venue,’ she says. ‘Then Klein Optenhorst came on the market and my ears pricked up. Imagine a wedding under the big oak.’
It was the cool canopy of venerable trees that attracted Marguerite: a yellowwood, a southern magnolia, wild olives including one gnarled specimen roughly 400 years old, oaks and plane trees with weaver bird nests overhanging the dam. Spellbound, the couple bought the property in April 2016.
Situated on the outskirts of the historical Wamakersvallei in the Cape Winelands on dusty Bovlei Valley Road, Klein Optenhorst features an 1820s farmhouse surrounded by farms and mountains. Here, previous owners Jenny and Naas Ferreira cultivated a terraced garden which Jenny, a salvia expert, opened to the public biannually.
‘Jenny has a passion for plants and gave her life to this garden in the 29 years she had it,’ says Marguerite, who’s committed to learning more about plants and is continuing to take cuttings and grow saplings in the on-site nursery with the aim of replenishing the garden. Fortunately, the Ferreiras’ long-standing gardener Solomon ‘Solly’ Franke has stayed on to assist.
From a simple garden consisting of a lawn around the back stoep with a slope down to the neighbouring farm, the Ferreiras excavated, creating three main terraces: lawns at the top and bottom, a gravel garden in the middle, and other intervening areas, including borders of flowering shrubs. A walkway running the length of the slope became the central axis, with cypress trees on each side and a side gravel path to allow wheelbarrow and lawnmower access to each level.
Repetition and mirror-planting provide the structure for a relaxed, romantic look accented with shaded seats, water features and statuary peeking through the foliage. Sections down the side of the house are planted with ferns, camellias, port wine magnolia and several variegated plants. The botanical stars of this garden are salvias and abutilons, which thrive here in a rainbow of colours: from afar, the bell-shaped flowers of the latter give the impression of roses, but have a softer look and are much easier to maintain.
In the gravel garden, plants suited to Wellington’s hot, dry summers include pride of Madeiras, Phlomis italica, cistus and some of the 90 different salvias that Jenny grew. She found Salvia leucantha ‘White Mischief’ and ‘Danielle’s Dream’ growing on a smallholding in the former Western Transvaal and, with the owner’s permission, introduced these unusual white- and pink-flowered varieties to the gardening world; they are especially popular in the United States and Australia.
Salvias offer great variety in size, shape, structure and flower colour, and their abundant pollen and nectar lure bees, butterflies and flocks of sunbirds. They are generally unflinching in heat, particularly S. canariensis, clevelandii, somaliensis and desoleana, as well as most of our indigenous salvias, such as S. lanceolata, africana-lutea and disermas. As Jenny advises, a good soak every seven to 10 days and a generous mulch help in dry weather.
From the fountain at the top of the driveway to the pond with its water spouts and Chinese proverb and the dam, water features bring sound, light, movement and relief from the heat. Klein Optenhorst’s water allocation from the Kromme River fills the small dam built by the Ferreiras in the clay area at the bottom of the garden. Inspired, their farmer neighbour laterbuilt a larger dam on the other side, and the Steyns now benefit from its overflow.
Their daughter’s wedding reception was held under the sprawling oak full of fairy lights a week before Marguerite and Lourens moved in. ‘It feels as if we’ve always lived here,’ says Marguerite, who explores the garden’s secret places with her two young grandsons.
Among her delights are the birds on the dam and the sounds of farm life, of tractors and farm labourers chatting while pruning vines. ‘Looking out over a dam to Groenberg mountain has always been my dream,’ she says. ‘I almost pinch myself every morning.’