'It really used to be like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro,' says owner Smaragda Louw, hiking up the 80 steps from the gate to the front door of her home in the Johannesburg suburb of Westcliff. 'When we bought the property the front section was just soil, and every time it rained it would get washed down to street level and block the entrance. Our first summer here was quite a challenge!'
Smaragda turned to landscape designer De Wet Louw, who cleverly transformed the space using meandering stone pathways and gentle, informal terracing. 'We wanted a natural feel, and combined ground cover and grasses that would hold the soil,' De Wet explains. 'Wild olives, fever trees and tree ferns helped give a sense of height, underplanted with star jasmine and hydrangeas. The result is foresty and almost secretive, with the more formal fountains lending a strong visual focus to the entrance.'
Situated on the southern lee of the dramatically sloped site, the house separates the garden into two distinct halves. 'Both parts get a fair amount of shade,’ says Smaragda, 'and, to a large extent, that dictated which plants would survive here.' The highest part of the garden is substantially rock-covered – a place where aloes and snakes coexisted happily during the previous owner's tenure.
'Although this area was entirely without formal planning, I knew that aloes weren't part of the picture,' she says. Once these were removed, there was precious little else to look at, save for a series of existing trees and unkempt, blackjack-ridden bush. Smaragda and her gardener, Onias Ncube, spent the next four years preparing and planting the site. 'The basic layout was here, in that the steepest part of the back garden had been filled in with soil, enabling us to create a lawn,' she says. 'Many gardens in this area are mostly rock, so that was a plus. However, much like the front garden, when the rains came all the soil ended up in the pool, so planting soon became a priority.'
Armed with a natural optimism, Smaragda experimented with things she really loved and waited patiently for the outcome. 'We planted things that I hoped might work, such as the succulents on the rocky areas, and masses of lavender wherever we found space.' Jasmine was trained along the edges of the gazebo, arums soon multiplied, and sprawling tree ferns flourished around the pool, creating the impression of a sub-tropical spa. 'I just love green; it’s the colour of life and I’d be happy with an all-green garden. The splashes of colour work though, and I’m really not fussed about mixing things together.'
Style-wise, Smaragda describes this quirky commingling as 'organised chaos'. 'I thought roses and foxgloves would add a sort of cottagey charm,' she says. 'We had brought roses in pots from our previous home, and on a whim decided to plant them in an empty flower bed. In theory they don’t get enough hours of sunlight but they’re blooming beautifully.'
Apart from the buried mop, calculator and pool pump that were unearthed during the planting process, Smaragda also inherited a host of bunnies, left behind in cages by the previous owners. 'We dispatched these safely to a school, but had no idea what to do with the neglected ground left in their wake,' she says. Agapanthus proved to be the answer, and an established field of these provides an amethyst glow throughout summer.
As the garden comes into its own, what’s so meaningful for Smaragda is that everything here, save for the bigger trees, was planted from scratch. 'It took time and patience, but everything has ultimately found its place. We have wonderful birds including owls, plenty of bats and frogs. It's a sanctuary, a space to live-and-let-live, and it continues to give us great joy.'
This article was originally featured in the November 2013 issue of House and Leisure.