Text Gill Cullinan Garden editor René Slee Photographs Mark Williams Crossing the bridge over the stream that runs through Di and Gerhard van Niekerk’s Stellenbosch garden you enter a magical world. Here, outsized colocasia leaves flank the stream, huge ginger plants sway overhead, water irises arch over it and tree ferns stand guard. All around there is the song of thrushes and Cape robins, bulbuls and doves, as they flit through a forest of wild olives, white stinkwood, camphor and pepper trees. An informal stone path winds past azaleas and camellias, assegaaibos and hydrangeas. Pretty mauve and blue plectranthus and salvias grow on the banks of the stream and the air is fragrant with the delicate scent of ginger flowers. Further along the path you’ll cross a second bridge to reach a wooden deck built under an 80-year-old pepper tree, whose upper branches, in spring, are strung with a blue curtain of wisteria. It’s here that Di comes for her morning cup of coffee, for reflective moments or for a tranquil early supper. This sylvan setting teems with wildlife, from a pair of nesting owls and sunbirds to luminous green chameleons and even the occasional boomslang. The stream was the deciding factor in the purchase of the property nine years ago. ‘We instantly fell in love with the setting,’ says Di. ‘It was all about the garden and the stream. We both felt that with a stream like this, what more could we want?’ Diverted from the Eerste River, the stream originally powered the Old Mill in the centre of Stellenbosch. While the mill was demolished in the 1960s, the stream itself is a national monument. It runs all year but, luckily for the gardens along its banks, is blocked off ahead of any major winter storms. All the big trees existed, but there was little else. For the first time Di was faced with the prospect of creating a shady garden. Excited by the challenge, however, she set about planting clivias and viburnums, and various camellias that flower at different times of the year. Not wanting a formal landscaping plan but needing some assistance with the garden, she called in Els Greshoff for ideas and Mick Hannan, who helped with the implementation. ‘Els was a great help,’ says Di. ‘She and I spoke the same language. She took into consideration that I’m a keen birder and that I wanted plants that would encourage the birds. She planted the halleria, which attracts the sugarbirds, as well as a number of scented plants, like mint geranium and a wonderfully perfumed buddlia that sits just outside my study.’ Di comes from a gardening family. Her mother was constantly nursing cuttings and had a spectacular rose garden. And her greatgreat-grandfather spent six months in Europe in 1877, and came back, by ship, with a treasury of plants, including English roses and willow trees. ‘He was a great farmer,’ says Di, ‘and I still have a rose, called Beauty of Glazenwood, that came from his farm.’ Most of the plants have sentimental value, having been given to her by friends or family. There are plants from her Aunt Grace, another keen gardener, who sends plants from her George property; three of the stinkwoods were planted by one of her sons; and most of the plectranthus arrived as cuttings from a friend. Other plants have been given a second chance: two beautiful camellia bushes were rescued from the path of a bulldozer after Di spotted them on a building site while out walking. Gardener Crosby Ngele works with Di in the garden twice a week, taking cuttings, planting and maintaining the network of paths; there is always something that needs to be done. A shady garden does have its challenges: the wild gardenia and the pomegranate aren’t doing well, as they can’t cope with the lack of sunlight. There are some sunny sections, though, including a space where an enormous rubber tree was uprooted in favour of roses and fruit trees – a flowering peach from the family farm, a wild pear, a flowering cherry, a granadilla vine that climbs up through the trees, a lime and an avocado that drips fruit. But it’s the stream that calls to Di through the day; the bedroom overlooks it, so she wakes to it in the morning and goes to bed at night to a chorus of frogs and the soft sounds of the water. ‘I can’t tell you how wonderful it is,’ she says. Els Greshoff, 082-676-0610; Mick Hannan, Hortulana, 083-261-9403
Making a Shady Garden
- Get to know what shade-loving plants are available.
- You don’t need fancy plants; even the simplest ones can produce a good show.
- Clivias are always beautiful. The challenge is to keep the lily borers at bay.
- Cut back when plants have finished flowering or are obscuring another plant.
- Sometimes you have to be destructive to be constructive,so don’t be scared to cut back. Open up the foliage to show off the trunks of the trees.
- It’s tempting to fill up a new garden, but leave space for things to expand.
- Take cuttings all the time.
- Give it a little help – Di used a lot of Bounce Back to get this garden established.
This article was published in the August 2010 issue of House and Leisure.