Text Laurian Brown Garden editor René Slee Photographs Athol Moult Bedford in the Eastern Cape is a major gardening hot spot. From the outset, English settlers of the 19th century sought to create a patch of home in the hostile frontier land in which they found themselves. It took blood, sweat and time, but they succeeded. Around a scattering of farmsteads, oak avenues, rolling green lawns, billowing roses and pastel borders replaced the hot, dry veld in gardens that today reflect generations of labour and love. Not so at Baviaanskrans. Although this merino farm has been in the same family for 150 years, Nellie van Aardt is the first person to garden here. A sunbaked western slope, shallow soil and brackish water had deterred her predecessors; all she found were some good retaining walls and steps, and a few stunted pepper trees. But Nellie comes from a family of gardeners and was undaunted. She and husband Carlie began by carting in tons of ant heaps from the veld to build up the soil. They planted trees – mopheads for height, American ash for shade – ‘all around the edge of the garden, so the shade often didn’t fall where I needed it most; I made lots of mistakes!’ she confesses. She realised that she’d have to be careful with her choice of plants. She chose some winners, but also followed prevailing fashion – visions that in the searing heat would often prove all too fragile or thirsty. But over the years, under Nellie’s diligent care, the garden grew and with it, her flair and individuality. ‘I don’t follow standard gardening rules,’ she says. ‘I make my own.’ She developed a distinctive style, with massed planting and low hedging for which she did – and still does – all her own propagation. ‘Propagating my own plants is something I enjoy,’ she says. ‘There would be no pleasure for me in going to a nursery and buying 40 of this or that.’ Some plants flourished – among them giant statice, Pride of Madeira, white valerian and lime-green Euphorbia polychroma – all of which are able to cope with brackish water. They’ve become key plants in the garden, spreading a striking tapestry of lime, white and purple in the shade. Other plants struggled, but Nellie kept on trying to grow them. ‘I fought nature for 30 years. Every time my brother – another keen gardener – came to visit, he kept on at me: “Why fight?” he’d say. “Rather go with what grows.” And finally I decided to join forces with nature, but it took a while.’ The erection of a new fence around the homestead gave her an extra nine metres in which to garden and the impetus she needed. ‘It’s a huge change of mindset to go water-wise and indigenous, but I decided to go for it. I wanted to break away from the classic Bedford garden – large trees, lawns and white roses. But I didn’t take out anything exotic that was doing well.’ She planted indigenous trees, stinkwoods, wild olives and acacias. ‘I gave them lots of deep water by leaving the hose on all night, but just dripping, and they’ve grown really well.’ She also introduced a few key indigenous plants in both new and established plantings, which pull the garden together very effectively. They include the wild iris, thatching reed and the num-num with its glossy leaves and fragrant flowers. ‘It will survive anything. It’s also easy to propagate and makes a beautiful hedge.’ The old retaining walls and steps, and the gnarled pepper trees, are all now part of a garden of different rooms that is a delight to explore. The many visitors that the Bedford Garden Festival brings leave inspired by the sculptural beauty of the new succulent garden with its aloes, crassulas and kalanchoes, by the elegance of the little formal garden with its rosemary hedges and carpets of echeveria, and by the shimmer of the soft indigenous plantings beneath the thorn trees. But the real eye-openers are the sense of absolute rightness when a garden is in harmony with its setting – and the liberation that gardening with nature brings.
Soft Plants For Hard Places
For gardeners dreaming of roses and hydrangeas, terms such as ‘indigenous’ and ‘water-wise’ conjure up visions of spiky horror, but tough plants don’t have to be thorny or tough-looking. You also don’t have to be a purist: plants that enjoy similar growing conditions usually combine well, whether they are exotic or indigenous. The more you study these plants in well-planted gardens like Baviaanskrans, the more your eye will tune in to their beauty and harmony. Here are some ‘pretty tough’ plants from Baviaanskrans:
- Giant statice – Limonium perezii
- Wild iris – Dietes grandiflora
- Wild garlic – Tulbaghia violaceae
- Pride of Madeira – Echium fastuosum
- Fairy crassula – Crassula multicava
- Rosemary – Rosmarinus officinalis
- Ribbon bush – Hypoestes aristata
- Lobster flower – Plectranthus neochilus
- Num-num – Carissa macrocarpa
- Valerian – Centranthus rubra
- Spekboom – Portulacaria afra
- Most varieties of agapanthus
This article was originally featured in the July 2010 issue of House and Leisure.