food, houses, Recipes, Uncategorized

Free State Garden

Text Graham Wood Photographs David Ross One Father’s Day a few years ago, Mariette and Peter Theron were standing on the site of their future weekend getaway on a Free State farm. Although they saw potential, there was plenty of work to be done. Just then, an old, unsigned card blew across the lawn and they picked it up. ‘Because it’s meant for you…,’ read the text. They decided to take it as an omen. Although the house was established and had beautiful sandstone walls, it had been built with an aesthetic and a philosophy that were at odds with the Therons’ vision. ‘It was like a suburban residence in the middle of the veld,’ says Peter. The house looked hunched and defensive, turning its back on the surrounding landscape. A small fence demarcated the plot, and a stark row of cypresses and a half-hearted attempt at a rockery boxed in a view that would otherwise stretch towards misty groves of trees, a dam and farmlands beyond. Over the following months the Therons added a wide patio and turned the tiny windows into large double doors, changing the orientation of the house so that everything flowed outwards. After their first night there the family woke up to the sound of a bush-clearing team cutting vegetation away from power lines. Peter convinced them to help, as he puts it, ‘to decapitate’ the offending cypresses and clear the shrubs, carefully preserving the older trees (especially those that looked sturdy enough to support a hammock), including the scented and bird-filled eucalyptus and magnificent pin oaks. The level of the lawn was too high to accommodate the new stoep, but, says Peter, that’s where it was useful to have farm equipment and a friendly farmer nearby. They simply ‘dropped the lawn by about half a metre’ and replanted it. Suddenly they had uninterrupted views and firewood. The garden developed through a series of experiments. ‘It’s more a conglomeration than a structured garden,’ says Mariette. The Therons were uninhibited about where and what they planted, so it became a reflection of the individual passions of family members rather than the product of a single guiding hand. Peter cultivates saplings from seed: ‘Acer, oak, chestnut, pecan, walnut … whatever I can get my hands on,’ he says. Their eldest daughter, Pascale, has begun a succulent garden that is spiralling into a labyrinth. Separately maintained, discreetly fenced garden zones were created out of necessity – the sheep, cattle, horses and zebra from the farm wander freely and keep the lawns cropped, but don’t respect the efforts of gardeners. The vegetable garden has grown into a triumph. When heading here for the weekend, the Therons bring as little in the way of provisions as they can, relying on its seasonal offerings instead. Tomatoes, herbs of every kind – ‘I got sage to grow here, which I have never managed to grow anywhere else,’ says Mariette – pumpkins, root vegetables, peas, aubergines, artichokes... the list goes on. ‘We’ve never had a crop of courgettes, though,’ says Mariette, ‘because the kids discovered a recipe for fried courgette flowers.’ The vegetables are liberally mixed with drifts of zinnias, carnations and sweet peas. ‘The zinnias are simple and hardy, but bring amazing bursts of Frida Kahlo colour,’ she says. ‘Carnations aren’t the prettiest flowers, in my view, but they smell divine and remind me of Jean de Florette.’ Among the copses exists a secret garden, less a floral construct than a constantly evolving piece of land art. The Therons started it by decorating the trees with found objects. Soon they were bringing bits and pieces collected on their travels, and now a tradition has arisen in which guests to the farmhouse bring gifts, leaving offerings from all around the world. ‘The farm seems to exist on a different timescale,’ says Mariette. It encourages a gentler kind of life, involving simple activities that take longer than would be tolerable in an ordinary urban day, especially the constant gardening. But, while the garden does absorb hours of work, it has its own mysterious way of giving the time back. This article was originally featured in the July 2009 issue of House And Leisure