Gardeners’ Circle 22 October 2018

The fourth gathering of the Gardeners’ Circle* took place in Rooi Els on the wind-free, sunnily warm morning of Monday 22 October.

Numbers attending the Gardeners’ Circle have grown on each successive occasion, and this time totalled 49 people, who strolled happily from venue to venue under the direction of Dave de Klerk who had organised the proceedings. The aim once again was to visit three local gardens – each with its own specific climate and soil conditions, and to explore the effect these have on the plants one can hope to grow successfully.

No amount of theoretical knowledge about the effect of the prevailing soil types   –  Overberg Dune Strandveld, and Hangklip Sandstone in this instance at Rooi Els  –  can equal the value of seeing the evidence and hearing from the gardeners themselves about their struggles.  Most gardeners have been floored by the disappointing and erratic results one can have with gardening with fynbos, and are forever looking for answers and helpful tips.

The owners of our first gardening port of call, Graham and Dine, had battled to drain water off their wet, sloping erf.  When they first arrived, heavy downpours in winter frequently threatened to wash the garden away entirely. The solution was for Graham to engineer a system of open channels and pipes to drain the property.  Turning necessity into invention, they took things a step further by sinking a well-point at the bottom of the garden and circulating the water into an attractive permanent water feature and rock pool. They also imported a load of good topsoil into the garden with which they created raised flower beds, protecting the soil with a mulch of pine bark. This mulch would have acidified the naturally alkaline dune Strandveld soil and has most likely contributed greatly to their success with leucospermums, ericas and other flowering plants. Dine claims she just loves flowers; buys what takes her fancy; and plants them without much in the way of forethought; and this approach certainly is working wonderfully for her.

Dave then led the group down the street to his garden, which is in a part of Rooi Els that is nearer the ocean and where the soil is also dune Strandveld.  By way of introduction to his garden, Dave passed around photographs that showed the bare and sandy wasteland that his erf was to begin with. The soil is basically white sand, alkaline, and does not hold moisture.  As a weekender, he would have had to leave his plants untended in these conditions for long periods of time, exposed to the ravages of fierce wind in summer and winter.

Dave’s initial plot in 2011


Dave’s initial plot in 2017


Dave’s second plot in 2014


Dave’s second plot in 2018


Coping with the wind was a priority, and Dave set about creating windbreaks and protection by means of clever planting of a range of quick- growing indigenous trees and shrubs. Once these were sufficiently established, he planted seedlings in their shelter. He brought in Kirstenbosch ‘’protea mix’’ and loads of organic compost for mulching, and acquired a testing kit so that he could regularly test the ph of the soil. The winds were too strong, however;  the compost and mulch soon blew away, and after a time even the imported soil tested alkaline! His solution was to bring river stones into his garden with which to surround and protect the seedlings. The stones keep the mulch in place, keep the soil cool, and even help collect moisture round the plants. Dave’s persistence in the face of all these challenges and setbacks has ultimately paid off, as can be seen from the large variety of beautiful flowering shrubs and plants gracing his garden (many of which appear in his book, Gardening In Rooi Els) as well as from his magnificent collection of aloes and other succulents.

The last garden of the morning was a stunning contrast in every way to the previous two. Leaving the more urban setting, the group moved towards the slopes of Klein Hangklippie – away from the soft loose sand onto rocky mountain soil. Jill went ahead on a path that plunged into a dense, head- high forest of proteaceae of various kinds, and wound its way through lush foliage towards the house. Hers is a large property, situated on the side of the mountain, and it has been allowed to flourish with a minimum of cultivation or artifice. No need to import compost or acidic soil into this terrain, where proteas occur naturally and gardening is more a case of veld management and letting the plants ‘’do their thing’’. Nature is more cooperative with the gardener in this environment,  but it does not mean that this kind of gardening is not demanding, especially on such a scale. Plants constantly need to be cut back; senescent plants must be removed and replaced, paths have to be cleared and maintained. Moreover, the mountain terrain presents its own hazards. Jill pointed out how fortunate she was to escape relatively unscathed during the recent fires that ravaged the area.  A wild, romantic garden of this kind benefits from small pockets of cultivation and lawn as a contrast, and Jill has worked several of these attractively into spaces in the vicinity of the house.

After the walkabout the group gathered for refreshments at the village local, the Drummond Arms, where coffee and tea were efficiently served, kindly provided by our organiser for the morning, Dave. Once again, the morning had proved to be a highly enjoyable and very instructive experience, to gauge from the appreciative comments of many members of the group. Each place we had visited had been an object lesson in ingenuity, endeavour, and the determination to succeed. Yes, there are useful principles that do apply when gardening with fynbos, but as we had seen, sometimes rules have to be broken!

To facilitate group communication for future events, various social media platforms are being employed – namely a Whatsapp chat for emergency messages only (Galia); and a Facebook group (Fynbos Gardeners’ Circle), where comments, suggestions, questions and photographs can be posted (Cornelia). Any contributions will be welcome, and the organisers are looking forward to receiving them!

– Rea Borcherds 

* We have finally agreed on the title for this group of enthusiastic gardeners: The Gardeners Circle.  This means that the same title for the group will be used on both the Facebook page and in the Newsletter. Thank you to Rea and Cornelia for clearing that up!