This Karoo garden perfectly melds with its surroundings

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On the side of the house near the front door, a fever tree (Vachellia xanthophloea) is the main feature of the landscape, with leopard trees (Caesalpinia ferrea) in the background. Fountain grass creates movement with its feathery plumes swaying in the breeze.
On the side of the house near the front door, a fever tree (Vachellia xanthophloea) is the main feature of the landscape, with leopard trees (Caesalpinia ferrea) in the background. Fountain grass creates movement with its feathery plumes swaying in the breeze.
It goes without saying that a garden in the middle of the veld should meld with its surroundings, require little maintenance and attract abundant birdlife.

Photographs Francois Oberholster


Corniel Venter

WHERE Kruis Farm, Montagu

SIZE OF GARDEN About 1 500m²

TYPE OF SOIL Clay with shale

A delightful mix of vygies, statice, wild sage and gazania provides groundcover colour.

From the Keisie Valley all the way towards the Waboomsberg mountains – this is Corniel Venter’s glorious view from the stoep of her cottage. Wrapped around her house on three sides, this stoep also allows her to follow the sun as the seasons change on the farm Kruis outside Montagu. “It all depends on whether the wind is blowing and where the  sunshine is best,” she says. 

After her husband’s death in 2011, Corniel’s son Pieter moved  to the main homestead on their citrus farm and took over the management of the property. Two years later, Corniel relocated to a once run-down labourer’s cottage on the farm. 

“One day while strolling around, I realised that the cottage had an incredible view. To cut a long story short, I asked  architect Johan Malherbe of Paarl to turn it into a home for me.  The architecture of the main homestead is Cape Dutch and because this cottage is so different, it was important for it not to be visible from the main house.” 

Corniel’s garden at the main house was a paradise of rolling lawns, agapanthus, roses and especially oak trees, but this time round she wanted to create a more indigenous garden. 

“I wanted it to look like it was part of the surrounding landscape. In 2014, I approached local landscape designer Jan Hagen for his assistance. My brief to him? ‘Help!’

“I basically told him that the garden must melt away into its surroundings. I didn’t want a manicured garden or a swimming pool and I wanted shrubs that would attract lots of birds.” 

Although she gets water from mountain springs, Corniel wanted the new garden to be waterwise. “And also low-maintenance so that it would not be time-consuming to take care of it. After all, a farmer’s wife loses her garden helpers during harvest time,” she explains with a smile. Fortunately, she has Benjamin Lehanya to help her take care of the garden. 

Jan gave her exactly what she wanted – and more. “My grandchildren just have to walk from my stoep through the garden and they’re in the veld. They love having picnics there.  And the birds flitting among the aloes and the wild dagga make me so happy. 

“I love sitting here on my veranda, savouring the beauty of the Little Karoo veld with all the sweet thorn trees, guarri bushes, sand olives, false karees, rhinoceros bushes and butter trees that are covered in red blooms over Christmas.”

Beware of these trees and plants

Jan Hagen offers advice:

• Although thorn trees have a tap root system, be careful if there are shale or rock substrates, as well as clay, present in your soil. The tap root then grows sideways and can damage structures such as walkways, steps and foundations.

• Fiddle leaf fig (Ficus lyrata) and rubber plant (Ficus elastica) are popular houseplants but when the plants get too big, people often transplant them into the garden. These become huge trees, especially the rubber plant, which can cause countless problems with their invasive root systems.

• Tickey creeper (Ficus pumila) is popular for covering walls but it can cause a problem when it starts to grow into the smallest cracks.

• People also like to plant the Indian laurel fig (Ficus nitida) because it can cope with wind but its aggressive roots will take over in the plant’s quest for water.

The garden by the stoep was planned in such a way that it softens the building without obstructing the view.

Bitter aloe forms a striking feature next to the chimney, Carex grasses add contrast and daisy lawn (Phyla nodiflora) is a good alternative to grass in this context. So as not to interfere with the night sky, only downlights were used in the garden – on the stoep pillars as well as on railway sleepers in the flowerbeds.

A deciduous Chinese hackberry (Celtis sinensis) provides much-needed shade in summer, but lets in lovely sun throughout winter. Jan says he finds that the Chinese species does better in the Western Cape than its indigenous counterpart, the white stinkwood (Celtis africana).

Custom-made fruit crates in the sheltered nook by the bedrooms provide a ready supply of herbs and salad ingredients at a comfy height for harvesting. Leopard trees create dappled shade that protects the plants against the harsh summer sun. The pathway was purposely not laid in a straight line so as to give it a more natural look.

A designer’s touch

“Developing Corniel’s garden was such a pleasure,” says Jan. “This house, which fits so snugly into its surroundings and allows the Little Karoo landscape to dominate, dictated from the start the direction we would take with the garden. We wanted the minimalist building to be even softer, to make sure we respected the views and to ensure that the garden ‘dissolved’ into the veld around it.” 

Jan and his wife Mariëtte have been in the gardening industry for 35 years, so he speaks from experience when he says that as a landscape designer he has to be careful not to be too prescriptive to his clients. “Once I’m done with the design, it’s your garden, not mine. 

“It’s like going to the hairdresser; you have to click with each other to get the best results. For me, a client’s enthusiasm and input are vital elements in a successful garden. I like to create the backbone of a garden and then give the client free rein to colour it in if they want to. 

“Corniel has an unorthodox streak. It was great fun to see how she smuggled in zinnias, patches of cosmos and other seasonal pops of colour here and there in amongst the natural vegetation. Even the potted cactuses look wonderful in this alternative garden.” 

Jan offers his clients design knowledge and experience; he tends to see a landscape “in pictures”. 

“I can plan the most beautiful garden for someone, but the most important ingredient in making it successful is the client’s passion. Time and time again, I have seen it: if someone has a loving interaction with their plants, the garden thrives much more than if it is merely an element of a home or environment,” he says. “Sometimes though, I have to be diplomatic if a client’s ideas or preferences are going to have catastrophic consequences!” 

Where possible, Jan likes to include the client when making purchases; this makes the process a special experience. “Corniel loves socialising and has a close circle of friends. She and I chose the trees for the garden, then her friends gave them to her as house-warming gifts. Now the white stinkwoods, fever trees, karees, weeping boer-bean and water pears hold lifelong memories of dear friends.”

Gauras create movement in the breeze while the white flowers of the Australian rosemary attract bees; its grey-green foliage also blends in nicely with the natural palette of the Little Karoo vegetation.

Jan's tips for a dream garden

• Compile a scrapbook or moodboard of ideas you find in magazines or online.  This will help your landscape designer to get an idea of your thoughts and desires.

• Make sure that what you do will be sustainable and that your lifestyle, time and finances can maintain it. The biggest tragedy is that initial ideas fail due to a lack of ongoing maintenance, full-time attention and sufficient funds for both.

• Even if your garden requires little maintenance, it still needs to be looked after.

• Make sure you know what the plants’ growth habits are and what your designer had in mind so that you can take care of them. Often, plants are forced to grow in a certain space and then one needs to prune them intensively every few years.

• If you use an architect to design your home, also get a landscape designer from the get-go. Then paths can be created specifically to suit the house and white roofs, which reflect the sun and thus scorch plants, can be avoided; likewise white walls in a spot where you’d like to grow plants, as any heat generated there will also scorch plants.

The Zen-like architecture at the front door called for minimalist plantings; here, the pencil plant (Euphorbia tirucalli) works very well. In the summer months, the stems are yellow-green and in winter they turn more orangey-red.

Jan's plant choice

“We mainly used indigenous plants but here and there we also used plants that create a Karoo feel, such as the Australian rosemary (Westringia fruticosa),” explains Jan.

• The main stalwarts are dune crow-berry (Searsia crenata), wild rosemary (Eriocephalus), salt bush (Einadia hastata syn. Rhagodia hastata), vygies, bush violet (Barleria obtusa), blue sage (Salvia africana), rough blue sage (S. chamelaeagnea), krantz aloe (Aloe arborescens), bitter aloe (A. ferox), Cape red-hot poker (Kniphofia uvaria), plumbago (Plumbago auriculata), Cape honeysuckle (Tecomaria capensis), statice (Limonium perezii), camphor bush (Tarchonanthus camphoratus), ground morning glory (Convolvulus sabatius), jade plant (Crassula ovata), fountain grass (Pennisetum spp.)  for contrast, Carex grasses for texture, Cape thatching reed,  and Kei apple (Dovyalis caffra) and big num-num (Carissa macrocarpa) which both bear fruit for the birds.

• Parrot beak (Lotus berthelotii) with its grey foliage  and bright orange flowers is a wonderful exotic groundcover that does well in the Karoo climate.

• Wild sage (Salvia muirii) is a  dependable filler.

Osteospermum rikii is an excellent flat-growing groundcover for this  type of garden.

Zantedeschia Concepts 082 416 2835,

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April 2023

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