John Richardson Gardens   Garden Design and Construction

Earth Artistry

There is something a little different about Jenny.  Don't get me wrong, I don’t mean in a bad way. More like in an 'I-eat-lots-of-weeds' kind of way. And it's true, she does. I know this because I have seen it and now I'm going to tell you about it. But first, I need to rewind about half an hour.

I am waiting for my hostess in the kitchen of her home in Constantia, craning my neck to see more of the immaculately landscaped garden that I can tantalizingly only glimpse part of on the terraces below. I'm in half a mind to let myself out onto the patio for a better view and it's only the questioning eye of a rather large Doberman that keeps me politely at the window, eagerly awaiting being shown around the private garden of one of Cape Town's most celebrated landscape designers: Top Billing’s Garden Designer of the year 2006, earth-artist, author, environmentalist, philosopher and mother of three - Jenny Louw. 

Jenny arrives a few moments later and, after pleasantries, we leave through the kitchen doors, across the patio and inexplicably,… in the wrong direction. Instead of staying on the rather grand path that clearly leads to the full picture of the fragment I saw from the kitchen, we duck through a gap in the hedge and head up to where a rustic pergola stands amongst a grove of trees. I want to show you my feral food garden, said Jenny, opening a wonky gate and ushering me into what I can only describe as secret garden of weeds. And my compost heaps, she added gleefully. Clearly my expression has betrayed me. I call it feral food; she tells me, but these plants are not just good for us, they’re important for the soils, insects, animals, the biological balance and everything else in the garden. 

And so begins the most enlightening two hours I can remember in ages. Bare-foot and relaxed, Jenny chats easily and moves lightly through her garden. She picks a sprig of this, a seed of that, a handful here and a scrunch of something else there: sunflowers, wheat grass, fennel, dandelion, thistles, all kinds of berries, leaves and flowers: a litany of weeds I normally chuck out of my own garden. Some are cooked, she explains, while others are juiced, used in salads or for making tea. And some, I see, are simply plucked off the plant and eaten right there and then. Raw and quite possibly full of bugs to boot.

I ask her about the bugs.

Pesticides and fungicides have no place in my garden, she says, because there is no need. There’s always a bird, dragon fly, wasp or frog right there waiting for its favorite meal. Natural gardening creates its own balance and no insect is able to gain ascendance. The Greek word for health also means whole, she explains, and it is only through this holistic approach that we create a deep and stable wholeness... or health… within ourselves.  No, weeds are not simply tolerated in Jenny's garden. Weeds, bugs, fungi, bacteria's and all manner of other micro and macro-organisms - are all perceived as vital parts of a greater whole and thus positively encouraged, promoted, even - I daresay -  loved, in this abundant haven that she cultivates around her. Even old decomposing logs, teeming with lichens and creatures-with-too-many-legs are collected in the forest and brought home to fill a niche in what she describes as the giant ecological web of life. 

But it's not all feral food. A little further down the path I see that a different sort of order has triumphed. Here half an acre of meticulously laid out beds are bursting at the seams with kale, tomatoes, spinach and an assortment of other fruit and vegetables. Intuitively, she hands me a bunch of bananas I've been checking out in a strangely Cambodia-like corner of the plot. I peel one and eat it. It is dense and has a kiwi fruit flavor that I’ve never tasted in a banana before. Naturally grown food tastes different, she explains, it’s in the soil, in the compost-teas, rock dust and crop rotation that make this food so nutritious. And delicious, I must add. 

Sadly, far too soon, we leave this wonderful place of nourishment and move on. Walking down some stone steps we pass through a long tunnel of shrubbery twitching with birds, to emerge into a clearing, where a swimming pool stands shimmering in the sunlight. The near-side of the pool is bordered by a large timber deck in the conventional way but on the far side the crystal clear water simply disappears into a bank of river-reeds. This is a natural pool, a seamless union of the built environment and the natural world - impressive in form, sublime in function. You can drink the water while you swim, Jenny tells me, and the frogs love it as well, she adds triumphantly. I get the sense that frogs count for a lot in this garden.

From the pool we move onto towards a stream running across the bottom of the garden, picking our way through muddy pools bisected by a soggy path, under a canopy of yellowwoods, stinkwoods, acacias and other bird-habitat trees. There are animal tracks everywhere and Jenny speculates on what they could be. Lynx, otter, porcupine and no doubt some snakes visit the bottom reaches of the garden regularly - testimony again to the health, or the wholeness, of the place. Almost on cue an eagle flies into view and we stop to watch the magnificent bird with its cruel beak float in and out of sight above us. It is then, in a moment of clarity, that I see how the frogs, the weeds, the decomposing logs, the swimming pool that you can drink from and the light touch of the gardener on the landscape all fit in. It is more than a simple desire to be ecologically sensitive, or to live off the land, that underpins Jenny's approach to her garden. Yes, that is definitely there, but beyond that is a deep trust of the earth's ability to sustain and nurture and a reciprocal wish to facilitate that trust where she can. Even if that means showing a visitor your compost heap first. 

And the terraces? The fabulous, immaculate designer terraces that I had come to behold?  Well, I did eventually get to see them, but by then they'd somehow lost a little of their sparkle. It was like arriving at a party after everyone had left - there was nothing to eat, there was nothing to drink and there were no weeds, bugs, birds or creatures-with-too-many-legs to delight in. Funny that.


1. Jenny has written a book called Earth Artistry that will be available in February 2011.

2. Never eat anything from the garden unless you are absolutley sure what it is. Many plants are poisonous, and a few even fatal.

This article was first published in Landscape Design and Garden Magazine. For more information go to

Posted: 1/15/2012 (7:29:37 AM)

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