John Richardson Gardens   Garden Design and Construction

The Garden at Babylonstoren

I zoom in and wait while Google Earth brings the N1 into focus. At exit 47 I follow the Klapmuts Road to the right, across the four-way stop, over the railway bridge and at the first road left, hit the ruler option and trace out exactly six kilometers. Shifting a little to the right I zoom closer. I am looking for a garden - not just any garden, but a fruit and vegetable garden of some ten thousand square meters. Possibly the biggest veggie patch I'm ever going to visit. I am looking for trees, planting, paths, pergolas and ponds. I see nothing. I check the date on the aerial photo - July 2009.

Just a little over two years ago and it didn't exist.
 
By all accounts the garden at Babylonstoren should be a work in progress, a grand idea awaiting the years and seasons to mold it into a fully realized dream. It should have seams, underdeveloped areas, sections where things didn't quite work out, places where the elements were still finding their balance. But there is none of that. On the contrary it has a sense of place and elegance that belies its tender age and even at just two years old it has the depth and complexity of a much older garden. Meticulously stitched into the landscape of the winelands, it is at once sumptuous and austere, experimental and methodic, contained yet expansive. It is a garden of polarity, parallels and playfulness, and I predict that it is going to be very famous in no time at all.

The French landscape architect, writer and culinary luminary Patrice Taravella, laid out the gardens in the ancient cruciform pattern first bought to Europe by the invading Moors during the seventh century. It is a precise architecture, with each area planted to a specific horticultural theme—no overlapping and no merging. Orderliness prevails as all elements within the space conform to the overarching template to create a mosaic tapestry on a grand scale. Lines of espaliered apples become regiments of raspberries, become hedges of Carrisa, become pergolas draped in passion fruit, grapes and the exquisitely fragrant climbing rose, Souvenir de la Malmaison. Where the lines intersect there are nodes of benches, pots, ponds and irrigation rills. The resulting space is a verdant matrix of regal proportions.

Everywhere you look there is abundance and each demarcation is jam-packed with anything and everything that is edible, medicinal or useful in some way. Pumpkins, brinjal, butternut, peaches, plums and olives, lettuce, tomatoes, kumquats, naartjies, bananas, watermelons and mielies - the list is endless. Even traditional fare like suurvye, prickly pear, noem-noem and erstwhile unknowns such as tree tomatoes and a secret sorghum from a Zulu homeland, have found their way into this over-flowing macrobiotic nirvana. 

But two rugby fields worth of immaculate garden doesn't look after itself. And 18 gardeners apply a judicious blend of ecological science, creativity and a shed load of clipping shears to maintain the order. Companion planting, trap crops, sacrificial crops, rotation blocks, regular composting and inter-planting are all used to keep the garden healthy. Everything is re-cycled or somehow utilized for the betterment of the greater space. Even the chickens and ducks have been roped in to help. Chickens are employed to weed the seeds from the chaff before using it as mulch (as well to contribute the occasional free-range egg) and the ducks are in work for their bug, slug and snail hunting expertise. And in return—well, let's just say they've been given generous housing in a nice part of town.

Despite the exacting architecture underpinning the garden, there is also a playfulness that catches one by surprise in places. Like the bird garden where an ancient tree is surround by dozens of conventional bird nests—plus two giant ones especially made for people. These fascinating woven baskets appear to be floating above the bulrushes and constitute the perfect hide-away. In other places the garden's workman-like structure gives way to a more introspective sensibility where, in one of my favorite nooks, a secret garden behind a whitewashed wall contains a carpet of comfrey beneath a grove of mulberry trees. Strangely, there are a dozen rocks suspended by ropes along the inner wall and consequently the space feels more like an art installation than a garden. It has a meditative quality that is almost a relief after the overwhelming profusion beyond its walls.

Then there are the stories. Like the one about the apple tree.  Propagated from the very same tree that dropped the apple on the head of the dozing Sir Isaac Newton (or so the story goes) it resides happily in the orchard quadrant, quietly awaiting its next sleeping genius. Admittedly I was tempted until realizing that with nothing but blossoms on it, I'd be waiting at least three months before I could expect any brainwaves. Besides I had just clicked that I could go to the tea garden, put my feet up and enjoy the fruits of this magnificent garden the way I like them best—on a plate. Now that’s what I call an epiphany.



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This article first appeared in Landscape Design and Garden Magazine.
Babylonstoren is open to the public for day visitors Wednesday – Sunday, from 09h00 - 17h00.  Entrance fee: R10.00. Make sure to do the one-hour garden tour. It is well presented, informative and enriches the experience of the garden.


Posted: 4/8/2012 (11:33:04 AM)

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