Gardens of Babylon
It’s a privilege when one has the time, the means and the nous to conceptualise and build an exceptional country garden. It is also a fine thing if you then share it with others.
This is what Koos Bekker (Media 24 head) and Karen Roos, decor doyenne, have done at Babylonstoren, a wine farm between Paarl and Franschhoek.
And people are coming in droves to share in this piece of sculpted green. On a weekday when we were there a goodly bunch was moving through the pathways, delighting in what one could see, and what one could smell in this green belt.
Besides the garden, it makes for a good day out, as there is the glasshouse which serves light meals and a restaurant that is in the running for a top award.
The gardens took three years to construct. The idea followed a holiday in France during which the Bekkers visited Le Prieuré d’Orsan, a groundbreaking organic garden in the Loire Valley devised by Patrice Taravella, a Parisian landscape architec.
The Bekkers had recently acquired Babylonstoren, and the swampy, gnarled ground to the rear of the old homestead complex was crying out for a remake. Taravella joined the project and plotted a working garden that incorporated the design of the old Kompanjies tuin that Jan van Riebeeck started.
Now there is a grid of paths with inset irrigation channels running from a perennial stream that support a functional – and aesthetic – formal garden. There are climbing roses, 300 varieties of edible plant, camomile and thyme lawns, yards with hens and ducks, a bee garden and ponds filled with tilapia and rainbow trout.
And directing operations in growing and maturing this garden is an enthusiastic Liesl van der Walt, who relishes her work.
Liesl was brought in to design the fragrance garden when she was working at Kirstenbosch. She says the garden is a conceptual whole, and in landscaping terms is still very young.
Everything in the 3.5ha garden is used in either the restaurant or on the farm, and is usable or edible. Herbs are used to make teas, and the gardeners are always looking to expand their selection of edible flowers and plants. The restaurant menu is largely determined by what is available in the garden – so it’s a fine balance between master gardener and master chef.
“We are still on a learning curve,” says Liesl. Neither she, nor any of her crew of 16, had previous experience in managing and running such a large garden that has to produce a constant source of food, herbs, and fragrances.
The tea house – a greenhouse-cum-tearoom – is positioned under recently planted medium-sized oak trees at the back of the garden, with a collection of tables and colourful Luxembourg chairs.
The light menu focuses on seasonal produce from the garden. You design your own lunch by choosing between four different bread rolls, four cheeses and four charcuterie items. A fresh salad, chutney, relish and mixed herb oil come with it.
Drinks are plum and verbena cordial, lemon-thyme lemonade and home-made ginger beer.