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An evergreen bounty in Constantia

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A tree fern dominates a shady area where clivias and bromeliads flourish in Don and Brenda McKays garden. Picture: Gabriel Ellison-Scowcroft

One blessing of a long-established garden is the trees, and in the McKays’ garden in Constantia in Cape Town, there are some majestic ones.

At this time of the year the Liquidambar (or sweetgum) is glorious with its autumnal colours, dominating the main garden with its reds, yellows and browns. Fallen leaves lie around its base and have blown into the areas around it, creating curious combinations, such as the soft green of the lamb’s ears next to the dry brown and red of the leaves.

Wandering to the bottom section of the main garden there’s a sprawling Atlas Cedar, with branches swirling from its thick central trunk, creating a deep shady area beneath it.

The feel of early winter is evident, with soft light through the bare branches, crisp air and the autumn colours.

But mostly it’s a green garden, with evergreen trees, like the Atlas Cedar and the five yellowwoods, the weeping mulberry and a tall Ficus nitida.

It’s hard to believe this garden was a vineyard when Don and Brenda McKay came here in 1965.

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The formal herb and flower garden. Picture: Gabriel Ellison-Scowcroft

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The bottom section of garden is where the vineyard workers would rest after work; now it is walled off, with a busy road the other side of it.

It was Brenda who landscaped the garden and planted it over the years. With the passing of time and her poor health, Don has taken over and since his retirement the garden has kept him active.

It’s a good garden to grow older with. There’s less work to do, and Don has some help once a week. There’s no new planting, and it’s more a case of pruning and shaping the trees, which Don enjoys. The trees have taken over areas where there used to be annuals planted, so that’s also less work

But, says Don, if they were planting today they would do it differently, as water is now a major concern, and this is a thirsty garden.

Their water tank and borehole serve them well in this regard.

When I comment on the very tall strelitzia, he tells me: “It’s because I’m very old.” It’s a Strelitzia Nicolai, or Giant White Bird of Paradise, a banana-like plant, and quite imposing. Next to the pool there are some cycads, a bottlebrush, past flowering now, and a bush so heavy with red berries it’s leaning over.

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A gazania in the winter garden. Picture: Gabriel Ellison-Scowcroft.

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“My favourite part of the garden is the shady area at the bottom: there are bromeliads with red centres, attractive even when not flowering, a large cluster of brown orange mushrooms, a path leading to the water tank, with tiny-flowered ground covers, ferns and tree ferns, and clumps of clivias, which you’ll see all around the garden.”

A wall has replaced the rockery which divided the higher top section from the bottom. It has a tickey creeper growing snugly along it and the steps.

“The rockery was a lot of work, and it faced away from the house, so you couldn’t see it unless you were at the bottom of the garden,” says Brenda.

Behind the house is a formal herb and flower garden: anemone japonica, although no longer flowering, have left behind their heads, and still have a charm. A few gazania are still blooming, and little bushes of heliotrope, the old-fashioned kind with dark green, crinkled leaves and deep purple flowers, give some colour.

The heliotrope turns its flowers and leaves towards the sun over the course of each day, and at night it readjusts itself to face eastward, to be ready for sunrise. How lovely is that?

Don has two kinds of yellowwoods, the Lenkelii and the Falcatus.

“If I had to plant again I’d rather have the yellowwoods than the plane trees,” he says, “to save me the mess of the leaves.”

Although this is not a time for many flowers, the McKays’ garden has plenty of interest to catch the eye. In small beds there’s a mix of plants, spiky or soft; a tree in front has horseshoes, found on the property, attached to it and a giant anthurium with red waxy flowers.

“It grows so well because I don’t like it much,” quips Brenda.

It started as a small potplant, and when planted out, grew abundantly. Another gift was the tall white camellia, now in bud, given to her by a friend. The driveway bed is lined with soft grasses and restios, a tree fern, other ferns, clivia and a Eugenia with red berries.

There’s a resident goshawk, and guinea fowl are regular visitors, as are the squirrels, who have become quite tame.

It’s a garden with so much in it, so many places to wander and to rest, a peaceful place that is typical of the charm of leafy Constantia.

Some tips on trees

* Plant with care, says Don, especially trees and large shrubs. Don’t plant trees too close to each other – it’s heartbreaking to chop out beautiful trees because there’s no longer space for them.

* Plant indigenous trees such as yellowwoods rather than plane trees, which make such a mess when they lose their leaves.

* You can’t have two gardeners in a garden, says Brenda. Only one can be in charge.

* The McKays’ garden is thirsty, so there’s a water tank and a borehole. However, if you’re planting anew, choose waterwise plants instead. - Cape Argus

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