Cape Town - Palmiet River is possibly one of the oldest of Elgin’s gardens, designed by one of the pioneers of the area’s apple industry, Kathleen Murray.
Today Wanda Molteno is the inspired gardener, and over the years has developed the garden into one that delights the senses.
Aunt Kathleen was her great-aunt through marriage, a feisty woman by all accounts, who built her house with bricks she made herself.
When she took up farming in 1914, it was frowned on as unsuitable for a woman. Wanda and Edward took over from her 20 years ago, and at that stage the terraced garden was planted mainly with cannas – red in the first row, cream, orange and yellow in the next.
When Wanda took over, she knew little of gardening. “I learnt everything here – in Venezuela (where she grew up) we don’t do gardens, we remove snakes.”
She spent five years redoing the garden, pocket by pocket, while working full-time. The terraced garden, which she extended around the side, had cypresses along the two main paths.
“They were in such a poor condition, they looked like inverted toilet brushes. I had to do something.”
So she replaced some of them, and planted new ones.
“I didn’t like cannas.” And so they were removed.
“I tried to keep everything special that Aunt Kathleen planted; everything preservable, I preserved. There were a lot of roses, of all colours, and I’ve moved them around a lot, grouping colours together.
She’s had her work cut out to improve the soil, which is all clay, and she makes her own compost.
“I went to garden clubs and made up my mind what I liked. I like to put colours together, but not rigidly. I don’t like a white-only garden… I like flashes of colour to catch the eye.
“I get an idea of what I want. And have a whole library of books, which I read for fun, like my cookery books.
“I do go with themes, using predominantly cool colours – restful blues and mauves. Yellows are too bright, but I will include them in the woodland area. I move stuff around like furniture.
“I’ve made so many mistakes, but I’ve learnt. I like plants to interweave. I don’t like rows, where everything’s so precise, planted in rows – one, one, one – it’s dreadful.”
You’ll find some very unusual plants in Wanda’s garden, like Alchemilla mollis, or lady’s mantle, a charming little plant with fan-shaped leaves.
Wanda is partial to scent, and the lilacs are a treat – the mauve ones more fragrant in the late afternoon than the white. Not to mention the roses, which are sublime.
The garden’s formal terracing is softened by her diverse plantings, and old roses are queen here.
As we walk around, names of roses glide off her tongue, as though I’m being introduced to her friends.
There’s Reine des Violettes (Queen of the Violets), an old garden rose, dating back to 1860, with fragrant and very full blooms. We pass by Madame Isaac Pereire, another old rose with huge flowers and a deep perfume. The sweetly scented Cuisse de Nymphe (Thigh of the Nymph), was too daring for the Victorians, who renamed it Maiden’s Blush. Céline Forestier is a vigorous climber.
The old roses, shrubs and climbers with profuse blooms and scents, cannot compare to the modern rose bush, which is a tame cousin. But they do require space to spread.
Most of the plants in her garden she’s propagated herself – huge numbers. She’ll buy one plant, and then take cuttings, roses included.
Wanda won a trip to Hampton Court Palace Flower Show this year, a wonderful gift.
“I met an expert on sweetpeas, Roger Pasere.” Wanda is using his method of tripods for the sweetpeas to climb up.
The garden is huge, with a woodland area and a kitchen garden. Beds are planted with Japanese anenomes, foxgloves in many colours, purple petrea, helibores, white and pink weigela, campion and Inca lilies.
She has wonderful irises, including a burgundy one planted next to the burgundy-coloured Berberis.
The woodland area flanks the garden, with a large variety of trees, including a tall yellowwood, an assegai tree and linden trees, many planted by Aunt Kathleen.
Wanda planted the cherry “room”, some in full blossom now, many camellias and magnolias. It’s a garden of such abundance it’s difficult to describe.
Top tips from Wanda
* Roses are the highlight of the summer garden, but if you have only a small plot, look for roses that flower all summer. A rose that takes up a lot of space in return for just one month of glory can be disappointing. Thoroughly good “performers” include the shrub roses Buff Beauty, Gertrude Jekyll and Graham Thomas; the climbers Ena Harkness, Blairii Number Two and New Dawn; and old roses Rosa Mutabilis, Charles de Mills and Blanche Double de Coubert.
* Climbing roses will flower better if the branches are trained horizontally. The hormones that are normally concentrated just at the tip are now spread equally along the stem, encouraging each bud to break into leaf and later produce a flower.
* Bright light washes out cooler colours, so blues, greens and purples are better suited to shaded areas.
* Thyme can be used for groundcover and is happy to grow in the cracks between paving stones or rocks.
* Slugs hate caffeine, as it causes them to produce an excess of slime, which immediately dries them out and prevents them from moving on to, and then eating, your plants. Used coffee grounds spread around a line of emerging seedlings or a new plant will keep the slugs off and blend in with the soil. - Cape Argus