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Pictures: On the verge

Cape Town - If you drive around Fish Hoek, chances are you may have seen Neil van Blerk’s pavement garden. It runs both sides of his corner plot, with a collection of succulents that draws you in.

It’s colourful and creative, but does nothing to prepare you for the contrast of the bonsai garden inside the property.

Niel Van Blerk prunes his bonsai tree (Chinese Elm) at his home in Fish Hoek. This tree is one of many that he cultivates in his garden. Pictures: Jason BoudNiel Van Blerk has a sizeable collection of succulents on his sidewalk (pavement) outside his home in Fish Hoek, including this specimen.This cactus with tiny pink flowers, and young plants surrounding it, is probably about 80 years old.A frilly-edged succulent with its red leaves.Niel Van Blerk has a sizeable collection of succulents on his sidewalk (pavement) outside his home in Fish Hoek.Succulents of different colours and shapes invite the eye to look closely.

They may seem different, and in most respects they are, but succulents and bonsai share a need for well-drained soil. And both areas benefit from Van Blerk’s attention to detail.

The succulents are easier to maintain – once established they grow easily. It’s just over a year since Van Blerk started the pavement garden, and he’s planted it in sections. The sand was dug out and mixed with lots of gravel and compost for good drainage. “Every rock was brought in from building sites, or where roads were being built.”

The plants are from all parts of South Africa – one of Van Blerk’s jobs is establishing libraries in rural schools, and he travels widely.

“I’ve collected plants from all over – even from north of Phalaborwa – and I bring cuttings and plants here. I have a limited budget, so I’ve done it over four to six months. It’s almost done now.”

Some succulents are slow-growing and old. He also has some that are uncommon and not seen in the Western Cape. Some are speckled, or spiked or furry, others tinged with oranges or pinks. On the more shaded side of the verge there is a fascinating cactus with young plants clustered around it, all bearing a mass of tiny, cerise flowers. Van Blerk also grows aloes, cotyledons, crassula and spekboom, as well as many varieties of spiky Christ thorn with red, peach and yellow flowers.

Why make the effort to garden the verge? “There’s more space, I can do more stuff,” Van Blerk says with a smile. “When I came here the pavement was bare. I’ve always loved gardening, I knew a bit about succulents. The idea is that once the garden is established, I’ll get rid of the bark chips and lay gravel down.”

A few plants disappeared, but security cameras were installed and that’s stopped. “If someone is interested, I’m happy to give them cuttings,” says Van Blerk.

Moving from the exposed verge to the sheltered bonsai environment on the other side of the walls is like entering a different world, and unexpected. But Van Blerk is a man of many talents, and was captivated by bonsai three and a half years ago when his son was keen to have one.

“He needed to know how to look after it, so he enrolled in a beginner’s class and I went along. I enjoyed it.” So much so that Van Blerk has become an enthusiastic novice, with hundreds of bonsai, neatly organised in a large area behind the house. Curiosity, creativity and experimentation, and not caring too much about rules mean he’s willing to try to train any plant into a bonsai. “I’ve dug plants out of mountains, removed them from building sites… I will use anything rather than throw it away.”

He’s also found interesting plants in nurseries.

“Here’s an orange jasmine, it grows incredibly slowly, and it’s estimated to be 60 to 70 years old. I was asked to remove it from a garden.

“Plants with smaller leaves are more believable as bonsai.”

For bonsai, the container is important, and Van Blerk has a collection of pots, from tiny to large, waiting to be filled. He also loves growing them on rocks and slate. It’s patient work – carefully he cuts the wire off a branch that has been trained to grow sideways, using wire-cutters with rounded edges so as not to nick the branch.

Bonsai needs good drainage because root rot is an issue. “I feed them Seagro, use a foliar food and worm tea. I try not to use too many insecticides, but it’s too big a risk not to attend to insects.”

Which is his special bonsai? It changes, he says. “Now I’m enjoying the Pyracantha, or firethorn.” He’s placed it on the verandah. He shows me one that’s technically good, fulfilling the criteria for bonsai. “But it’s too correct for me. I like different things. And I move them all around – I want to be surprised.”

Van Blerk is active in the bonsai club, and is to show a few trees at this year’s show at Kirstenbosch. “But I want to show a tree only if I’m the creator, not just the caretaker.”

He spends about an hour a day with his bonsai, after work. “I start by watering by hand. They need water every single day. If the mix is right and it drains, you can’t overwater.”

In a busy life, tending plants gives one time to pause and enter another world. In Van Blerk’s case, this is a world of tiny, sculpted trees. - Jeanne Viall, Cape Argus

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