Johannesburg - He’s done a stunning vertical garden for Brad Pitt, as well as for other famous people with supersized budgets. And now 33-year-old landscape designer Leon Kluge has won gold in the home garden section of the Gardening World Cup 2013 in Japan, as well as the Best on Show prize, affirming him as one of the world’s best garden designers.

It’s a “huge honour” for the Nelspruit-based “artist-gardener” who creates spectacular gardens for the rich and famous all over the globe. In fact, as we chat, he’s firming up arrangements to do a garden in New Zealand, then in France, then Australia and, after that, in Philadelphia in the US.

A look at pictures of gardens Kluge has done immediately reflects his huge talent. Beautifully textured wall gardens using different coloured grasses and succulents, designs so flowing and perfect they look like sushi, and garden decor that reveals the soul of a contemporary artist – these are among the masterpieces that have put the young, unassuming Kluge in a very elite sphere.

Yet the small garden that won him gold in Japan was very different to the gardens he’s been quietly creating over the past 15 years.

The theme of the show was World Peace, and his 5m x 5m garden was titled Breaking Free, and depicted the period before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, when he was negotiating his freedom with the National Party government.

Kluge’s garden featured nine walls, each representing a province. The walls were greened on the outside, signifying renewed growth after democracy was won, while the corrugated iron sheets on the inside of the walls represented South Africa’s poorer areas. They were brightly decorated in “shack chic” style.

The simple table and chair symbolised the loneliness of Mandela in his cell, while the shackles on the pathway represented the country breaking free from apartheid.

“I had to source all the plants in Japan, which wasn’t easy,” says Kluge. “The plant palette depicted the type of vegetation around the Cape west coast and Robben Island, so I used strelitzias and tall grasses. But I didn’t think I would win. I was competing against some of the world’s best representing the UK, US, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, France, Korea and Japan.”

Kluge is sitting in the garden of a client in Hurlingham, north of Johannesburg. It is South Africa’s “greenest house”, and the garden is designed as a natural ecosystem, with a large pond and cascading rock waterfalls to oxygenate the water as it is being treated and recycled. A challenging brief, but Kluge has pulled off amazing works, including a vertical garden on a three-storey commercial building in Mozambique, and the “Living Beehive” in Durban’s botanical gardens.

Kluge says gardening is all he has ever wanted to do. “I love plants... and gardening is an art to me.”

It’s not surprising. He was born into it. Kluge’s grandfather was the curator of the Betty’s Bay Botanical Garden and his father was the curator of the Lowveld National Botanical Garden, while his mother has a wholesale nursery in Nelspruit.

He did a degree in landscape technology in Israel, and, after graduation in 2002, worked on the main display garden at Marvadesh Givatt Brenner Nursery in Israel.

Afterwards he became the main landscape designer for Societe Nel Import and Export Company in Mayotte, on the Comores Islands.

When he returned from the Comores in 2005, Kluge started the award-winning Fever Tree Nursery in Nelspruit. Its first big commercial project was the office building in Maputo, but by now he has done a number of residential gardens for the rich and famous, among them holiday homes in South Africa for famous Hollywood personalities.

His vertical gardens have also been published in various coffee table books.

Kluge was also part of the successful South African team at the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show in London in 2010 and last year, but he strongly believes South Africa should be showcased in the garden section of the show.

“People are really thirsty for African garden designs, and I believe South Africa should be shown in the garden section. So that’s my goal, to represent South Africa at Chelsea in 2015,” he says.

Of all the plants he works with, Kluge says his favourites are grasses.

“Grasses like fennel and basil let the architecture stand out, and they attract insects and birds. When the wind blows, the whole garden comes alive.”

 

In the garden we’re sitting in, Kluge’s touches are apparent in the totem poles of stones dotted on the lawn, and the dead, invasive trees he has planted upside down, creating jagged, ghostly shapes.

Kluge also creates “land art”, which he explains as “telling a story using man-made elements in nature”. The pristine spaces around Nelspruit are ideal for his land art installations, in which he has used everything from bunny ears placed on rocks, to colourful eggs in a giant bird’s nest positioned in a golden field. The artist within was probably what gave him the edge in Japan, and “Madiba magic” was clearly at work, because many of the visitors to Kluge’s emotive garden started to cry.

Yet while he’s a well-known figure in Nelspruit and internationally among garden nuts, Kluge is happy to leave local marketing up to interest from dedicated garden and home magazines, and word-of-mouth, of course.

In any event, after creating a garden for a client, Kluge is usually contracted, on a retainer basis, to stay “in touch” with it, either by visiting it to oversee its maintenance, or by advising an overseas client on maintenance after seeing visuals of it on Skype. So between being in gardens, he’s trotting the globe.

When he’s at home in Nelspruit, he’s tending his own garden. “I recently moved out of a house because the garden was too small. My new garden is much bigger, so that’s where you’ll find me if you visit me there,” he smiles. - The Star

* See more examples of Leon Kluge’s work at www.leonklugegardendesign.co.za