Johannesburg - How do you set out to choose the top gardens in the country? Three great gardening writers – Sima Eliovson, Nancy Gardiner and Nini Bairnsfather Cloete – have pushed boundaries as intrepid explorers and travelled many kilometers across the subcontinent to find the best South African gardens in their era of writing.

Their choice of what constitutes South Africa’s most beautiful gardens highlights the different eras in gardening trends and design. In Eliovson’s era, colour was king, but by the 1980s diversity had emerged and gardens were made up of designed “rooms”.

In this summer’s spectacular coffee-table gardening book, Remarkable Gardens of South Africa (Quivertree), gardening author Bairnsfather Cloete chooses 20 very unusual gardens to illustrate South Africa’s contribution to remarkable gardens in the world.

Colour gardening

In an era when full-colour publications were a luxury, the late Eliovson chose aspects of 90 gardens to present in Garden Beauty of South Africa (MacMillan, 1979). Her book highlights the passion of that era’s gardeners for expansive borders of colour, rows of hydrangeas, pools with white edges, natural fishponds, succulent rockeries and superb public parks in full flower.

By scanning the country’s gardens in the 1970s from a base in Joburg’s northern suburbs, Eliovson was one of the first to show the diversity in climate and range of exotic and indigenous plant choices made by gardeners countrywide. Her chapter on how to organise a garden tour for overseas tourists signaled a new era in garden tourism.

Diversity in style

Gardiner’s Beautiful Gardens of South Africa (Struik, 1991) chose to highlight 34 top gardens across the country, which she photographed in the 1980s while freelancing as a photographer for SA Garden and Home.

Based in Hilton, KwaZulu-Natal, Gardiner captured azalea blossom time in Tzaneen, carpets of bluebells in flower in the Endebeni Forest and spectacular autumn foliage around Hazeldene Dam in Himeville.

The gardens of Gardiner’s 1980s were filled with herbaceous borders in pink, white and blue and pedestal birdbaths surrounded by formal gardens. Gardiner captured pathways that wandered through glades of silver birches, magnificent rose gardens in full flower and large water features sprinkled with rocks under towering palm trees.

Design sophistication

Remarkable Gardens of South Africa (Quivertree, 2012) is by far the biggest of all three books and covers only 20 of the most outstanding gardens in South Africa. Bairnsfather Cloete travelled over 17 000km and saw over 80 gardens in South Africa in two years of planning, travelling and research.

The prism of this latest coffee-table book of glorious images, fascinating stories and engaging artwork comes from the perspective of international design.

As the great-granddaughter of Sir Thomas Cullinan of Premier Mine diamond fame, Bairnsfather Cloete was closely involved with the immaculate restoration of her family’s Cape Dutch homestead on Morgenster Wine Estate, in the foothills of the Helderberg Mountains near Somerset West.

Her family worked with top designers such as Graham Viney and world-class architects like Revel Fox.

Against the backdrop of sophisticated design, Bairnsfather Cloete was looking beyond pretty suburban gardens. Her national search was for remarkable gardens. Having chosen the final 20, they were photographed over an 18-month period by well-known Cape design photographer Craig Fraser.

The book includes only four remarkable gardens in the greater Gauteng area – Brenthurst in Parktown, Nirox in the Cradle of Humankind, Syferfontein in the Hartebeespoort area and Rock Garden created by Geoffrey Armstrong and Wendy Vincent in the Magaliesberg.

Remarkable gardens in this book, in many cases, represent a life’s work and dedication to something that rises above the ordinary.

In the Madikwe Gardens, on the Botswana border, Bairnsfather Cloete describes how Frikkie and Gert Booysen created the vast garden on their family farm, Kromdraai, using seeds and cuttings over a period of 60 years. Now incorporated into the Madikwe Conservancy, the Madikwe Gardens are regarded as a national treasure and the Dendrological Society of South Africa has tagged and catalogued all the trees.

Syferfontein is an 11 hectare meadow and woodland garden designed by Patrick Watson north of Joburg. Comprising an avenue of oaks, a Cape Dutch-style home completed in 2005, infinity pool and suspension bridge over a lake, this parkland garden is dissected by grass pathways that form a strong axis from the house. Having recently added nearly three hectares to the garden, Syferfontein offers a sense of space.

Renowned landscape architect Patrick Watson is also behind the Nirox Sculpture Garden and Artist’s Residency in the Cradle of Humankind. At the core of the landscape are a series of “dream-like lakes separated by grass-covered undulating mounds of various heights that flatten out and melt into the bushveld”.

“At Nirox an idyllic location in which artists are able to freely create has been crafted with insight and ingenuity,” says Bairnsfather Cloete.

Over 40 years of gardeners’ commentary, only Brenthurst, the Oppenheimer family estate in Parktown, consistently appears in all three books written by Eliovson, Gardiner and Bairnsfather Cloete.

Cape gardens fare better in this beautiful volume. Historical Eastern Cape garden Cavers in Bedford, Cape Town’s Hawthornden and Stellenberg, and Old Nectar near Stellenbosch appear in both Nancy Gardiner and Nini Bairnsfather Cloete’s selection.

* Remarkable Gardens of South Africa by Nini Bairnsfather Cloete. Photographs by Craig Fraser. Foreward by Graham Viney.