Last September I visited the garden of an old historic wineland estate in the Cape, South Africa, called Babylonstoren (which is roughly translated as Babel’s Tower and refers to the name of one of the nearby mountains). Resplendent against the white-washed walls of the old Cape Dutch-style buildings, large pots of arum lilies and borders of lavender, shimmered in the early spring sunlight.
Tomorrow I am revisiting it when it will be in its winter colours. I am so excited to be seeing it in another season. It is one of those places that has made its mark in my mind. I am not sure if it’s because of its rather wonderful name, so very satisfying to say, or whether it reminds me of Prieuré Notre-Dame d’Orsan, the garden of its French designer, Patrice Taravella, in the Berry region of the Val de Loire in France (more about that in a future blog).
Babylonstoren is an old Cape Dutch homestead near to Paarl and Franschhoek. It was one of the original farms settled by the Dutch in the 17th century. The Company farm gardens were for productive use, supplying The Dutch East India Company’s ships with fruit, vegetables and fresh water on their voyages from Europe to and from the Dutch East Indies, via the newly discovered Cape.
The modern garden on this fruit and wine farm, designed by Patrice Taravella, harks back to these old traditions, but surpasses them in the beauty of the layouts and the inspired use of natural wooden supports, as well as plants trained into architectural shapes. It is his use of plants as architectural structures, the way he manipulates them into useful entities, such as arbours and walls, that is so noteworthy and it is this that reminds me of his French garden, also an outstanding place to visit, stay at and eat food grown in the garden.
Babylonstoren’s gardens today are filled with over 350 varieties of vegetables, herbs, fruits and flowers that are edible or medicinal. Harvests in every season from the garden are the basis of the menus served at the formal Babel Restaurant and the informal Greenhouse Tea Room. The Greenhouse Tea Room also serves a seasonal drink: when I visited in 2014 it was plum blossom, bamboo and pine, the three friends of winter.
The garden is laid out in a grid system, with two main long walk ways running across it, east to west, and another system running north to south. In all there are some 15 clusters of gardens within gardens. These include a citrus and sub-tropical fruit orchard, an almond plantation with beehives, an olive plantation and the prickly pear maze. There is also an avenue of 80-year-old guavas, and near the garden’s entrance and close to the restuarant there is a planting of thymes and other shrubby herbs that wreathe and writhe into a labyrinth and scent the air in the heat of the day.
The fruit and vegetables in the gardens are grown in formal beds, in rows, many, such as lettuces, alternating in colour in each row. Fruit trees, including figs and soft fruit bushes are trained into shapes and the beds and borders are criss-crossed by pathways.
Fragrance comes from the 48 pergolas hung with climbing roses that do well in this climate. But they are not likely to be showing much tomorrow.
One of the most pleasing and relatively new features is the serpentine, latticed timber tunnel called the Puff Adder (complete with a bulge to represent a mouse swallowed by the puff adder).
The tunnel houses a collection of 7,000 indigenous clivias that flower in spring, and need protection from direct scorching summer sun. The open slats offer sun-protection and allow a current of air through. The Puff Adder provides welcome shade to visitors walking towards the woodland alongside the stream that offers a water source for the garden.
Another delightful feature are the lavender-lined terracotta-to-orange water canals where the water plant that is the basic ingredient for one of South Africa’s iconic soups, Waterblommetjie Bredie (little water flower soup) grows. The plant is Cape pondweed or water hawthorn (Aponogeton distachyos) or waterblommetjies (little water flowers). The buds are used to make the soup and are harvested in early winter, through to early spring.
The return to Babylonstoren was just as wonderful as the first visit. It was a perfect Cape winter’s day for a walk in the garden and for sitting out in the sun to have lunch at The Greenhouse. Bliss!
Babylonstoren is at Klapmuts, Simondium Road, Franschhoek 7670 Cape, South Africa (www.babylonstoren.com) and there are daily tours of the garden.