Babylonstoren, South Africa

‘We had to call in the chicken consultant’, roared Constance. ‘You know, if you’ve got a problem with your business you call in a business consultant; well we had problems with our chickens. They stopped laying’, she boomed. ‘You see these salad leaves dangling from the beams? That’s our chicken gym. Now the chickens have to jump for their food, they lay every day’, she bellowed, with a beaming smile.

The fabulously formidable Constance, showing us the edible fruit of Monstera

You didn’t disagree with Constance. Chicken consultant or not.

Chickens and donkeys under the dappled shade at the entrance to Babylonstoren

I’ve seen some passionate gardeners in my time, but I’m not sure anyone surpasses Constance. I will never forget her boundless energy and enthusiasm, nor her booming, African voice. It was quite clear why, of all the Babylonstoren gardeners, Constance was selected to be (oh so) in charge of our large garden tour party.

Definitely good enough to eat!

And what a tour it was. It’s not a garden with classic, floral good looks: it’s a very green edible and medicinal garden. But I’ve really seen nothing like it.

The old farm buildings give a sense of history to the garden

Babylonstoren is another South African farm dating back to the turn of the eighteenth century and takes it name from the koppie (hill) on the estate which reminded the first owners of the Tower of Babel, hence Babylon’s Toren. In 2007, inspired by the French Prieuré d’Orsan garden, the current owner, Karen Roos, brought in Patrice Taravella, who’d worked at Orsan, to design the new garden layout.

Neat rows of vegetables at Babylonstoren

Karen speaks of Patrice’s understanding of the movement of people; of how to make a garden ‘hold you and calm you down’. On the surface, the garden is a few parallel lines, intersected at 90 degrees by a few more parallel lines. But of course great design often looks entirely obvious. It’s so right you couldn’t imagine the space any other way. When places do ‘hold you and calm you down’, as this one does, there’s always a reason for it. And Patrice’s proportions are designed to perfection.

Eight gardeners from Babylonstoren had a trip to France to gather inspiration. On their return they created a dramatic sculpture, nestled beneath the stark mountains, amongst which pumpkins climb

The farm’s homepage tells us that Babylonstoren has a garden, accommodation, food, wine and ‘a sense of wellbeing’. In fact it’s worth clicking through to their website if only to listen to the refreshingly subtle, refreshingly refreshing, sweet sound of quietly tweeting birds, as you swoon over their beautifully presented photographs.

Inside the snake gallery (which snaked through the garden) a collection of succulents were displayed. Each month the theme changes

Softly tweeting background sounds, so perfectly executed on their website, is a sign of everything to come, should you be lucky enough to pay a visit to Babylonstoren. Clearly, no money has been spared on its creation and ongoing maintenance, but nothing is over-done, nothing feels pretentious, it all just feels exquisitely, tastefully ‘right’. It even took some doing to drag me out of the unisex public loo there… the beautiful decoration, thoughtful details and open, timber window to the hills had me extraordinarily captivated and very sad to have to let someone else in!

This prickly pear maze was the owner’s favourite part of the garden, which he prunes himself

I can’t even begin to do Constance justice in trying to retell the stories she brought to life. These were stories from the heart, often told in the third ‘Constance’ person, stories stemming from pride, joy and a deep connection with the garden in which she works.

The small details in the crockery cupboard add so much to the cafe atmosphere

The garden is practical, thriving and historical, with each and every detail thought through creatively, tastefully and skilfully. Being a productive garden, it felt highly functional and yet function alone was not enough. Function and beauty went hand in hand in every last inch of the farm. No corners were cut, no compromises made. Even with this kind of budget, it’s extremely rare to see this kind of consistency across an entire garden.

Persimmon tree set above Dutch tiling

Visitors are encouraged to pick, taste, smell and touch. They are told stories of links to the region’s past, from the tiles in the Citrus garden commemorating sailors who succumbed to scurvy, to the pottery fragments discovered from early farm days and displayed in a beautiful timber case. They are shown the different mulches used on the pathways, from stone fruit pips to Babylonia seashells, each tying in with its surroundings in its own, thoughtful way.

Babylonia (and I think some other!) shells form a pathway through the garden

The land is used to its best advantage, with gravity feeding rills throughout the garden and views to the mountains shown off to the max. Rosemary is planted as an organic alternative to pesticides, whilst Tulbaghia wards off snakes. A swathe of oak trees, meanwhile, distracts local squirrels from more precious crops and provides a barrier of sorts between the organic and non-organic areas of cultivation.

Pig face is used as a ground cover under fruit trees to keep the soil moist

Skyward aspirations ooze from this garden. All sorts of tropical fruits grow here, from melons to avocados, mangoes to lychees and banana to custard apple, despite its Mediterranean climate. They even have coffee shrubs and macadamia trees. The gardeners here will give anything a go: a challenge is embraced, experiments undertaken and failure rarely accepted. Yet every plant on the farm was thriving. Gardeners learnt what each required for rude health and found a way to provide it.

Ever seen a quince hedge before?

If not experiencing the wonder of Constance directly leaves you in any doubt as to whether you should add Babylonstoren to ‘the list’, I should perhaps also add that our entire morning (entry, wandering, tour and fruit juice for two) set us back the equivalent of exactly 62 new English pennies, which can’t help but add to the feel-good factor.

A cool, shady but beautiful place to rest after the tour

I’m not usually keen on gardens without old, established trees (remember the majority is 2007-designed); I’m not usually keen on commercial gardens with thousands of people trawling through (and gosh, were there people trawling through), but none of this matters when a garden is created with such extraordinary inspiration and cared for with such obvious love.

A Dutch architecture-inspired insect hotel

Design is all in the detail and when it’s done just right, you hardly notice a ‘design’ at all.

Tulbaghia, used to deter snakes in the garden

* * *

Thank you so much to those of you who’ve filled in the survey for my Masters dissertation: it’s an enormous help for my research. If you haven’t done it yet, there’s still time, just click here to get started. And please tell your garden-loving friends…I’m aiming for 1,000 responses! Many, many thanks.

Function meets form, even in the car park, with beautiful shady coverings

21 thoughts on “Babylonstoren, South Africa

  1. FlowerAlley says:

    Tulbaghia looks like what we call society garlic. I plant is all over my garden to discourage deer from eating my plants. I had no idea that snakes hate it too. I must plant more around the bunny yard. By the way, this was wonderful …again.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Tulbaghia is definitely the same as society garlic. You’ve taught me something though; I didn’t know it was good for keeping deer away. Now that I’m in a ‘deer-ed’ country again that could be very useful, thank you. I tried garlic spray for possums in Australia but decided life was too short after a while! But if plants can sit there and do their own thing…much better!

        • jannaschreier says:

          Are they no good for you, even in Devon? Mind you, I think you are in a bit of a frost pocket, aren’t you? Shame you didn’t have your camera to the ready for the hoofed visitors! I do think they are beautiful, although quite accept I may change my mind on this!

    • jannaschreier says:

      Glad you appreciated the carpark, Kim. I almost left that photo out – wondered if a road and some cars wasn’t very gardening blog-like! It was gorgeous though.

  2. Lita Sollisch says:

    I’m half way around the world here on Long Island, New York. USA. Loved seeing how the other half lives and gardens. Would love to take a trip one day. Thanks for the great photos. Some day!

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thanks, Lita. It’s always fun to see what’s happening in different parts of the world, isn’t it? Although I think the place that’s had more impact on me than any other is very close to you: The High Line. We’re lucky we have such variety to enjoy though.

  3. Suzanne says:

    Gosh, there is a lot to love about this garden; the car park, shaded cafe area, quince hedge, pumpkin sculpture and [gulp…can I force myself to say it!] the pig face ground cover under the fig trees. I could almost be tempted to set up my vegie garden again. However, I’m aware of the huge effort that must be expended in keeping this garden looking so beautiful. A really interesting post thanks Janna, and a few thoughts to ponder.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Oh, good, another carpark fan! You always appreciate great design, Suzanne. You have a nose for it, however unconventionally conveyed. Keeping a veggie (I’m back to the English spelling now) garden as beautiful as this is seriously high maintenance though, as you rightly point out. But always nice to get a few ideas and I think absorbing such perfect design helps to hone the skills!

  4. germac4 says:

    What an interesting garden … I like the idea of a garden ” holding you & calming you down” . I love the veggie garden & the whole garden has lots of ideas for an Australian gardener because our climate is so similar. Constance is a gem with her chicken gym!

    • jannaschreier says:

      We all need calming down sometimes! Growing veggies is never the easiest and as you say, particularly challenging in hot climates. It’s great to see what can be done though, isn’t it? I’m still not sure how the whole chicken gym works – why do all other chickens in the world lay eggs without one?!!

  5. Adriana says:

    We could use car parks like that here in Australia! I think this garden could only ever have become so practical and yet lovely under the guidance of Constance — but they certainly don’t charge enough! Great to gain a world view from your posts Janna – how did you fit so much into a short visit?!

    • jannaschreier says:

      Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have beautiful, shady carparks like this throughout Australia? I know they are expensive to maintain but I do wonder sometimes if we get our priorities right. We’re richer than ever and yet we still don’t really value these simple things. To be fair, my RHS membership card got me in for free, so it would have been £1.24 without that! And in answer to your final question…there’s just so much to see in such a small area. It is an incredible part of the world.

  6. kate@barnhouse says:

    Thank you for this excellent review, Janna. There are so many inspiring ideas here, it’s a rare joy to come across a garden that is such a harmonious blend of vision, design and curation (even down to car parks and loos!).

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