‘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.
You didn’t disagree with Constance. Chicken consultant or not.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Design is all in the detail and when it’s done just right, you hardly notice a ‘design’ at all.
* * *
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.