Clare Miller’s Whimsical Gardens

Our last meeting in the garden of Linda Johnson in Belvidere was truly magical.  Knowing the garden for the last twenty years and the two previous owners I did not know what to expect. How it has changed! A tiny pool cleverly covered in winter with a sliding deck, a beautiful garden pavilion with outdoor living amenities and then … the fairy garden.  Below Clare’s account of whimsical gardens.

Thank you Clare tor taking us on your childhood journey, for sharing all the memories and enchanting your audience. 

Clare Miller

Here we are in this magical Fairy Garden which Linda Johnson has created for so many children and by-passers to enjoy. One of those visits stands out in my mind. Chloe, my wild-child grand daughter was being her usual wild self when I said, “Come Chloe,  Ouma has something to show you”  On arrival, I picked her up and she went, “AAAAH” We examined every item from the fairy wings on the line to the bicycles, the face on the tree to the door into that same tree Chloe was totally enveloped by the atmosphere and I have been thinking about what it is that can capture the imagination and excitement not only of a little girl but also of anyone who enters a garden.  Shouldn’t gardens be a place of mystery, of atmosphere and whimsy? Shouldn’t we need to go back, not to list the flowers nor to tick birds off on a checklist?  Shouldn’t we need to go back for the feeling that it evokes? Shouldn’t we want to be in that place watching the joy of children running the paths, captured by excitement and whooping as they go? Shouldn’t we feel that tingly sensation knowing that perhaps, creatures are peeping out at us and that perhaps, just perhaps the fairies are there as well?

Linda Johnson’s Fairy Garden
Linda’s Fairy Garden

For some people it is about tiny places. Our miniature gardens were a prime example of this and visitors couldn’t get enough of them  They marvelled at the tiny plants, at the miniature paths, seats and water ways. And they also drew in their breath, “AAAH”, at being able to peep through archways, arbours and under trees.  Many of us, however, have larger gardens. How can we, with minimum resources, aching limbs and not much help still create a place where others want to visit and in fact where we ourselves want to be. Can we do this?

And so I remembered my childhood. My parents created a place of great beauty and magic on our farm which was the last on the Constantia Mountains. Fairies abounded and our birthdays were made special when we received a letter from the Fairy Queen. The sheet was blank but when we ironed it the wishes appeared and there was always a picture of a turreted, soaring and beautiful castle. My Dad did magic with lemon juice and his whimsical pictures.  I remember well, in our garden, the weeping wisteria, the rockery, the meet-me-at-the-garden-gate and a beautiful pond. My mother was one of the first to create a wild flower garden up on a slope above the house and she encouraged us to go and look for the brown Afrikaner Lily.  Mom sewed us canvas shorts and waved us out of the door without once telling us to “be careful!”  In this place we children swung on monkey ropes, explored the mountains above us, created our own patches of garden, hung upside down in trees, watched guests arrive from our secret spot in an old oak tree, jumped on runking branches and created secret paths through the seemingly impenetrable bush naming every corner as we hacked our way through wag-n-bietjie thorn and other rough stuff. Here, was born my great love of magic, whimsy and a deep need to create beauty.

Clivia and Stream Walk at Babylonstoren

Our world is full of amazing gardens and there are many parks which draw you in for the very reasons I have mentioned.

Don’t the French do everything with aplomb? For many years the French gardens were classical as befitted those French aristocrats. But lately there has been a renaissance particularly in the provinces and often in home gardens where despite limited means in many cases and great resourcefulness gardens have become beautiful park-like areas which experience a sense of partnership with nature. In a book called French Country Gardens by Louisa Jones my favourite garden is that of Doudou Bayol  in Provence where the owner says “Gardening is my best medicine. I tried yoga but nothing makes me feel as good as gardening.” The gardens of France make great use of the elements of whimsy which we are searching for. How beautifully they manage vistas, meandering pathways, streams and planting. Many play with art in their gardens, not only sculptures but net passages, imaginative nests to sit in and tunnels of bamboo.

I know that many of you have visited the great gardens of England such as Kew. Hampton Court, Sissinghurst  and many others. Helen Levin, who is here today, told me that she worked in Cliveden house for many years. This amazingly gracious place, on 180 acres, was built in the early 18th century and the gardens were landscaped pretty much as they are today.  They were designed to provide unexpected views of the River Thames, an amphitheatre, a magnificent urn and a huge parterre. The English care for gardens and preserve plants and trees. I love the three enormous conifers which stand in Scotland’s Cawdor Castle just like three giants waiting for Macbeth to continue his evil deeds

And back here in South Africa we too have magical gardens. The best thing is that they are on our doorstep meaning that when we visit we  don’t  have to fight our way through crowds of tourists. Our sunny country lends itself to gardening and the exciting thing is that there are so many different biomes to play with.  Kirstenbosch has to be one of the most admired gardens in the world. Who hasn’t wandered through the Almond Hedge with its winding branches where the children love to explore or closed your eyes in the braille walk to smell the plants.  How many of you have spent time at Lady Anne Barnard’s bath and imagined a gracious Edwardian lady taking a morning dip in amongst the ferns. It was here that when we visited with our school once a term I first heard  someone, Miss Johns was her name, conversing with birds.

It’s hard to imagine that vegetable gardens can be classed as whimsical until you stroll through Babylonstoren. I know those pumpkins have magic in them. I’m sure magical creatures swing through those arbours and scurry through the boomslang walk touching down to admire the espaliered quinces or the insect hotel.

And talking of magic. If you know our the West Coast area well enough to have experienced all the seasons, you will fully understand floral  magic. When the dryness of the  summer and the bleakness of the  winter veldt turns to spring, surely magic is working when that magic explodes the hills into a paradise too awesome to comprehend.

Plectranthus in Kirstenbosch

And then, last week, we took two of our grandchildren to another place and felt, whilst we walked around, that the experience easily matched that of wandering through Kirstenbosch. I hope many of you have heard of Dylan Lewis, our world famous South African sculptor. He has  created a Sculpture garden outside Stellenbosch. Ten years ago he bought a derelict apple farm on the slopes of the Stellenbosch mountains. He took a front-end loader and contoured 7 hectare of land.  He then created two ponds and a lake, planted indigenous trees and plants and today you wander through sculpted hedgerows admiring over 60 magnificent sculptures set against a landscape of huge towering mountain peaks. The whole park does not reveal itself straight away. You pass through different areas, almost like rooms to encounter another wow view, sculpture or plant type.

Dylan Lewis Sculpture Garden


And so, back to the creation of our own whimsical gardens.. Can we do it? If so what are some of the elements required?

Choice of flowers must be important and suddenly a wealth of names comes to mind. Think of fuschias, foxgloves and snowdrops.  Gaura with its mass of butterfly blooms needs to be mentioned and so many of our delicate fynbos beauties such as the ericas, sparaxis and tritonias.  Scented flowers have to find their home in our whimsical garden so we look to honeysuckle, lavender, violets and roses and in the indigenous spectrum what about the buchu family, the pelargoniums, wild rosemary and coleonema, just to mention a few.

The way plants grow also add magic. Think of waving gaura, huge leafy plants like acanthus, arum lilies and a host more.

Even our creatures add to our whimsical garden. Back to my childhood. Dad had obviously cut the ground away to build our house. By the time my sisters and I grew up that bank was covered by tumbling roses. If you parted the fronds, you found trap door spiders with their silken tunnels.  And next door on my aunt’s farm we searched for the golden beetles on her Boston Ivy. Little drops of molten gold which I have never heard of nor seen since

If when walking through someone’s garden you come across an unexpected bird bath, a pond, a sculpture or a well placed rock, the garden, for me, is lifted to different heights

My late brother-in-law always stated that he wanted his garden to be clean and simple. He wanted a square of lawn surrounded by flowering shrubs which did not drop leaves nor hang over. Oh Ian, I would say. But then I cannot visit you. Your garden will have no magic, no whimsy and certainly no me! So today, for fun, let’s take a square plot like his and see if we can turn it into a whimsical garden!

Clare’s imaginary whimsical garden (My apologies for the poor quality of the picture, sun in the wrong spot!)