I visited historic Vergelegen, outside Somerset West, on my recent trip to South Africa. I first saw this wine estate when I was studying archaeology at the University of Cape Town, and was involved in a dig on the crumbling property. I remember picking small ripe oranges from disintegrating wine barrel planters on the decaying stoep of the manor house. Later, at home, I scooped out their shells and filled them with orange sorbet for a dinner party. I wasn't cut out for archaeology. Digging up the past never interested me as much as creating something for the present and future.
A lot has changed since then. For one thing, the estate is now owned by Anglo-American - so money is no object. The land and buildings are now a showpiece, and have been beautifully restored over the years. You can read my article about Vergelegen's background and gardens, with lots of pictures, on Gardenista. Richard Arm, the head horticulturist and garden manager at Vergelegen since 2010, was very generous in providing information for that piece. He was also kind enough to sit down and answer the questions that I like to put to people who have gardening in their blood:
Photo: Marianne Alexander
Do you garden for a living?
Yes, I am lucky enough to be the horticulturist and get to play in the dirt every day.
Where is your garden?
Vergelegen Wine Estate near Cape Town, South Africa. We have extensive historical gardens and our estate is open to the public
What size is your garden? Approximately!
All the area in the heritage core of Vergelegen is approximately 60 hectares [148 acres].
When did you start to garden?
I remember being at least five years old and helping my dad in the garden on a weekend.
Who or what inspired you to garden?
The love of the great outdoors and remembering a well-proportioned garden gives a sense of calm and peace that everyone should experience. Unfortunately these days people are too busy to stop and take in these elements that make living – living.
Do you remember the first plant you grew?
That has to be the bean in a jar in pre-school but I also remember growing radishes from seed in our veggie patch at home in my early years.
Has a plant ever disappointed you?
No plants don’t disappoint, we make mistakes and try to grow plants where they are not happy. I always say work with nature and then things start working well.
What plant has made you happiest?
I started out as a young horticulturist in 1990 and since then planted thousands of trees. I get great joy from seeing these trees now being majestic parts of the landscape; these are the rewards.
What do you love about your garden right now?
Right now we are entering spring and all the big oak trees on the estate have brand new leaves and are looking fantastic. The wisteria have also started flowering - also, Wow!
What do you feed your garden?
I stick to certified organic fertilizers in our gardens and worm compost .
How often do you garden?
Every day is a good day to garden.
What is the garden chore you look forward to?
Sounds a bit strange but I love mowing the lawn. This is my thinking time and nothing bothers me as I make lots of noise with my lawn mower. Also the smell of freshly cut grass is a happy childhood memory.
What is your least favourite garden chore?
I have dogs at home … this is my least favourite job…
Where would you like to garden, if you could garden anywhere?
I must say I am happy in my space now; it takes a lifetime to learn what to grow where and why. If I changed it would take me way out my comfort zone (this might be a good thing?).
What would you like to grow, that you can't?
I would love to grow vanilla vine just for fun. These rare and sought-after culinary ingredients fascinate me.
Food, flowers, native or ornamental?
I grow all these at Vergelegen. The best of all is to grow ornamental flowers that are food – artichokes for example. My favourites are the flowers that bring joy to the garden.
Your favourite garden writer, or personality?
My favourite garden personality is Keith Kirsten. From a young age I remember his TV gardening programs and these made a big impression on me. Now, later on in life, one of his favourite gardens is Vergelegen. He often visits with overseas visitors and I then have the privilege to show him around. Inspirational!
What plants do you dislike?
Invasive alien vegetation in our fynbos areas. These create severe fire threat, and they are very bad for our water resources.
Would you like more sun or more shade?
I am lucky to have the best of both worlds with everything in our gardens. I am a summer person so preferably sunshine, and I love growing our own vegetables and herbs and these prefer good sun.
If you could visit just one garden, where would it be?
That would be Kew Gardens on top of the list, no doubt.
What would you like people to know about gardening?
Gardening is good for the soul. It's where you can find that inner peace we are all looking for in our hectic lifestyles these days. Nature teaches us to slow down, breath, and smell the roses. It works for me, anyway!