Sunday, September 4, 2011

Gardening Q&A: Maureen Viljoen

My mother, Maureen Viljoen, gardens in Cape Town, South Africa. She is a member and 2013 chairperson of The Constantia Valley Garden Club, which raises funds biennially via an Open Gardens Weekend for Abalimi bezekhaya and Soil for Life, two non-profits providing financial and practical support to enable underprivileged South Africans to grow their own food. The club's 2010 Open Gardens Weekend raised over $12,000 for these organizations.

My mother taught me to garden and to love plants as much as she does. Anything I know about gardening, she taught me, either by example or by showing me how. My earliest memories involve soil and earthworms and a compost pile and radishes and fresh cut flowers, and a rose garden in bloom for my birthday. She loves roses, so I love roses. She needs flowers in the house, so I need flowers in the house. The way I live and work now is because of what my mother did, then, and continues to do, every day, in her garden in Cape Town.

Why do you garden?
I garden because I absolutely have to. There is nothing I enjoy more, nothing more fulfilling, more pleasurable...It makes my life good.

What inspired you to garden?
When we built our first home in Bloemfontein in 1957 I was presented with an empty piece of ground. We'd had a lot of rain that year and it was a morass. My mother had always had a garden, and my sister had a garden. And as my garden grew, so did my interest.

In what climate were you born?
I was born in Port Elizabeth, on the south coast of South Africa. ['PE' has a subtropical climate with year-round rainfall. The region falls between the Mediterranean climate of the Western Cape and the summer rainfall areas farther up the east coast. Technically Port Elizabeth has an oceanic climate, shared with much of Europe and the Pacific Northwest.]

What was the first plant you grew?
My first garden was in Pinelands, Cape Town, where I was a little girl. I constructed a small house of bricks and made a tiny garden. Most of the plants were weeds pulled out of my mother's garden.

How often do you garden?
Every day! The garden has a lot going on in it and is not low maintenance.

What is your garden's climate?
Mediterranean [winter rainfall]. But in Cape Town we have this chunk of rock - Table Mountain - in the middle of the city, which dictates the climate, so my garden has its own microclimate.

What size is your garden?
A little less than half an acre.

What plant has most disappointed you?
I'm tempted to say roses, but they looked gorgeous last year because I fed them a lot. Broad [fava] beans. They haven't grown well here in Cape Town. In Bloemfontein where I had a big, sunny vegetable garden I had wonderful broad beans. And the tomatoes here get blight.

What plant has made you happiest?
There are so many...I'm looking at the garden as I speak. Maybe the Agapanthus. I have so many different kinds, now, all sorts of hybrids and cultivars.

What do you love about your garden right now?
It's green, it's peaceful, spring is springing. The sky in the evening is faintly pink as the sun goes down behind the mountain. And there are lots of arum lilies in bloom which just came up by themselves; I didn't plant them.

What do you feed your garden?
Lots of compost, lots of organic stuff. I use Bounce Back - made from chicken manure, in pellet form. I have 80 bags of compost delivered three times a year. I use the compost I make in my own bins as a mulch - they are not in a warm enough spot in the garden so the compost breaks down slowly.

What would you like to grow that you can't?
Vegetables. But I would have to knock out a whole flower bed. I do have cabbages and baby marrows growing in pots.

Food, flowers, native or ornamental?
Flowers. With a little bit of food.

Most inspiring garden writer, thinker, blogger, personality?
My daughter! You often plant things and then I think, I must do that, too. And Christopher Lloyd, because of his flowers. He put the most amazing colors together. Great Dixter - I saw a photo of his patio there: He had everything crammed in there - those big aeoniums, like beacons, they were beautiful!

What plants do you dislike?
Oh! Jasmine. Not the Trachelospermum jasminoides, but the other one [Jasminum officinale], because here it is so invasive. Once you plant it, you just can't get rid of it. It goes everywhere. It smells nice, but it gives me hayfever, too. When it flowers I have terrible sinus trouble.

Would you like more sun or more shade?
More sun. If I chopped down a lot of shrubs and trees I would get it, but that is not going to happen. Trees become very important.

What is your favourite garden chore or activity?
Sowing and germinating seeds. Propagation. I like it because it's fun: you never now if it's going to come up, or if something will eat it before it does. It's so exciting when seeds come up.

What is your least favourite chore?
I don't think there is one. I enjoy it all.

Where is your favourite private garden?
Leona Norman's Constantia garden is incredibly well run. She is meticulous, everything that I am not. She keeps notes on everything and her planning is impeccable. And Lyn McCallums' garden in Bergvliet. It is so interesting, and she grows vegetables in troughs...[both gardeners are fellow Constantia Valley Garden Club members].

Where is your favorite public garden?
Wisley, in England - the headquarters of The Royal Horticultural Society. In Cape Town, Kirstenbosch, of course, and the garden at The Cellars-Hohenhort Hotel. Jean Almon created the sort of garden there that I aspire to. Fabulous roses with interesting groundcovers beneath them. It's a garden that has been put together with love.

If you could garden anywhere, where would it be?
Maybe somewhere where the northwest wind doesn't blow. It's the strong, wild, winter wind and knocks things flat, but it brings the rain, which we need.

Here is a slideshow of my mother's garden. Thanks to Vince for his patio shot with bubbly.


  1. Lovely and so very fitting.

  2. I am overwhelmed. And quite filled up.

  3. Wow! What a lovely cool oasis from the rest of the world Makes me want to call in a backhoe to take out everything!

    and, thanks for letting us meet your mother a bit. A lovely thing to do. The heck with Shelterpop!

  4. Your Mom's garden is spectacular. I can see why you return each year. It looks like it is a slice of paradise there. Such incredible beauty. Thanks so much for sharing.

  5. Great interview of an extraordinary gardener! Yes, I might be a little biased. Much love to both the interviewer and the interviewee... ;-)

  6. This has me choked up. Gobsmacked, as those lovely Brits say. How lucky you are to share your passion with your mother, in equal parts and with symbiotic inspiration. Really lovely interview, Marie. Thanks for sharing.

  7. I'm so pleased I discovered your blog. I would love to see your 66 square feet first hand, but seeing I live in Cape Town, how can I get to see your mum's garden and also write a blog article? I have just sold our 3 000 sqm house and garden and I am seriously garden deprived. Beautiful - your blog. Will visit again.


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