Old Nectar, the creation of late South African gardening doyenne Una van der Spuy, is getting a new lease on life under the stewardship of her son Peter…
Words and Pictures: Marion Whitehead
The steep setting of Old Nectar, in a tranquil valley in the Jonkershoek Mountains on the edge of Stellenbosch, would have been a challenge to the most experienced gardener. But when Una van der Spuy and her husband Kenneth bought the rundown portion of a once larger wine farm in 1941, she didn’t know her cabbages from her carnations, and the garden contained not much more than some magnificent old oak trees.
However, inspired by her visits to the gardens of the stately homes of Britain, Una thought the beautiful 1815 Cape Dutch house, with a fine neoclassical gable thought to have been the work of architect Louis Thibault, needed a suitable surrounding. So she set to work while Kenneth went off to do his war job as a military attaché in Pretoria and London.
Una spent a remarkable 71 years creating what is believed to be the only privately owned garden in South Africa with national heritage status, declared in 1967. Her labour of love covers more than two hectares and continues to draw visitors from around the world to enjoy the great variety of plants, woven into a masterful palette of texture, colour and form.
Old Nectar is now entering a new era under the care of Una’s middle son Peter van der Spuy and the garden team. On a recent visit, I was able to see how these developments enhance her original layout.
I first visited Old Nectar when Una was in her 90s. Still energetic, the gardening legend insisted on showing our group of Cape Horticultural Society members around the garden herself, despite a fine drizzle. We followed her bobbing umbrella across the front garden’s terraced lawn, which she’d landscaped with the help of Italian POWs during World War II, using just picks, shovels, wheelbarrows and old-fashioned muscle power.
She’d turned the agricultural pond into a striking water feature beside the old slave bell, and had designed a magnificent rose garden in the shape of a wagon wheel.
Her favourite rose, Crimson Glory, was still blooming prolifically after more than 60 years. A giant Norfolk Island pine, planted for her husband in 1944, dominated the scene.
We meandered along a charming 200-metre pergola walk with brick pillars, once the main road to Stellenbosch before Una transformed it, then lingered in her woodland garden, dense with a riot of colourful azaleas, one of her favourite plants. Now and then, she’d give a blast on the whistle around her neck to summon her right-hand man and point out something that needed attention.
When she started this garden, it was difficult to find the plants she wanted – so she started her own nursery. And there were no South African gardening books – so she wrote her own, sharing what she learnt through trial and error.
“When she was pregnant with my younger brother, she had to slow down but couldn’t bear to sit around doing nothing, so she started writing articles for Farmer’s Weekly magazine on gardening,” Peter tells me during my early spring visit this year.
“Her articles grew into practical books that became standard references for generations of gardeners. I have inherited my mom’s copies of this gardening legend’s first books, still as relevant today as when they were written in the 1950s.”
Una died in 2012, the day after she finished her 14th book, My Favourite Plants, just four days short of her 100th birthday. “She wouldn’t have left a job half done,” comments Peter wryly of her indefatigable energy. An exploration geologist based in Zimbabwe, he’s inherited his mother’s drive and has taken on the task of making Una’s gardening legacy an enduring one, putting the property on a sustainable basis by turning the historic Manor House into an upmarket guest house and restoring cottages in the garden for short-term letting.
He’s also added two new gardens: a fynbos one on the steep, sunny slope behind the historic house, and a woodland garden to the east. Paths have been widened to facilitate wheelchair access, the waterfall raised, the driveway redone… the list goes on.
Already, Peter has broken a few of Una’s rules: there are plenty of benches scattered around nooks in the glorious garden, inviting one to linger. “There was no time to sit around in her garden, she was always busy,” he recalls.
In creating the new gardens, Peter has relied on head gardener Richard Ndebele, whom Una trained personally, and horticulturalist Hannes Steyn, who supplied Una with plants for many years from his nursery on the edge of Stellenbosch.
Peter initially brought Richard from Zimbabwe in 2003 to help him with the lower part of the property. “But when I came back some months later, my mom had pinched him and he was working in her garden. ‘I need him,’ was all she said.”
Just 21, Richard knew nothing about gardening then. “Perhaps she saw some potential in me,” he says with a shrug, when I find him among the azaleas.
“The first thing she taught me was how to cut the lawn. She stood at the other end and I had to aim for her feet, set the width of the lawnmower.” He had a good eye and soon Richard progressed to trimming and pruning. “I had to learn the names of two plants every day,” he says of his mentorship.
Along the way, Richard fell in love with the garden that he is now in charge of. Even though he has assistants, he still does all the pruning himself.
Hannes, an old-school horticulturalist, visits regularly to consult and advise on plant selection and care. He’s full of praise for the changes Peter has introduced, particularly the new brick pathways. “He’s made changes to suit the situation. Now it’s more visitor friendly.”
It remains a garden for all seasons, thanks to good planning. Features – such as the pool, the pergola walkway, a well-placed bench or even just a pair of urns – lead the eye to pleasing focal points. Foliage, rather than ephemeral flowers, are still the backbone of the garden. ‘Gardening should be fun and not hard work’, wrote Una in her book on Old Nectar, ‘so I go for plants with decorative foliage that keep growing without much care’.
Carefully placed for the effect they have throughout the year, her trees and shrubs add texture and colour, whether it is the glossy dark green of camellias or the contrasting tones of a bronze berberis, variegated coprosma or the silvery dusty miller. Blossoms are just an additional highlight.
Working on this project, Peter has become acutely aware of the enduring values of the garden Una created. Would she approve of what he’s done? “I’m working in her space, so I have to think of what she would like,” he says, standing in the spot that was once his playpen. However, she believed gardens are not static, that they’re always changing.
“Old Nectar is more than just her. It deserves to be taken forward looking into the next 200 years,” Peter says philosophically. Still, he often senses her watching over his shoulder…
Peter’s Landscaping Tips
- Stabilising Steep Banks: To hold the heavy clay soil in place in the new fynbos garden, Peter had metal bars hammered deep into the ground and fixed lengths of loose-weave hessian geotextile to them, then covered it with wire netting in vertical lengths. A path was laid over the lower end, neatly securing it. Ivy is planted through holes made in the hessian and will further stabilise the bank as it grows and covers it. Drip irrigation enables the whole ‘hanging garden’ to be watered by turning on one tap.
- Gutter Talk: Come autumn, leaves from deciduous trees near buildings can be a nuisance. Peter has covered Old Nectar’s with neat strips of plastic netting to match the guttering and secured it with wire.
- Ageing Concrete: Sprinkle some gritty sand onto the fresh cement and press it in to give it a rough texture. Paint with a mix of one level tablespoon of iron sulphate to five litres of water to make it blend into the old concrete. Peter has done this on the front steps of Old Nectar and cautions against making the solution too strong or you’ll end up with a bright orange effect. Finally, brush with yoghurt diluted with water if you want moss to grow quickly.
Have a Sip of Old Nectar
- Una van der Spuy’s last three books: Old Nectar: a garden for all seasons, How to Design Your Garden and My Favourite Plants can be ordered from Old Nectar.
- The garden is open to visitors on weekdays, and groups by arrangement.
- Accommodation is in the beautiful old Manor House or in self-catering garden cottages. 087 135 227, [email protected]
- Postcard Café at Stark-Condé Wines next door is open for light meals and wine tasting. 021 861 7703