NOT too long ago, on the blustery day the Cape succumbed to a glorious thunder-and-lightening storm, I visited mesmerising Babylonstoren in the Drakenstein Valley of the Cape Winelands. It wasn’t a personal meander of my own choosing, even though I am extremely partial to those as I simply love this extraordinary place. It was on invitation, to launch a rather special book, The Garden of Babylonstoren (Struik Lifestyle, R400), which celebrates this iconic fruit and vegetable garden and lays bare its story in all its glory.
The launch took the form of a guided tour by down-to-earth head gardener Liesl van der Walt, accompanied by renowned South African garden designer Franchesca Watson (who, with Babylonstoren, wrote the text) and multi-talented garden photographer Heidi Bertish, who took many of the photographs.
Their love and respect for this splendid space is apparent. Says Franchesca: “The way Babylonstoren expresses itself visually is inordinately charming. Every material is simple and intrinsic, nothing is smart or clever or tacky , everything is understandable and filled with sincerity: it is a generous place.”
Heidi, who had a strong affinity with the garden before she landed her “dream commission”, picks up on this theme. “It is a garden for everyone – a generous space that appeals across all ages and cultures yet is quintessentially South African. It is a garden with a strong design handwriting and consistent vision, imbued with the heart and style of the many talented people that innovate, create and maintain it.”
Through her unerring lens, she has captured the garden’s true essence – its moods and moments – in an unpretentious and authentic way. This is not a styled Babylonstoren. It’s a love song to a natural space and its waxing and waning seasonal beauty.
Over the course of a year, in this “green library of the best kind”, Heidi captured over 800 exquisite images. In her photographs you see the shapes and forms that create Babylonstoren’s unique qualities – from Stompie the donkie to grape-laden vines or rose-heavy arches, the custom-built Succulent House or the perfect symmetry of the wooden-slatted Puff Adder walkway … birds, bees, botanicals.
Here she picks some of her favourites from The Garden of Babylonstoren and takes us behind the scenes …
THE ROSE TOWERS “Before photographing a garden, I always visit to get a feeling for the space and how it fits together; to identify important bits; chat to the designer and people that live with, tend to and pick from it. It gives me an understanding of the meaning and cycles of the garden and how people interact and brush up against it every day. It’s important to me that this comes across in my images. When it came to photographing the garden at Babylonstoren I realized that the rose-covered towers were one of those defining design elements in the garden that required consideration on how best to capture. I decided it was an image portraying the dynamic contrast of shapes – the rose draped triangles in contrast to the rectangular geometry of the hedges and walkways, and the layering of these shapes within a connected succession of symmetrical walkways and rills, that was needed. I knew it was a tall order and so over a good couple of visits to the garden I had been watching the light and how it moved across this area. It was a scorcher of a day on the farm – rose fragrance hung in the air and as the sun began to dip behind the winery I watched as it clipped the tops of the frothy rose-covered towers, catching them in varying states of lightness and shadow. The light was very, very soft but there was just enough of it to make the geometry of leafy green rows and espaliered quince hedging glisten. I pressed the shutter. Bam!”
ON THE AFRICAN BOSCHVELDER CHICKENS “Late one afternoon I walked up from the garden to grab a fresh drink from the farm shop when I happened upon this gorgeous gaggle of chickens all jostling for a position on the bench in the courtyard just outside the shop. Not believing my luck, I quickly set up my tripod while crossing my fingers that they would humour me with a continued show. It wasn’t long before I was jostling for a position myself – among the crowd of farm guests and visitors who by now had gathered around to record the performance, too!”
THE GLORIOUS WATER LILIES “The scented water lilies (Nymphaea) are spectacular at Babylonstoren in December. This day, early in the month, was particularly unusual as it had been raining. I had taken refuge with my camera in the bicycle shed just behind the ponds. As the sun broke through the clouds, they were transformed into shiny, reflective mirrors. It was the most wonderful moment: the garden had gone very still, and I had it almost completely to myself. Moody skies and the first break of sun turned the light almost otherworldly. The colours intensified just off gloss. Looking through my lens, at the scene unfolding in front of me, felt like the whole sky was reflected in the lily ponds just at this moment”.
Interesting facts about Babylonstoren
Since 2007, this old Cape Dutch farm has undergone a renaissance shaped by its owners Koos Bekker and Karen Roos. Today it is world famous for its hotel, restaurant, wine, the historic garden, its botanical collections and its farming methods. With its style being inspired by Karen Roos, and its creation informed by the Dutch East India’s Company’s Garden in Cape Town and master-minded by French-born garden architect Patrice Taravella, it’s pleasing design, dictated by a grid, has given it a language all its own.
Throughout the garden, there is a recognition of its heritage. In the citrus block, where 20 different varieties of citrus, including limes, lemons, nules, oranges, mandarins and grapefruit, are showcased, the trees, which are bordered by kumquat hedges, are set into a stony pavement, and a series of small channels lead water to them. The channels also feed a pond which is lined with Delft-inspired tiles. During the garden’s construction and preparation, many broken pieces of Delftware blue china were found, originally imported to the Cape by the VOC (Dutch East India Company), with its logo forming part of the painted design.
Babylonstoren’s renowned prickly pear bushes are surrounded by a low, whitewashed stone wall. They are arranged in a maze-like pattern so that you can walk through them. Eleven varieties of this prickly fruit are grown on the farm, including Turpin, Algerian, Direkteur, Meyers and Gymno Carpo. The most popular varieties in the Babylonstoren kitchens are Zastron and Messina.
The garden produces a myriad crops for various kitchens on the farm throughout the year. Not a challenge for the faint-hearted! “The link behind the garden and the restaurants guides decisions every day … the aim is to produce in a manner that is healthy and poison-free as the staff are able.”
The latest addition to the garden is a Healing Garden, which “completes another circle in the Babylonstoren story, linking back to the medicinal plants grown in the Company’s Garden over three centuries ago”.
ABOUT HEIDI Cape Town photojournalist Heidi Bertish is a garden photographer, writer and content producer. She has represented South Africa at the Chelsea Flower Show and is currently Condé Nast House & Garden magazine’s garden editor. She has a background in landscape design and for her, being behind the lens at Babylonstoren was “an absolute treat”.
For more insights and anecdotes from Heidi’s year spent photographing Babylonstoren, follow Heidi on Instagram at @heidibertish
ALL OF THE ABOVE IMAGES ARE BY HEIDI BERTISH.
Published by Struik Lifestyle, an imprint of Penguin Random House South Africa, (www.penguinrandomhouse.co.za) The Garden of Babylonstoren covers every aspect of this stunning and memorable 3.5-hectare garden, from its immaculate design, Cape Dutch history, plants, cultivation methods, botanical collections, wild flowers and the creative and innovative – and genuinely nice – people behind it all. It is an inspiring and informative treasure, much like the garden itself.
With huge thanks to Heidi Bertish, Penguin Random House and Babylonstoren for the use of the images.