The Retreat Gardens

I have a vivid memory of seeing this beautiful kloof for the first time in 2014, simple cottages perched on exposed lawned embankments, a stark reminder of the 1970s style municipal resorts. What I was looking at was the first built phase of a farm-wide golf course development. It was painfully out of place in this arid but rich fynbos kloof. The roaming lawns continued to swallow the bordering fynbos, killing everything in its wake, advancing beyond its planned borders. There was no diversity, interest, wildlife or privacy. Our values towards private gardens or landscapes has changed since then as our relationship to nature transformed drastically in the last decade. People have come to value natural principles in arrangement and management, gardens no longer need to be ordered and formally arranged to be considered beautiful, a style normally accompanied by the sound of lawn mowers, blowers and trimmers. Our dominance over nature is not what indicates a designer’s hand. Plus, the water crisis in the Western Cape has forced people to relook at how we use the land that is in our private domain by treating private land as the important habitats and ecosystems they truly are.

The property here at Cederkloof Retreat was in serious need of an update to reflect our values towards nature and our place in it, to increase ecosystem diversity and to transform what looked and felt depressing. At first glance over the lawns and exposed cottages, obvious changes were immediately necessary such as removing the cars from its prominent position, thus we closed roads and made parking areas away from the houses to force a car/human disconnection. Then we implemented a no-music rule that is strictly enforced so that the sounds of the landscape are audible.

Our second intervention was that of transforming the lawns into back to fynbos gardens, and by doing this the plants lured hundreds of birds, insects, textures, smells, fresh air, life, back into the accommodation retreat area. Transforming 5000m2 of lawn to fynbos took all the efforts of our crew, friends, family, and passersby and we planted 9000+ plants without chemicals, fertilizers, or even compost.

We were on a very strict budget, but as so often happens in absence of money, creativity and knowledge led the way. But money was not our only constraint: We are remote and all materials had to be transported from Malmesbury or Cape Town, all more than an hour and a half’s drive away and transport is expensive. Our climate is that of extreme highs and lows (and very little in-between), the summers being long, hot, dry and windy. The soil conditions were dire as most of the soil was coarse river sand or even builder’s sand covering rubble from previous structures. The soil throughout the gardens are devoid of organic matter, basically we had dirt instead of soil. Fourth, the kikuyu and kweek grasses we were removing had roots more than a meter deep in some places. We were a functioning resort with guests coming and going and many with a ‘not in my backyard’ attitude to our work and our reviews started reflecting the discomfort people experienced by the work being done. We had to be quiet, neat and fast.

Our plant choice was local indigenous fynbos, since they could easily deal with the climate and add to regional belonging.

The fast growth was noticeable within months and immediately the birds flocked in and the diversity in life, colours and textures was grabbing people’s attention. Right away the garden was more than aesthetic pleasure, more than a background for the business of accommodation. One of the unforeseen gifts were the numerous medicinal wild herbs that are part of this planting community used for ailments and skin care, relaxation or fragrance. Plant and flower cuttings and home remedies freely flow to the homes of all our staff members.

Permaculture in the garden

I used my knowledge of permaculture to ensure that we use as little as possible energy to achieve the highest impact. I have great respect for the design thinking this discipline teaches, by considering whole systems, respect for all life and diversity built into the DNA of all operations.

  • The veggie gardens were created from a patch of kikuyu growing in deep river sand. We used garden clippings and weeds for green composting thereby achieving soil fertility without the access to animal manure. The harvest produced artichokes, melons, pumpkins, beets, broad beans and tomatoes in abundance.
  • We have used the grasses we removed from the gardens to top our sandy roads, thereby reducing the dust and to prevent corrugation and water deterioration of the road tops.
  • Permaculture sheet mulching techniques were also employed to reduce the energy it took to remove the lawns. Now we are using sheet mulching in the wilderness areas to transform previous grazing patches, that have grown into the fynbos, back to indigenous habitat.
  • All the grey water from the jacuzzis and the houses are taken through filters and finely sprayed into the garden to oxidize and cleanse the water as it feeds the plants.
  • All our gardens clippings are used to make herbal products from creams to teas and incense, this in turn feeds a local economy for the women who work on the farm. (See Cederkloof Botanicals Section) The fragrant remnants of the plants are used in the ovens to infuse our teas and breads with incredible flavours and aromas.

The gardens have taught me about the cycles of life, allowed me to shed my emotions into its soil and give me hope for a resilient future. Because we have never used chemicals or foreign soil additives, we can build the soil’s healthy biology through supporting the fungal systems and reducing any addition of foreign bacteria. We can sink all the carbon into the soil to feed the plants, we can recycle all our green, paper and ash waste into its fertility building system. Our gardens lift our spirits, support the bird populations and the whole eco system, the plants keep us cool and dust free. It is the most important aspect of our work here at Cederkloof and we are filled with gratefulness for its abundance.