1960s: English nostalgia

My mother lived in her garden. The influence of her British heritage was unmistakable in our Zambian garden. Bushveld was transformed into a series of English garden terraces; boundaries were defined by hedges and trees.  I remember dozens of trees, shrubs, colourful herbaceous borders, a rose garden and swathes of green lawn. Indigenous plants were mostly removed as weeds. Acres of garden were easily maintained by a large number of family servants and "garden boys". 

In the back garden was a set of fruit trees, vegetable patch and massive compost heap - self-sufficiency was critical as there were no "garden centres" or supermarkets for several hundred miles.

A slasto path was laid from the gate to the front door;  an uncomfortable wrought iron table and chairs rested on a circle of stone tiles under the shade of one of the massive trees. Garden furniture wasn't for decoration - tea and homemade cakes were served each afternoon by the "house boy" to residents and guests.  I would have killed for a swimming pool in the hot Zambian summers, when I was home from my Cape Town boarding school.

Like many other gardeners, we bought plants from the municipal nurseries that kept the town's streets lined with trees. My mom taught me how to propagate our own flowers and shrubs. Gardening was a hot topic at the "WI" (Woman's Institute") and my mother was considered something of a local expert. She was also an enthusiastic artist and our garden and local birds were often the subject of her watercolours. 

We ordered their fruit trees, roses, dahlias and bulbs from the relevant stands in the flower hall at the Rand Easter Show, where her baked goods, paintings and handcrafts were often displayed in the WI hall. Plants were ordered out of season and forwarded by mail or rail later in the year. Annual bedding plants were mostly offered as bundles wrapped in newspaper by door-to-door vendors. Bare root hardys like roses and ivys were posted to and from friends and family in South Africa.


1970s: Informal Influences

In the 70's my family moved to manage a farm and the garden took second place to crops that could feed cattle and the family. Our garden grew less formal; attractive but high maintenance flowers were limited to around the patio.

Natural-looking rockeries replaced our formal terraces, curves and flowing lines dominated perimeter borders. Kidney-shaped island beds were a fruit salad of colour with flowering shrubs, roses, perennials and seasonal annuals.

My sister and I spent our holidays on horseback learning farming from the ground up - literally. I joined work gangs to fix fencing, herd cattle and spray crops for bugs using poisons that are now illegal across the world. We ate all our own produce, drank unfiltered water, used power tools and played disorganised sport with the other local kids - and survived.


1980s: TV gardening & Townhouses

I moved permanently to South Africa, volunteered for the SA Defence Force and saw gardening on TV for the first time. Kristo Pienaar and Keith Kirsten popularised indigenous flora and landscaping. “Landscaping does not start with the planting of trees and shrubs, it starts with the planning of a garden to suit the owner’s needs,” Keith would say again and again. For the first time I began to think of gardening as a possible career option, not just a hobby.

Plants and small shrubs were sold in supermarkets and in the hardware store where I took my first civilian job. Instant lawn became available and the Kreepy Krauly transformed swimming pools and every husband's sunday morning. Roses were sold in black plastic bags and could be planted anytime during the year.

Our hardware store was busy - dad's did their own maintenance and small home extensions. The average guy was pretty good with his hands - every man owned an array of power tools and could fix most home appliances. You only took your car to a dealership for servicing if there was something seriously wrong or it was still under guarantee.

A four-year drought in the 80s had a big impact. Gardens filled with birch trees and ivy transformed into gardens filled with water wise palms, lavender and strelitzias. There was also a "growing" interest in herbs fostered by Margaret Roberts, who wrote prolifically and provided a huge range of herbs in her Herbal Centre near Pretoria.

The townhouse and cluster home building boom took off. Swimming pools and built-in braais became part the patio. Every plant had to fulfil a purpose - screening, colour, texture or smell - rather than simply fill space in a garden.


1990s: Transplanted Tuscan Villas

I begin working at Ryan Nurseries, and like most nurseries at the time it evolved into garden centre that offered fertiliser, insecticides, seeds, benches, art for the garden and pruning equipment. The 90s was a decade for growth in the gardening industry and I helped build the retailer's new double-level store in Bedfordview.

Townhouse complexes sprang up on the farms in Bedfordview providing the motivation to create gorgeous small spaces. Landscaping became an accredited profession. We were asked to do a lot of theme gardens in tropical, Japanese and Tuscan styles. Many large Bedfordview homes returned to formal gardens, straight paths and flagstone paving, evergreen hedging and topiary plants. It was good business for Ryans, and I was able to get hands-on experience in some very large, very beautiful gardens.

Further droughts ensured that water wise gardening added new energy to the indigenous plant movement. The preservation of South African plant species became the forerunner of the biodiversity movement of today. Boundary fencing and high security walls replaced hedges; expensive patio furniture and exotic containers arrived from the East. Easy-to-install water features launched water gardening and multi-level ponds. I was kept busy fixing underpowered water pumps and leaking koi ponds.

Ryans grew into a venue for family outings, with tea gardens, children's play areas and mini zoos. Our rabbits continually got out; the macaws bit unwary fingers. Keeping kids entertained while their parents shopped was a full time job! We started a host of satellite shops offering pool services, irrigation equipment, silk flowers, florist equipment, pet accessories and outdoor furniture. And I met the love of my life who worked opposite the Nursery at Murray & Roberts.


2000s: Sustainability & Satisfaction

This last decade has been a period of radical rethinking. Beyond its decorative and relaxing characteristics, gardeners now question the purpose of a garden. Sustainability, biodiversity and ecological gardening are hot topics as my gardening clients plant the indigenous flora needed by micro-fauna to survive. Inextricably linked to eco-gardening was the return to natural organic products. People stopped the monthly cycle of spraying for bugs.

I left Ryans to venture on my own in February 2000 to do more gardening and less "retailing". These days I am asked continually about water wise alternatives, invasive alien plants, butterfly and bird friendly gardens and therapy gardens. Issues of climate change and global warming have meant a boom in architectural succulent plants.

Lawns are reduced in size and 'permeable paving' is making a big comeback as more people stay home to entertain. Jamie Oliver, Delia and other TV celebrity chefs have encouraged herb growing and edible plants and flowers.

Many of my customers returned to doing their own gardening, albeit with a garden service (or me) providing the "heavy lifting" - gardeners and servants no longer live on the premises. Gardening is a great stress reliever (and money saver) in these difficult times and it beats going to a sweaty gym to get exercise. My clients find that garden provides a sense of achievement that no high-powered job or big car could ever provide.

The future? Colour, beauty, scent, greenery and water will always be the foundations of gardening. But I hope to hear more about carbon conscious gardening and gardening for biodiversity to appear on the gardening agenda in the next decade.