December is more about Christmas preparations and family than actual time in the garden however when the weather is dry I like to get out in the garden as often as time allows in the festive season , most of the leaves are gone and you can see the garden in it’s bare outline and get an idea as to what needs to be added or pruned back . Also if you have planned for the garden to have winter colour it brings the silver birch and red dogwoods into their own and personally we would not be without either in the garden at this time of year .
And concerning birch trees now it is official you can wash your silver birch with soapy water to shine and bring out the white bark colour better in the winter months and over the years I knew one or two gardening friends who do this however I thought it was a bit fussy but this week the Royal Horticultural Society announced that it does this in it’s winter show gardens in London so perhaps I will give it a try for our silver birch closest to the house !
December is also the only month in the garden where there is almost no growth , everything is shut down to the bare bones and in fact the garden is taking a well earned rest while also by now all the leaf drop has occurred and it is a great time to walk around and plan for next year … we have no planting projects planned apart from the odd tree and shrub that might suggest itself in the next few months although there are a few shrubs needing shifting as I planted them originally too close to a path and now they are obstructing the passage and while in the ground a few years they are small and I can get them out relatively easy without too much damage to the roots . I have also marked out one or two wettish locations in the lower garden where a gunnera might look well so with that in mind I will be digging out a few chunks from our existing clumps to plant up in February .
This December has been unusual for us in that we were in South Africa for the first two weeks of December , a destination which was both a tick off the bucket list and a chance to enjoy sweltering temperatures of up to 36 deg while back home it was the normal rainy and 4 deg territory !
South Africa has always been a place I have been fascinated with and having grown up with Apartheid in the news on a weekly basis for me from the 1960’s onwards it was never far from the headlines . I never quite understood apartheid and how one group of people would want or try to isolate another or how you could treat another group as basically not fit to associate with … having been there I still don’t understand . I also wanted to visit for the history of the Zulu wars and their battles with the British army at Isandlwana and Rorkes Drift in 1879 but also for the land itself and the varied plants that have their origin there such as agapanthus together while the african novels of Wilbur Smith from 1964 onwards when he wrote “When the lion feeds ” was a great education . Strangely I had no interest in seeing the famous Big Five wild life as National Geographic TV channel gets me as close to lions , zebras and hippos as I want thank you very much !
No visitor to South Africa goes there without hearing all the stories of how unsafe it is and when I worked in the Seychelles for two years in 2006 / 2008 I was aware of the safety issues from ex pat South Africans and Seychellois people who had worked there . Security is a huge issue and although having heard the stories it is still a shock to see all the houses with high electrified fences and notices about armed guards and intruders will be shot and for the first few days you are pretty jittery and you do have to be always alert and on your guard . We travelled from Johannesburg to Kruger Game Park for three days and then on through Swaziland to Zulu Natal and from there an internal flight down to the Eastern Cape for the winelands and the garden route to Cape Town … did South Africa live up to expectations … I have to say yes it did and more … a beautiful beautiful country but with huge social problems and horrible living conditions for those in the townships and shanty towns most of which are just corrugated sheeting with up to 15 families sharing one outside tap for water … total political power is with the African National Party since 1994 so apartheid can no longer be blamed for all the problems today but the poor are still poor and there is huge inequality with both the rich white people as well as with the new middle class black population .
From what I could see on a sixteen day tour there are two very different South Africas , the area of Johannesburg north to Natal , rolling plains given over to cattle and very very poor black people living much as their ancestors did over a hundred years ago and then there is the Cape area which includes the wine lands and the garden route , white Afrikaner owned and dominated and very rich . I had always thought that the term “ garden route ” meant it was lined with beautiful gardens but not so although there are I am sure beautiful gardens as it is as beautiful and fertile a land as I have ever seen … the term dates back to the first white settlers , the Dutch in the 1600’s who thought it was so beautiful that it must be the setting for the Garden of Eden .
The Eastern Cape is like a gigantic manicured golf club , a huge rolling landscape filled to bursting point with vineyards edged by high mountain ranges while Cape Town itself is total bling bling especially the waterfront area which is indecently over the top Disneyesque and which I found just plain awful excess considering the appalling poverty on it’s doorsteps in the townships.
We took a tour of District 6 , a township of Cape Town , we felt like voyeurs and didn’t go into any of the houses but saw enough of the poverty and hurt inflicted by apartheid in the little museum and the faces of the children I photographed will stay with me for a long time .
Again from what I could see there is an air of blinkered indifference among the white Afrikaner class and a what we have we hold attitude even though how they can hold their heads up ever again after the way they treated their fellow human beings because of the colour of their skin through the apartheid system which they operated for over forty years and on the other side while though now in charge of every aspect of life in South Africa the ruling black ANC political party shambles along corruptly in power for the past 25 years making a mess of every public utility company through inefficiency such as the national power company where four hour electrical shut downs every day are normal and where they are 23 billion pounds in debt while overmanned by 60 % and the national carrier , South African Airlines , is bankrupt and only kept open through government top ups on a week to week basis and even for a casual visitor like ourselves it is obvious that SA economically is a basket case . A Sunday Times report on December 22nd quoted the current President that “ corruption and systematic looting of the public purse under his predecessor ( Zuma ) cost the country 27 billion pounds over nine years in power ” while the Daily Telegraph on December 21st stated “ 2019 has been the year of Zondo , the judge leading the commission into State Capture , a daily litany of incompetence and greed ” … and no one has gone to jail .
Harsh words you may think but to balance that political criticism I should say that we met with great courtesy and friendliness wherever we were in South Africa , people of all colour were really lovely to meet and talk to , they live in one of the most beautiful countries in the world and deserve better from their politicians .
While in South Africa I , almost a vegetarian in normal life , ate ostrich , worms , fried in a light sauce but still looking like worms (!) , a huge source of protein I ‘m told and the local crocodile … well you have to don’t you ? … never again for ostrich meat which was horribly sweet , a first and a last also for the worms while surprisingly the crocodile was very juicy and nice but I still couldn’t get past the idea it was crocodile !!
Well would you eat it !
The high lights of the South Africa trip were for me the visit to the Zulu War battle fields in Natal and the visit to the Cape Town Botanical Garden at Kirstenbosch while the animals in Kruger National Park were great to see up close and personal … in some cases , too close at one point where a bull elephant took exception to our land rover and came within two metres of us in a show of annoyance but I was never able to get past the fact that Kruger is a fenced in park although huge at almost 200 miles long by sixty miles wide .
I know fencing is necessary against poachers and the damage elephants and lions can carry out on local farms if they got loose … but after a hundred years of life in the park the animals are well not really wild ?
Also a personal gripe , the rangers , god bless them , they wanted us all to experience the Big Five so they were constantly on their radios directing the land rovers to where the last sighting was with the result that we ended up sometimes looking at a blob on the horizon almost half a mile away and speculating it was a lion or a cheetah while I was quite happy to watch the little impalas , my favourite animal in Kruger , all day and of course the elephants which were just awesome in the wild .
Zulu battle fields from 1879
I have visited a lot of gardens and some of the world’s best such as Blenheim Palace , Versailles , Sissinghurst , Majorelle , but none beats Kirstenbosch , the Cape Town Botanical Garden both for the variety of plants , over 7000 , and it’s unique setting at the foot of Table Mountain . It is also unusual for it’s lack of formality and although scruplously weed free and clean , no prepared orderly perennial beds or unfriendly keep off the grass signs with families free to picnic wherever they liked and at over 1300 acres you could spend a week there without seeing it all and there is even a path climbing directly to the top of Table Mountain which takes three hours to climb if you have the will … and the legs !
A half day visit was not close enough to relax and breathe in the atmosphere but we did get a flavour when we walked the tree top route , a wooden walkway suspended above the tree line and everywhere you look is dominated by Table Mountain , an unforgettable setting and what a place for a garden . Favourite plants in Kirstenbosh … has to be the protea , the national symbol of SA , closely followed by the agapanthus which are grown in beds of blue and white up to 1000 at a time and I also loved the silver tree , Leucadendron argenteum , which is only found in the Table Mountain area and nowhere else in the world , a real stop em dead in the track moment when you see it .
Kirstenbosch Gardens , Cape Town
The trip to South Africa was memorable and I would recommend it to anyone … would I go back … no … personal security is a huge issue and in most areas it is not safe at night and in fact hardly anyone ventures out for a walk after dark and at the seaside tourist areas you make sure you are not on a beach after sunset or before sunrise as the sad fact is that the night belongs to the young black people who come out from the townships at night and along with that comes the element whose main aim is mugging and robbery but the main reason I would not go back is that most visitors and travel companies visit just the Cape area and the Cape for me is just too white , too privileged and although jaw droppingly beautiful with the wine and garden routes , I have no wish to see it again .
I would visit ZuluNatal again where we travelled across and saw first hand the type of terrain over which the British Army fought the Zulu Kingdom in the early1890’s with tremendous casualties on both sides and which I have been reading about for over thirty years . Again the poverty issue and social divide for the black population today living around the battle site of Islandswana as they are as poor as they were over a hundred years ago is upsetting but because of the security issue I would not feel safe to travel there independently but don’t let me stop or influence you as I am just telling my experience which incidentally had no security issues and the people I met throughout especially the black people were extremely nice and kind .
A big digress there to South Africa and I want to finish off the decade writing about what it is to garden in rainy , cold Ireland !
Gardening in Europe has always depended on plants being imported and swapped and the three great monarchies of the renaissance and late middle ages , England , France , Spain along with the Italian city states , all followed the latest gardening trends and hired the great gardeners of the time to enhance their palaces and show off their power . In the late 1800’s the great plant hunting expeditions opened up the plants of China and Japan and brought them back to Europe with the new previously unknown shrubs such as rhododendrons , camelias together with hostas making their first appearance . Along with these came huge mistakes as some plants just became invasive and difficult to control and the same happened when plants from North America were imported and this afternoon I spent a few hours wrestling with one of these , myriophyllum aquaticum with the common name of parrot feather , a native of Lousiana , first seen in the wild in Ireland in 1985 when it got loose from small back garden ponds and colonised huge areas of wet lands . I first saw it in the Clonmel Garden Centre , a gorgeous looking rosette of olive green leaves , what was not to like and a great plant for a pond with a liner or concrete base where it doesen’t take root but I planted it in four areas of the Lower Swamp, a natural pond where it said thank you very much and took off like the proverbial bat out of hell and it took me four years of spraying to almost eliminate it .
I say “almost ” because you never quite get rid of parrot feather and every year in November / December and March / April I drag barrow loads of it out and today was that day in December !
At least in our Irish gardens we don’t have to worry about intruders like the signs at our hotel in Kruger National Park !!
Wishing you all a Happy and safe 2020 !