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long garden

The Long Garden

We create gardens to nourish our human spirits and satisfy our senses.

When Tara Forster decided to return home to South Africa from New Zealand she chose Bedford as her destination, as it resembled her image of Africa. Here mountainous landscapes are carpeted with fields of grasses and succulents, providing shelter for many wildlife and bird species. The biodiversity of the area encapsulated her idea of the perfect garden, and with inspiration from the famous Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf and renowned South African garden designer and good friend Franschesca Watson, she set out to create her own long garden haven.

Our first view of the garden is actually of an old corrugated building, framed by jasmine. Blue and white Portuguese-style tiles complement the tin building, hinting at the age of Bedford and its rich history.

The main garden can be viewed as three different areas. The upper area consists of a stone stoep overlooking the long garden as well as five sunken ponds, arranged in a formal manner and with indigenous blue water lilies growing in each. Tara tells us that the maintenance is very low on these ponds as she has mosquito fish in them and the main diet of the fish is mosquito larvae, thus creating a biological ecosystem that keeps these pests in check.

A moon gate, her one desire for the garden, beckons people into the raised vegetable garden. Thirty years earlier Tara had visited Scotland and fallen in love with this architectural shape, which has its origins in Chinese gardens. The gate is cleverly positioned so as to not divide the two areas but to join them, mirroring the shape of the ponds and creating harmony in the space. From this upper level a stone pathway merges into a lawned walkway that meanders into the long garden.

Tara’s idea was to create a ‘stroll garden’, where visitors can enjoy the lush planting of the meadow garden, before discovering the prairie section further on. This is a gentle garden, and I was reminded of a Monet painting by the flowing irises and swathes of poppies and foxgloves. Tara has also managed to make her garden timeless, taking every season into account. Where the spring surprises you with an abundance of colour and structure, the warmer months of summer allow the indigenous botanicals to transform the flowerbeds into masses of blue, inviting birdlife to linger and insects to complement this diverse ecological community.

Adding form to the meadow garden, Tara planted a group of saltbushes (Rhagodia hastata) that her trusted helper in the garden, Momo Doyi, has slowly shaped into a shongololo (millipede), the epitome of African insects. This has created a rather dreamlike sculpture, the guardian of the flowerbeds, in this captivating space. As the path meanders it leads visitors into a South African interpretation of a prairie garden, a blue bench welcoming you. It is an invitation to stay and enjoy the many intricate inflorescences of grasses, bulbines, tulbaghias and aloes.

A garden can appear incomplete without hard landscaping elements. Adding walls and cobbled or paved walkways adds interest and completes the transition from one area to another. This moon gate does this by welcoming the visitor into a new area of the garden and anchoring the repetition of the fish ponds. It also frames aspects of each garden section, viewed from different angles.

Bronze fennel adds a delightful contrast, while agapanthus wait for their time to bloom. The prairie garden is mostly indigenous and many of the plants were sourced from the surrounding veld. Behind the bench grows a wall of Job’s tears reeds, forming a natural wall that screens the neighbouring property. Seas of aristida grasses soften the structured, bold lines of the reeds as the dainty leaves sway gently in the breeze.

Quite a few obstacles had to be overcome when creating this biodiverse sanctuary. The half acre of land was neglected and overgrown when Tara bought the property. Her first objective was to remove the concrete pathways that crisscrossed the property, and which amounted to more than the 20 loads of rubble. The agapanthuses and irises that were discovered growing between and below the weeds were all bagged and moved offsite to a friend’s farm, until it was time to replant.

Mass plantings and large groups of flowers minimises garden maintenance and weeding. By grouping plants we draw attention to their form and colour, creating pockets of texture in flower beds. Grouping pots also maximises visual effect. Repetition of this style of planting adds to the overall feeling of abundance in this garden.

Then the hard landscaping commenced, including the building of the moon gate and raised planters in the vegetable garden, sinking the ponds and marking the long pathway with steel edging. Ten tons of compost were then brought in and had to be dug into the whole garden. And finally, in October 2014, they were ready to plant. Taking into account the philosophy of Piet Oudolf, of how plants perform in a landscape, how their texture, structure and colour add to design as seasons pass, Tara set out to create a colour pallet where parts of her garden will be in flower every month of the year.