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An indige­nous moun­tain­side gar­den in the Cape

With its in­for­mal paths and indige­nous and wa­ter-wise plants, this gar­den blends into the sur­round­ing moun­tain­side

When renowned artist

Nola Muller isn’t surf­ing on her long board, you’ll find her ei­ther paint­ing in her stu­dio or work­ing up a storm in her gar­den in No­ord­hoek, Cape Town. She and her hus­band Gianni have lived on this steep prop­erty for 12 years. “For­tu­nately,” says Gianni, “Nola knew just how to go about de­sign­ing this gar­den as our pre­vi­ous homes were also on rocky moun­tain slopes.”

Both Nola and Gianni have an affin­ity with na­ture and have spent hours hik­ing in the moun­tains, so us­ing the nat­u­ral lo­cal f lora was a fore­gone con­clu­sion. So too was the use of nat­u­ral el­e­ments like drift­wood, gnarled and knot­ted stumps, rocks, stones and peb­bles, all of which Nola loves to col­lect. “Gar­den­ing is a form of med­i­ta­tion for me. It keeps me in touch with na­ture, and as an artist, I’m in­spired by the forms and colours.

It’s a per­fect ex­ten­sion of my cre­ativ­ity,” she says.

Si­t­u­ated at the top of a steep ter­raced slope, the house looks down onto di­ag­o­nal paths, laid out by Nola to fol­low the nat­u­ral con­tours of the lower gar­den. Flat, roughly hewn rocks, re­cy­cled pavers, peb­bles, old bark chips and chipped wood were used on the paths which, edged with old logs, give struc­ture to the gar­den. They in­cluded a tiny strip of buf­falo grass, hid­den be­hind the gar­den shed, for their dog.

Ini­tially, Nola grew plants such as vy­gies, pelargo­ni­ums, daisies and plec­tran­thus from slips. But grad­u­ally she re­placed these with more per­ma­nent shrubs and peren­ni­als. They in­clude restios, er­i­cas and mem­bers of the protea fam­ily that f lower in win­ter, and pin­cush­ions and leu­ca­den­drons as well as ser­ruria, which all f lower in spring.

In ad­di­tion, there are smaller, in­ter­est­ing plants like struthi­ola, buchus, lo­belias, he­lichry­sums and eu­ry­ops many of which now self­seed. The pinky blue lo­boste­mon or agt­dae­ge­nees­bos, not of­ten seen in gar­dens, is tes­ti­mony to Nola’s skill at work­ing with na­ture. As a re­sult of the drought she’s also plant­ing more indige­nous suc­cu­lents.

A no-non­sense gar­dener, Nola fol­lows the ad­vice of her late brother Richard Muller, a well-known land­scape gar­dener in Cape Town. He ad­vised her not to mol­ly­cod­dle plants, but to bring them up tough. When plant­ing she digs a hole just a bit big­ger than the con­tainer and doesn’t add any com­post; if she’s plant­ing where there’s a clay layer, she’ll dig through it so the holes drain freely.


Rus­tic paths lead down to a lit­tle shed in the lower part of the gar­den. Nola ar­ranged peb­bles among an ar­ray of wa­ter-wise fillers like gaza­nias, Plec­tran­thus neochilus, pur­ple-blue feli­cia and pur­ple os­teosper­mum. Adding to the rus­tic look are sculp­tures of drift­wood placed in strate­gic places.

As the gar­den has ma­tured, she’s been quite ruth­less in re­mov­ing woody and poorly per­form­ing plants. This not only has a re­ju­ve­nat­ing ef­fect, but opens up the gar­den so one can see through it. It also en­cour­ages self-seed­ers to ger­mi­nate and gives Nola space to ei­ther plant more of the plants that thrive, or try some­thing new.

For win­ter colour, she re­lies on proteas, er­i­cas and aloes. She plants the for­mer two for the sun­birds; the lat­ter are so sculp­tural they are stun­ning even when not in f lower. Nola loves the March lilies that ap­pear ev­ery year with­out any fuss; if the leaves get tatty she sim­ply trims the ends off.

Although Nola be­moans the fact that a mole has taken a lik­ing to her gar­den, she de­rives great plea­sure from shar­ing it with birds and other crea­tures like frogs and lizards. Her lat­est vis­i­tors in­clude a de­light­ful vlei rat, which doesn’t look like a rat at all, and car­pen­ter bees that hum a tune while mak­ing holes in an old stump.

Her re­la­tion­ship with her gar­den is a two-way street, and many of the plants fea­ture in a col­lec­tion of cameos she has painted. THIS PAGE, CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT:

Be­yond the pin­cush­ion protea Leu­cosper­mum oleifolium, are di­ag­o­nal paths where weath­ered wood chips are con­fined by old poles. ‘Tot­tum’, a pin­cush­ion protea, thrives on the ter­races of the steep, west-fac­ing slope below the house. Old stumps, rocks and sculp­tured roots re­in­force the nat­u­ral look and give the gar­den struc­ture. Ser­ruria trilopha, a tri­dent spi­der­head is just one of the more un­usual plants in her gar­den.

THIS PAGE, CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP: Aloe ru­pestris. This in­trigu­ing nat­u­ral sculp­ture of a tan­gle of roots and stems is the fo­cal point on the top ter­race. ‘Mardi Gras Tri­colour’, a se­lec­tion of Leu­cosper­mum erubescens, pro­duces clus­ters of small­ish flow­ers that change colour and shape as they ma­ture, ex­tend­ing their flow­er­ing time.

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