Listen, Jackie! Plants are growing in Deaf Ears Alley.

Deaf Ears Alley links the fynbos, pool-side section of my compact garden to the salad patch outside my kitchen door.

The alley, always in the shade, was named by my wife, Jackie. 

This is what happened: I asked Jackie what I should plant in the shade that would grow and bring colour to the alley between my home and my neighbour’s property. In a call from London where she is now stranded by Corona, she offered a few suggestions. Later she asked how the plants were doing.

“Not well,” I replied. “In fact, not at all because I didn’t plant any.”

“You don’t listen,” she said, as wives say to their husbands from time to time; hence the name: Deaf Ears Alley.

Jackie has green fingers. She also has a daughter, Cara, who too has green fingers as well as an eye for design.

Not just any old design, mind you, but a rare ability to design and landscape gardens that look as if they had fallen naturally into place, untouched, as it were, by human hand.

That’s how good she is, and that’s why she is the successful head of Cape Town-based landscape design company Contours Design Studio.

Cara says her trick is to listen to and look at what she is seeing. In other words, to be still, to concentrate and to focus. So, when she surveys your garden from a landscaping perspective, she listens, and she watches and she absorbs, long before a single sod is turned – even in her mind’s eye.

She also has a genuine and uncanny affection for plants.

THROWING SHADE: Deaf Ears Alley finding plants that thrive in shade

I know this because I have watched her in action. As she walks through the garden, she touches the plants as she passes by like a mother lost in thought, who will absent-mindedly and affectionately touch the head of a knee-high child. It’s a gentle, loving, reassuring touch, a whisper perhaps, tracing what she feels with her fingertips. I have never seen anyone else do that.

IN TOUCH: Cara surveys the landscape through her senses of touch, sight, smell, and even hearing

Natural science researchers, writers and garden lovers are producing, these days, literally hundreds of scientific papers and popular articles and blogs about communications in nature. They talk of a “plant net” – the internet of nature where instead of bits and bytes, mycelia – fungus-like bacterial colonies – create mossy underground channels of communication that plants use to share information vital to their health. (sciencemag.org)

And it is believed, they listen to us – at least those of us who, like Cara, are sensitive to these things. (The Secret Life of Plants)

Cara talks to plants. You can see it in the way in which she measures the texture of a leaf. She knows them, and they know her. She is a landscape of things green, of the earth, of the so intimately in tune with the harmony of nature. She sings to it with her eyes, her hands and her fingers. (The Spruce) 

OUT: the Viburnum hedge had to go to allow the sunlight in. The CDS team added compost to the topsoil.

Earlier this year, Cara offered to ‘re-do’ my garden. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Generally speaking, my plants are happy and growing. Especially the succulents that Jackie and I planted at the height of the 2018/19 Cape Town drought.

The strategic planting of Spekboom (Portulacaria Afra) to hide bald patches of hedging here and there had also worked well. But there was room for improvement.

The day dawned. Cara and her Contours Design Studio crew arrived punctually at 8 am as they said they would. First to go was a Viburnum hedge alongside the street-facing wall under which I had boxed a small area and planted some rocket, lettuce, kale and herbs including as parsley, sage, rosemary and, yes, thyme.

Suddenly with the hedge gone there was light and a whole new sunny vista opened up. The soil was refreshed with bags of compost and instead of the Viburnum, there were granadillas and, before long, carrots, cabbages, beans and more rocket, spinach and other salad greens.

FYNBOS: Into three large terracotta pots went three purple-rich Burgundy Safari Sunset Leucadendron hybrids

The CDS crew then ducked down Deaf Ears Alley to the pool area after pausing to plant ferns and plectranthus to give colour to the alleyway of damp and shade.

On the wall adjacent to the pool, I have three Jasmine creepers climbing towards the sun with a rather patchy Rhus Crenata hedge at their feet. During the drought, Jackie planted Spekboom to hide the bald patches in the Rhus.

The crew removed some of the Spekboom and into three large terracotta pots went three purple-rich Burgundy Safari Sunset (Leucadendron salignum) hybrids. “To give,” said Cara, “a sense of height and colour against the green backdrop of the Jasmine and to add more plants from the fynbos plant kingdom, knowing, as she does, that I am an avid hiker.

Upstairs on a narrow deck outside the main bedroom, they planted lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), commonly called English lavender, – known for its mentally calming properties – and, at my request, a wild buchu (Agathosma gonaquensis) plant, to bring an essence of our fynbos kingdom to my dreams.  The five potted wild olive (Olea europaea subsp.) trees remained.

The gentle revamp was coalesced around three themes, explained Cara: the salad garden for nourishment, the fynbos at the pool to celebrate our natural fynbos heritage and, upstairs, plants to float their calming fragrances into my sleep.

GARDEN FRESH: Salad greens, herbs potatoes and cauliflower growing a few steps from my kitchen door.

BLOOM: Burgundy Safari Sunset Leucadendron hybrids begin to flower

POOLSIDE: The Jasmine creeper against the wall  with three Burgundy Safari Sunset Leucadendron hybrids  in the terracotta pots.

While this was not a landscaping project in the true sense of the word, it gave me a very clear understanding of what Cara and her colleagues at Contours Design Studio can do. 

And a spin-off for me has been that the Contours Design Studios revamp has inspired a new interest in my garden. The three-theme approach has given me an outline to guide future plantings. 

Within weeks after the CDS team left, the rewards were already in evidence: a step from my kitchen door, a salad garden that provides me with fresh greens for lunch and dinner every day, beautiful Burgundy Safari Leucadendrons contrasted against the green Jasmine soon to blossom a gentle yellow around my pool and, of course, relaxed nights of peaceful sleep.

Now, I catch myself wandering around my garden talking to my plants, running my fingers through their leaves, talking to them, encouraging their growth – quietly celebrating the vibrancy they bring to my home. And, if I listen carefully, I imagine I can hear the plants in Deaf Ears Alley growing.

“Are you listening, Jackie ?”

Reading List:

  • The Songs of the Trees by David George Haskell (Penguin)
  • The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben (William Collins Books)
  • The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan (Random House)
  • Lab Girl by Hope Jahren-Fleet (www.hopesurecanwrite.com)
  • the Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird  (Harpercollins)
  • The A-Z of Vegetable Gardening in South Africa by Jack Hadfield  (Penguin/Random House)

About the author

Evelyn John Holtzhausen is a poet and writer based in Wynberg, Cape Town. In his free time he enjoys hikes in the picturesque mountains of the Cape Winelands and to unwind and clear his mind, he enjoys yoga, meditation and the ancient art of nature therapy, forest bathing or shinrin-yoku

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