Garden of Babylonstoren is its heart, reflects passion of owner Koos Bekker!

I have previously written about the new Babel Tea House and also about Babel Restaurant at Babylonstoren.  On each of these visits I did not fully comprehend the wealth of work that has gone into planning, developing and maintaining the extensive 3,5 ha fruit and vegetable garden, with 350 edible fruit and vegetable varieties.

Wishing to spoil my parents, I invited them for a visit to the wine estate, and we were taken around by head gardener Liesel van der Walt, a charming and passionate ambassador for the garden, providing lots of information, and picking edible flowers (Day lilies) and berries for us to eat, and vegetable flowers (carrot and onion) for us to keep.  Liesel was at Kirstenbosch for 20 years, and originally did some contract gardening on the estate before joining Babylonstoren a year ago, managing a team of 15 gardeners.  She showed us the Babylonstoren, a hill after which the estate has been named, and laughingly said that soon they too can have the ‘Hanging Gardens of Babylon’! There are three ponds closest to the shop, and we started the garden tour here. A dam each contains waterblommetjies, tilapia fish, and rainbow trout.

Owners Koos Bekker and Karen Roos used plans and drawings of the original Company Gardens developed by Jan van Riebeeck for inspiration, and axes were planned, from the entrance off the R45, and then from the wine cellar and grain store, creating a linear divide, which guided the location of the canals, drawing water from the Berg River 10 km away via gravity, using flood irrigation for the citrus trees, for example, as one would in Spain and in the Middle East.  Trees were planted as windbreaks. The Bekkers bought the farm (very quietly) five years ago, and the garden was started in November 2007, using the services of Patrice Tarravella from France, whose garden at his erstwhile-monastery hotel south of Paris impressed the Bekkers. Characteristic of Tarravella’s work are the 49 rose pillars, big timber structures with climbing roses, providing shade.  I have written previously about my past work with Koos Bekker, and I know him as an extreme workaholic, who personifies excellence in everything he does (he started M-Net 25 years ago, and now is CEO of Naspers).  When I spoke to Koos on my visit to the Babel Tea House he graciously praised his wife Karen for the development of Babylonstoren,   Liesel told us that Koos was being very modest in this praise, as he is the life and soul of the garden, having giving it his energy and passion, and he still is her ‘garden boss’!  A guiding right hand is Anton Roux, who has 60 years of garden experience he told us proudly, and he looked fit and healthy at 72 years, saying that his recipe for good health is eating correctly, exercise which he gets from walking in the extensive garden, and sleeping well.

In planning the garden, they did not just buy young plants, but also transplanted older trees, to give the garden a head start.  Guava trees over 150 years old were transplanted from Dal Josephat two years ago, and have already delivered an excellent crop.  A special ‘Newton’s apple tree’ comes from a cutting of an apple tree at Sir Isaac Newton’s home in England, which Koos originally had in his garden in Cape Town, reflecting his love for interesting ‘story trees’.  A Medlar tree, the first tree brought into the country by Jan van Riebeeck, has been planted, by grafting it onto four quince tree ‘legs’.

Spekboom (Elephants’ foot) is widely planted on the estate, to rehabilitate the areas in which the goats overgrazed the land, and is a very beneficial plant in that it absorbs carbon and releases oxygen. It is also used in salads and in pickles made at Babel.  We saw Carob trees (carob is a substitute for chocolate), Jerusalem artichoke, strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries.  The Cactus garden of six prickly pear species is one of Koos’ special loves. We saw olive trees, and there are about 100 wild olives on the farm too, Liesel said.  We saw sweet potatoes, rosemary, thyme, lemons, kumquat trellises, persimmons, oranges, grapefruit, plums, lavender, peaches, pomegranates, nectarines, asparagus, artichokes, loquats, chamomile, indigenous geranium (used for medicinal tea), buchu, bay leaves, oregano, granadilla, Tamarillo tree tomatoes, wild gardenia, and delicious tasting day lilies. We were explained the principle of ‘companion planting’, with the flowers of the carrot and onion plants preventing bugs for each other, as an example. Inside the glass-walled Babel Tea House, which doubles up as a hothouse and as a tearoom on colder and wetter days, Liesel has plants which cannot take the winter cold outside, including basil, pineapples, English cucumbers, dragon fruit, tomatoes, orchids with vanilla pods, and ginger.  Inside the Tea House a selection of herbs from the garden, including pineapple sage, lavender, rose pelagia, lemon verbena, buchu, mint, peppermint, and elderflowers was ready for patrons wishing to use them for teas.  Karen’s decor touch showed again, when dresser drawers’ were filled with beetroots and radishes.  Outside the Tea House some younger oak trees are about 12 – 15 years old, and the bigger oak trees are 50 – 60 years old, Liesel estimated.  The only vegetables which Babylonstoren is not growing much of is potatoes and tomatoes, buying these in.

I loved the special hidden aspects of the garden, which one would not have known had one not gone on the tour. There is a meditation space, through a door which has mulberry trees.  There are bee hives, not only to produce honey, but also to get the bees to pollinate the flowers.  There is an amazing bird watching square, with a weeping mulberry and sunflowers, which attract birds.  Karen Roos has had the cutest bird cages made, to encourage the birds to nest there.  To do birdwatching in the greatest comfort, she had two massive woven bird watching pods made by Porky Hefer, with comfortable cushions inside, facing the plants the birds love and the cages.   There are cages for the chickens, and for Pekin ducks with pecan nut trees in their cage.

Grapes from the vineyards were sold to the co-operative in the past, but since last year the first wines are being made, and the Babylonstoren Rosé and Viognier have been bottled already, while the sparkling wine is still on the lees.  When we were on the garden tour earlier this week, Chardonnay grapes were being harvested.   What impressed us when we arrived, was that things are so fresh at Babylonstoren, that even the straw and oregano which is used to create the Babel logo is replenished regularly!

We were lucky to have been able to book a table inside at the very busy Babel.  I have written about my lunch at Babel about three weeks ago, but must mention the strikingly beautiful Red Salad we shared as a starter, with a chilled slice of watermelon, tomatoes, plums, radish, blueberries, and green leaves, all from the garden, excellent value at R50.   My father had the beef fillet with olives, which was served on a bull’s head plate, picking up the decor theme from the menu wall in the restaurant.  The plates are for sale in the shop as well.

A special touch was that Terry de Waal, Babylonstoren GM, came to greet us as we left, to make sure that we were happy with the garden tour.  My parents were delighted with the special treat, and once again I had learnt a whole lot more about the very special Babylonstoren.

Babylonstoren, R45 road between Klapmuts and Simondium, between Backsberg and Nobel Hill. Tel (021) 863-1804. www.babylonstoren.com. Twitter: @Babylonstoren. Garden Tours Wednesday – Sunday 10h00 – 12h30.  R10 entrance fee per person at entrance. No reservation required.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage

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