Last month we hosted a couple of house-guests from the UK for a few days. Old friends, he was Rhodesian, is a keen gardener and hasa fine knowledge of African history while she is Japanese, has a special interest in grasses and seeds and practices as an Ikebana master, teaching this art all over the UK.
Among the touristy excursions we arranged for them, therefore, was a morning’s visit to Brenthurst in Parktown, the 45 acre plot that has been home to the Oppenheimer family since roughly the turn of the last century.
You can do a guided tour there by appointment on three days of each week, all proceeds of which are donated to Little Eden, a charitable institution that runs homes in Edenvale and Bapsfontein for mentally-challenged and disabled children and adults.
Set on the north-facing slope of Parktown Ridge directly under the Johannesburg Hospital Brenthurst is an oasis of greenery and calm surrounded by the bustle of the City.
The Oppenheimer influence on the garden as it is today has been the handiwork of three generations of Oppenheimer women, the work having been started by Sir Ernest’s wives May and Ina , continued by Harry’s wife Bridget and now under the management of Strilli Oppenheimer.
As was the fashion of the time, May, Ina and Bridget concentrated their efforts on establishing a traditional formal garden in the English style (and Bridget was helped in no small measure by the legendary landscape designer and gardener Joane Pim).
But cultivating and establishing the traditional vibrant shrubs and flowers of a formal English garden, not to mention pruning the formal hedges which so clearly define such gardens, and maintaining acres of manicured lawns, comes at great expense, both of effort and cash, for one is in effect bending nature to one’s own will.
Such a mammoth undertaking required a full-time staff of no fewer than 45 gardeners.
Plus, as the new chatelaine of Brenthurst has so eloquently proven, it comes at the expense of the environment for, while it may look beautiful and neat and colourful with its lovely vibrant shrubs and flowers and manicured hedgerows and lawns many of the plants thus required are alien and either do nothing in the way of providing a habitat and food for the smaller inhabitants of the planet such as insects and invertebrates, or actually repel them.
The result? You have a beautiful looking garden, but one that is bereft of many species of bug and insect, and is thus equally bereft of bird life as those avians which feed on insects choose to seek their meals in more fertile places.
Thus, when Strilli took over she chose to re-indigenise the garden. When alien European shrubs and flowers died they were replaced with indigenous plants. Manicured lawns, requiring hours of mowing, and great expense in fertilising and watering, were replaced by expanses of indigenous grasses.
Pesticides and herbicides gave way to companion planting and the encouragement of healthy and diverse eco-systems at all levels of insect and animal life.
And, interestingly, cellphones were banned from the garden because Strilli believes their radiation upsets the normal living conditions of bees and butterflies.
And gradually increasing numbers and varieties of insects reappeared, and birds now nest in increasing number, and in greater variety, in the tall, well-established trees.
And this back-to-nature approach is a lot less labour intensive, too, requiring only 19 gardeners, not 45!
Not that the whole place is an unkempt jungle. There are still areas of formal garden, notably a maze adjoining a summer house that used to act as a pavilion for the tennis courts, a formal area directly below the imposing main house comprising a large pond, lawn and grotto, leading down to one of many bronze artworks scattered throughout the garden, and a pavilion housing what must be the best collection of bonsai plants in Johannesburg.
And to honour the memory of a child who died, Strilli has had constructed a Japanese garden, high up on the steepest slope of the ridge, with its own waterfall, ponds and a Japanese tea-house. It is beautiful and, even to a harrassed, curmudgeonly old cynic like me, induces a wonderful sense of peacefulness and inner calm to all who visit it.
A walk around Brenthurst is a must for anybody with a love of gardens and nature. It will open your eyes to the rich possibilities of living in harmony with every aspect of the nature around one, and not trying to bend nature to one’s will, something many smallholders could apply on their own patches of the Highveld.