The Slopes of Signal Hill – ProLandscaper March 2017

by | Feb 1, 2017

At the first site meeting in winter 2014 to discuss the garden for a new house Chris Maddams of Red Daffodil climbed a steep stretch of muddy hillside, covered in rubble & building material overlooking the city of Cape Town. The idea of a lush garden seemed distant. Nevertheless, the plot had a striking location – its aspect provides it with an amazing view across the City Bowl to the façade of Table Mountain, its back garden is the upper slopes of Signal Hill & Lion’s Head peeks over the trees behind. Today the plot has been transformed into a waterwise, fragrant garden, and it is in fact the original hillside that informed so many of the decisions not just of the landscape design but before that the architecture of the house.

Stuart Anderson of Loudon Perry Anderson Architects had wanted to create a garden house – one which blended into its natural surroundings and conformed to the topography to merge with the natural environment rather than competing with its surroundings as a tribute to this plot’s incredible location.

So while Red Daffodil were approached only once building was well underway the importance of the garden in fulfilling the design imperatives and removing the evidence of the building works was vital.

Where the architects had initially envisioned a garden on the natural slope Chris felt that it had been damaged by building works and its gradient represented an erosion risk during the winter rains. To mitigate this he pitched the concept of curved, asymmetrical low stone walls employing the very rock removed in the excavation of the pool. Lightly dressed for neatness but still retaining some roughness these walls created informal terraces for optimal plant growth conditions without compromising the architectural values. The stone terraces were then planted with cascading shrubs and groundcovers to further disguise and distract from the hardscaping so that the walls never became too overt and prevented them from dominating the site.

While having part of a National Park as your backyard may make many of us envious it caused the client to make an unusual request when it came to plant choices – namely that the plants selected be biased towards those with reputations for discouraging snakes. After all riders and walkers on Signal Hill regularly encounter venomous cobras and puff adders.

As someone who studied Botany at UCT & recognising the garden’s proximity to the wild hillside behind Chris was keen to employ a predominantly fynbos palette – so searching for aromatic plants to discourage reptile invaders led to Artemisia afra, Pelargonium spp., Plectranthus neochilis, and Tulbaghia violacea. The latter plants are reported to be used around kraals in the Eastern Cape but they are sour smelling, so to keep them away from the patios a wide band across the top of the property of just these two species was established.

It was also important to keep the plant choices to species that aren’t particularly tall – Chris chose lower growing buchus (Agathosma capensis), succulents (Aloe cooperi) and grasses (Aristida junciformis) as these wouldn’t create deep thickets for snakes to hide, plus it preserves the view of the hill from the lower levels of the house.

It wasn’t only the garden walls that required cascading plants – the architects had sought to further connect the structure to its environment through creating planters on the upstairs patios – off the kitchen/lounge and above the pool. Along with the wall that curves around the lap pool they asked that these be used to create a lush hanging garden effect to swamp the house in greenery. Tropical foliage tends to burn in the heat high on the slopes of Tamboerskloof where fynbos comes into its own, but the pool wall was a fairly shaded space. Adding a line of Cape Holly (Ilex mitis) for privacy added to the cooling effect so this has been planted with hardier indigenous ferns, Cyperus grasses, Toad Lilies (Tricyrtis formosana) and in a nod to the client’s request for yellow & red, Lotus berlothii cascaded over the plasterwork in a matter of months.

From the above its clear the garden isn’t 100% fynbos – exotic species were incorporated for specific reasons – the toad lilies to give a tropical feel with their lush leaves & orchid-like flowers, a large Leopard tree (Caesalpinia ferrea) was inset in the patio paving as the client’s specific request while prostrate rosemary & smaller-growing lavender were added around the lawn to add to the fragrant nature of the garden. Nevertheless, all exotics were only chosen if they could handle the hot conditions of the site in a low rainfall environment.

Today the garden with its mix of fynbos and waterwise planting is an aromatic tumble of textures and seasonal colours that add to the beauty of its surroundings, far removed from its bare & muddy origins.

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