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A Call to Nature with Landscape Designer Leon Kluge

The gardens and palettes at Franschhoek’s Sterrekopje healing farm are as much a reawakening of the senses as they are a connection to nature

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By Heidi Bertish  | August 30, 2023 | Gardens

Landscape designer Leon Kluge always knew plants were in his future, becoming a multiple award winner with a long list of celebrity clients. Kluge’s grandfather was the curator of the Betty’s Bay Botanical Garden and his father, the curator of the Lowveld National Botanical Gardens in Nelspruit where Leon spent his childhood.

“I never had a dream of becoming a doctor or a firefighter like other kids in my class”, Klug says. “I knew from very young that painting with plants would always be part of my life.” Leon Klug went on to study landscape design in Israel and began his gardening journey in the Comoros.

With a client base of A-listers and Hollywood celebrities he has created gardens for the likes of Disney, The United Nations, and governments the world over. He’s the recipient of numerous local and international awards including being the only landscape designer from Africa to win the prestigious Gardening World Cup held in Japan.

Leon scatters carrots, leeks, and garlic into his meadows for a soft display of colour when left to bloom. Image: Heidi Bertish

Best in Show

He was awarded best designer at the world’s largest garden design event, the Philadelphia Flower Show, and has won multiple Gold Awards at the Chelsea flower show in London and is a recipient of the South African Landscape Institute’s National Chairperson’s Discretionary Award for his outstanding contributions to landscape design.

Leon approaches a garden as an artist would a canvas, building it in layers and textures, with the final result resembling a gently shifting plant painting inspired by nature.

“As a garden designer my inspiration doesn’t come from pictures or books but from walking and hiking in the mountains. Nature is my biggest teacher. To observe plants growing in their natural state is a masterclass in colour and texture, and how they combine to create mood. I love free-spirited gardens – gardens that have a refined wildness and a large palette of plants. I plant in layers so that each plant appears and disappears in the landscape, as if being clothed in a new dress, the detail and nuance of each dependant on the time of year. I adore our local South African flora but I am not a purist.

Award-winning garden designer Leon Kluge always knew plants would be his life career. Image: Heidi Bertish

Texture is the most important element in a garden for me. Being colour blind, colour tends to take a slight backseat but instead of it being a hindrance to proceedings it’s given me a unique lens through which to paint with plants.“

While it may feel like only yesterday for landscape designer Leon Kluge, it’s been three years since he first met with the owners of Sterrekopje to chat about their vision for the retreat on the side of the old pool and the role the gardens would play in realising it. Nestled in the Franschhoek Valley, Sterrekopje is a 50 hectare regenerative, biodynamic farm and luxury wellbeing retreat owned by Nicole Boekhoorn and Fleur Huijskens.

The flowers at Sterrekopje healing farm are healing and ephemeral in nature. Image: Heidi Bertish

As a young girl Nicole made an entry in her diary that one day she would have a farm, a place to bring her vision to life, grounded in nature where people could come to find rest, regenerate and reconnect. Leon was invited to stay on the farm for a few days to experience the property and imagine the garden he was to create, ‘not knowing that covid would strike and I would be locked down on the farm for months,’ he says. He built a nursery with growing tunnels, areas for sun and shade-loving plants and raised counters for nurturing seed trays.

“‘I have collected seeds from all around the world since I was a child, and this gave me the perfect opportunity to start sowing and experimenting with my collection,” he reminisces. “Now we continue to collect seeds from the garden, especially the annuals and vegetables, and we make oil from the olives.”

The seven-hectare gardens are now an explosion of thousands of interesting plants grown from Leon’s seed collection. There’s a wildflower butterfly garden, a chakra garden, olive groves, fruit orchards and vineyards, and an extensive sun-drenched kitchen garden filled with vegetables, medicinal herbs, mushrooms and wild berries. There are pathways and secret gathering spots, a sunken garden planted with fragrant Greek lavender, mature oaks for lying under and private nooks for being still.

Craspedia globosa, also called white lace flower, grows abundantly at Sterrekopje healing farm. Image: Heidi Bertish

The Chakra Garden is designed to reflect the body’s chakras in both colour and contour. At its core is a central criss-crossing pathway, essentially the spine that leads one through the eight energy centres of the body. The experience is akin to walking the soft-grassed foothills of a mountain somewhere; gentle, and soulful. A billowing meadow of Ngongoni grass (Aristida junciformis), switchgrass (Panicum ‘Heavy Metal’), purple love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) and heady clusters of flowers correspond to the colour of each chakra. At the base, scarlet-coloured field poppies (Papaverrhoeas) represent the root chakra. The colour of passion and strength, the root chakra brings energy to the body, mind and spirit. It’s said that half of the root chakra is outside the body, grounding one to the earth.

As the garden unfolds, so the colours of the chakras reveal themselves. Bright orange falling stars (Crocosmia aurea), yellow coneflowers (Rudbeckia maxima) and lime-coloured pineapple lilies (Eucomis autumnalis), blue sage (Salvia azurea), indigo heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens), purple agrostemma (Agrostemma ‘Purple Queen’) and at the far end of the garden, representing the star or soul star chakra, Leon has planted delicate white yarrow (Achillea ‘Double Pearl’). The farm and gardens are sustainably and organically run.

“We spent almost a year rejuvenating the dense clay soil, producing our own compost, mulch and organic fertilizer.”

There is a zero-waste philosophy in the kitchen and the farm ducks, chickens, cows, pigs, donkeys and horses aid in pest control and produce valuable organic matter for the gardens. The extensive productive garden is home to an abundant collection of herbs, mushrooms, fruit, berries and vegetables. The kitchens harvest twice a day as the menu is ‘garden to table’. Here digging, picking, harvesting, foraging and sharing is about seasonality and respect for the earth, embracing the Sterrekopje philosophy ‘from soil to soul’.

The extensive garden is home to an abundant collection of herbs, mushrooms, fruit, berries and vegetables. Image: Heidi Bertish

The most delicate colours and textures combine in the Butterfly Garden – a floral meadow beneath rows of gnarled olive trees that frame the view to the mountain after which the farm was named. Pom-pom shaped alliums and ice cream-coloured gaura pop amidst finely textured red top grass, feathery phlomis and tall spires of purple verbena. Leon plants in layers of four or five, each of them cleverly designed to shine at different times through the year.

“When guests return to the farm, the same garden could have on a completely different dress!’ he says. Expect sporadic flushes of white lace flower (Orlaya grandiflora) in summer; blue-tinged creeping sage (Salvia repens) in autumn, pink-flowering ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi) in spring and purple opium poppies (Papaver somniferum) in winter. There is something intrinsically gentle about Sterrekopje and her gardens. Whether in the earth-forward approach and respect for the land by her custodians or in the thousands of seeds collected over half a lifetime that have found new life in masterful planting palettes and birdsong. The gardens are a childhood dream come true, restoring our connection to nature and through nature, the connection to ourselves.