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From the Archives: In the Babylonstoren Gardens With Our Gardens Editor

Former Editor in Chief Liz Morris speaks with Heidi Bertish about capturing the beauty and genius of the Babylonstoren gardens

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By House & Garden South Africa | March 26, 2024 | Gardens

What was your interest in Babylonstoren at that time?

Being appointed as photographer for a book about the garden at Babylonstoren was a dream commission for me. I had visited the garden many times before and already had a strong affinity to it – not only as a space with inherent style, but from a horticultural perspective, too. The level of innovative cultivation was something I’d never seen before. On a human level, growing vegetables speaks to our gardening culture – it’s something I feel is deeply ingrained in our heritage. It was this undercurrent, as well as the heart, warmth and generosity of the people behind the garden, that I wanted to capture in the book.

What was the first ever picture you took of the garden?

A view over the garden and main avenue from the roof of the hotel reception area. It was a chilly morning just before dawn in August 2016. I had arranged for a ladder to be left out for me the night before. Clutching each rung as I ascended the rooftop I remember regretting my decision not to bring gloves. My fingers were freezing. When I reached the roof, I was gobsmacked at the new perspective and the scale it gave to the garden. I was no longer cold. From that vantage I really got a handle on the bones of the garden– how it all fitted together. It was all bold pattern and immense landscape. I set up my camera and waited for the sun to peak over the Babylonstoren koppie at the far end of the guava avenue and bang. Snapped it.

Photographs courtesy of Babylonstoren.

Gardens, like Rome, are not built in a day. Did you feel from what you saw developing there, in the cultivation, culture and vision, that this would become a landmark landscape?

There are few places in the world like Babylonstoren. The setting and scale of the garden gives it an undeniable gravitas. Combine this with expertise, style, coherent design and a space that speaks to the soul, the garden was going to be a landmark from the outset.

Favourite space?

The block of vegetables surrounded by espaliered apple, pear and quince trees. The morning light is magical here and as a result we picked this block for a group shot. Atop a wobbly ladder and without my tripod for camera stability I had to hold my breath for every shot to remain absolutely still. The images turned out great but I do laugh when I see them. If people only knew what went on behind the scenes.

When you go there now what do you look for

The ‘Healing Garden’ is a meditative space at the far end of the garden brimming with medicinal herbs and plants that have been used over centuries by cultures all around the world. It’s fascinating and an assault of fragrance. The trees planted here are some of the ‘giants’ in the African healing traditions, too. Being behind the camera I never got to experience the tea ceremony here so this is next on the list for me.

The garden’s success is due to…?

It is a green library of the best kind. The new, and bygone, plant varieties, collections and growing methods fascinate the mind. The historical layout of the garden, gravity-fed water rills, handmade structures, natural materials used, textural and fragrant plant combinations and over-scaled wooden pyramids hung with climbing roses all captivate the senses. It’s a garden for everyone – a generous space that is quintessentially South African. It has a strong design handwriting and consistent vision imbued with the heart and style of the many talented people that innovate, create and maintain it.

Photographs courtesy of Babylonstoren.

Tell me about the way you photographed it?

I spent a year shooting the site. My plan to systematically capture area by area was completely turned on its head and I ultimately took my lead from the movement of light through the garden. The book now exists as a personal notebook of my many visits.

As Gardens Editor at H&G, your eye is dialled into…?

Redefining rules, ecological approaches, truth to site and place. The garden captures this with an integrated consideration of the landscape, its history and inherent sense of place. From the design of the garden to how and what is planted as well as the very personal manner in which we engage with it. An incredible place to be in no less to photograph.

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