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Visit the small town of Prince Albert for its first major garden show

Landscape designer Franchesca Watson on her connection to the karoo town of Prince Albert and the importance of their first ever upcoming open garden event

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By House & Garden South Africa | September 9, 2023 | Gardens

Up until about six years ago, the lovely little villiage of Prince Albert at the foot of the majestic Swartberg Pass was for me just a great occasional long weekend getaway place, that I avoided -definitely in mid-winter and a little less definitely in mid-summer because of the extreme temperatures. Of course I was fascinated by the Karoo bossies on the flats and the romance of the mountain and river plants in the pass, but I was fascinated in a distant sort of way. Now I know that these plants have secrets that we all need to learn, as we get a glimpse of what gardening in an inescapably overheating climate is going to mean. They can teach us about survival, sharing of resources and the beauty of subtlety and minimalism.

Aloe arborescens, also called Torch Aloe growing in Prince Albert. Photo by Inge Terblanche.

It was in 2018 that a young couple living in Prince Albert reached out to me in a professional sort of way. They were planning a new home, and had already had a little bit of experience of gardening in the village, so actually they knew more than I did about slow dry gardening. I quickly realized that this was going to be a unique experience, and our relationship immediately stopped being business and rather became a gardening friendship. I have walked the path with them all the way from planning the positioning of the house, making decisions about how to bed the buildings into the landscape rather than perch them high above it, and how to bring the luxury of water into the garden story in a responsible, sustainable and caring way.

There have been successes, failures and U-turns. Along the way they have become knowledgeable and expert dry gardeners, learning and sharing knowledge, and inspiring their own village. And I’ve been along with them, sharing a fascinating ride. Early on we talked about the design of the garden, and when that was resolved, I became concerned that we would not be able to source the endemic plants – that’s when they introduced me to local Sue Dean, who runs a nursery in the village and owns a small private nature reserve just out of town. I have written about Prof Sue Dean before, and I have called her a national treasure, something I truly believe. Sue has consulted with landowners in the Karoo for a lifetime, helping them understand and manage their land sustainably, and has lived a life passionately and painstakingly passing her knowledge on and inspiring people young and old, to understand, value and see the beauty in the land, its history and its plants.

Citrus trees flourishing in karoo landscapes in Prince Albert. Photo by Inge Terblanche.

Sue taught us to think like a Karoo bossie, understanding when to water, and when not to, when to plant and when not to, how to mimic the natural conditions and how to plan ahead and be patient, and how to be rewarded for patience and understanding. I’m filled with gratefulness and wonder. Over the past thirty years Prince Albert itself has come a long way. Its become integrated and multi-national, had its political ups and downs, and times of great stress with droughts and floods, during which it has demonstrated a great caring and sharing with all members of its community. The Karoo and Prince Albert have a lot to share - slow dry gardening being just one. And now the village is hosting its first ever Open Gardens weekend at the end of September with 12 wonderfully diverse gardens to visit.

Dry gardening in the karoo requires understanding when to water, and when not to, how to mimic the natural conditions and how to plan ahead and be patient. Photo by Inge Terblanche.

The Prince Albert Open Gardens is from 30 September to 1 October 2023. 12 gardens, talks and interactive workshops hosted by renowned personalities and experts such landscape designer Franchesca Watson; Karoo plant ecologist Prof. Sue Milton Dean and foodscaper Sue Torrance amongst others.