Babylonstoren : Beyond the Kitchen Garden

I don’t often write more than one post on a garden. But then few gardens are quite as extraordinary as Babylonstoren. After last week’s look at  the 8 acre formal kitchen garden I’m going to look at the rest of the estate.

This is  equally impressive and very  diverse. It includes areas devoted to individual plant families, several greenhouses, ecological and wilder zones, water gardens, and even, believe it or not, a garden inside a snake!


The photos are mine or from the Babylonstoren website unless otherwise indicated.

In some ways its easier to describe than last weeks account of the kitchen garden because is possible to do a circuit walk of sorts. So we’ll start at the top left hand end of the plan above and move clockwise around the kitchen garden boundaries.  That means we start with the cycad collection which was first planted along the stream bank on the way to the koppie, the small conical hill on the estate and that you see in the first image in this post.   If you don’t know cycads they’re  cone-bearing, true living fossils but most species have restricted distributions in the wild, with the result that some  are on the brink of extinction. Luckily most however grow easily from seeds or suckers and so are surviving in cultivation.

Babylonstoren has one of the largest collections in the world of cycads and it includes specimens not virtually all the 41  South African species but some from  other parts of the continent too.   In particular it includes Encaphelartos wooddii  which has been declared extinct in the wild. A single male plant was  found in 1895 in a single group in the Nagoya Forest in KwaZulu-Natal and, since there were no female plants  it had to be propagated by basal suckers. Luckily this has ensured its survival in cultivation.

The  various plants were transported to the garden from  a series of private collections. Given the size of some specimens this was a tricky process involving cranes to get them out of the ground, and a considerable amount of work to their new home where considerable extra drainage had to be installed before they could be replanted. The whole are is underplanted with drought tolerant indigenous plants such as crassulas and senecios. [If you want to know more there is a short introduction to the collection on Youtube with the curator Ernst van Jaarsveld.]

Lo0king back over the hedge into the formal garden, [and which I didn’t mention last week] , is an extraordinary sight: a maze made up of prickly pears.  Not a place  for the faint hearted or the clumsy.  It used to look like the photo above but  that must have become too overgrown to be safe so has recently been replanted and now looks like the photo below.

Elsewhere on the estate there are large areas planted with no less than 11 varieties of prickly pears which are used extensively in the restaurant and elsewhere.  There’s a good piece on the Babylonstoren blog about prickly pears, their uses and how to pick and eat them!


Walking through the cycads leads to a wooded and shady stream-side walk [roughly parallel to the prickly pears] which is planted with more than 9,000 clivias. These are one of South Africa’s most spectacular bulbous plants which we only know in Britain as houseplants. They are named after  Lady Charlotte Florentina Clive, later the Duchess of Northumberland, who was the first to cultivate and flower them  in England.

Unfortunately we were a few weeks too early to see the ones growing outside in flower but as you can see on the left in this image from the Babylonstoren  blog they come in a range of colours from pale yellow to fiery red, although mostly in shades of orange.

Karen Roos was given a large collection of them by her brother who had begun a clivia collection and hybridisation programme. The garden has since acquired more from other growers, and  continued breeding and selecting.  The potted collection, including these new hybrids, is often displayed in one of the more unusual garden structures.

This is the snake tunnel, or the Puff Adder Walkway as it is officially known. Constructed in 2012 and designed by Patrice Talavera it’s an elegant but deceptively simple construction made up of narrow hardwood slats fitted around an arched steel frame. It winds through a small grove of eucalyptus and olive trees even  at one point growing round one of them.  The Puff Adder is 70 m long and varies in width with  a large bulge in the middle called the mouse, because it resembles the snake’s body after it has swallowed one.  The slats  reduce the sunlight reaching  the inside by 40% while still allowing good ventilation to the plants growing or displayed inside.

The potted clivia collection normally live in another slatted, sunlight-reducing, structure, just past an extensive nursery area.  It includes all six clivia species: Clivia nobilis, Clivia miniata, Clivia caulescens, Clivia gardenii and the more recently discovered Clivia mirabilis and Clivia robusta, as well as many  hybrids, almost all of which are  carefully labelled with details of its parentage, and a few were just coming into flower.





A few weeks later it would have been absolutely stunning, even if you don’t like orange!

Standing parallel to the Clivia house, across a pond full of interesting aquatic plants,  is a similar structure full of succulents of every kind.  At this point my partner, who is mad about succulents decided he’d happily move in!





We’re on the very edge of what could still be described as the formal part of the gardens [bottom left corner], but more recent developments have extended the garden well beyond the formal boundaries.


Across an estate road is the Welwitschia garden.  These extraordinary plants which I’ve written about in an earlier post, are endemic to Namibia and survive in extreme desert conditions with virtually no rainfall and phenomenally  high temperatures. To create a garden especially for them was an  act of considerable courage! It involved burying heating pipes under hillocks of imported red Kalahari sand, ornamenting the area with petrified wood and imported rocks and then protecting the plants  from rain.

A path leads through there to another kitchen garden, this time a single large walled area simply designed for bulk production. But being in Babylonstoren it does have a few added attractions.

And beyond that is a more ecologically diverse series of spaces. There are two large ponds divided by a causeway. The first is called the Waterblommetjie pond the Afrikaans name for Aponogeton distachyos, or water hawthorn. Indigenous to the western Cape its an ornamental in more temperate climes but here it is eaten as a vegetable. It also has  medicinal uses; the juice apparently making a soothing treatment for burns and scrapes while the leaves make a soothing poultice.

On the other side is a paddy field, dried out at the time I visited and waiting for the planting season.  Apparently Carnaroli risotto rice has never been cultivated commercially successfully in South Africa but in 2014 it was decided to try it!

The paddy was excavated and levelled, with channels built  to bring water from the stream and sluices installed  to control the flow.  Rice is thirsty so the paddy needs watering every morning and evening with sprinklers until the rice plant is 6-8″ high then the field is flooded knee deep and kept like that until autumn when the water  is stopped and the plants allowed to  dry up before the grains  are harvested. There are a lot more photos and an account of how this was done on the Babylonstoren blog.

The path now meanders through trees and uncultivated land before arriving at a huge wetland area with a walkway across the water. This was constructed in 2009 as part of a wastewater treatment system, but it also allows for the recreation of suitable habitats for indigenous flora and fauna.  [If you’re interested in its effectiveness at removal pollutants you might like to look at the work of Vanessa Lakay of  the Department of Environmental and Geographical Science at Cape Town University.]

Apart from climbing up the koppie that’s the furthest point you can easily go on on the estate, so turning back and passing the two ponds again, we bypass the walled garden and end up walking past areas set aside for the display of endemic species to begin the walk down the other long side of the formal garden.


from The Gardens of Babylonstoren

On the way we can sneak back into the outside blocks of the kitchen garden and look at the remaining quirky spaces which I didn’t manage to cover last week.  There’s a meditation garden surrounding a 150 year old weeping white mulberry tree that was moved from its original home near the farmhouse. It seemed to enjoy the move and has thrown out lots of new growth. [Unfortunately I can’t find a photo of it in full growth, merely ones from shortly after its move when it’s not looking that impressive] Its surrounded by a hedge of bamboo and the surrounding area has been planted with grasses and annuals to attract birds. Apart from an array of bird boxes the area also contains a giant woven “birds nest” for humans.

from The Gardens of Babylonstoren


Next door is the Bee Garden, which is kept locked for obvious reasons but has spy holes through the walls and door. Inside are a range of different hives which are explained in a short youtube video by the Babylonstoren’s entomologist Arné Stander



Going back outside the formal garden again, and continuing round the edge there’s the Spice House, a large greenhouse where aromatic plants are grown for use in the restaurant kitchens.

Further on is the Healing Garden which is a comparatively recent addition. It provides another link back to the medicinal plants grown in Company Garden in the earliest days of Dutch rule.

It has been laid out with the plants in each raised bed being associated with cures for different parts of the body or different health problems. A rill runs through the garden linking two slatted wood pavilions where tea ceremonies are held.



Then there’s the opportunity for a rest and a delicious  lunch of estate produce, or afternoon tea in either in or outside the Greenhouse restaurant – a modern version of an historic glasshouse, imported from France – which also has a rill running down its length.

As the path runs down the long side of the kitchen garden and back towards the entrance, you pass the spread out low-rise buildings of the Farm Hotel and the Babel restaurant, which have formal but very contemporary gardens in front of them. These use lavender and other low shrubby plants as hedging around raised water rills…





and continuing the watery theme there is also the Old Bullfrog water feature which is a great attraction for children, and I suspect lots of adults too.

Beyond these buildings and  just visible are the working parts of the farm. There’s a winery, a soap factory, essential oil distillery, juicer and balsamic vinegar making plant as well as the wine museum and wine cellars. Its a busy place!

So how to sum it all up? There’s no doubt it is an enormous success both horticulturally and commercially, and as a visitor you feel very welcome, unlike some gardens where you can be made to feel like an intruder. Babylonstoren feels positive and “can-do”, with a coherent  underlying ecologically based philosophy, everything has a purpose and nothing is left to chance.  Part of that means that  information about the garden and its history feels quite carefully controlled, and while there’s plenty available it’s managed to fit the garden’s brand image, making it quite hard to research alternative sources.  However I doubt that worries many visitors because they are quite rightly  just in awe of the setting and what has been achieved in a short space of time.  I suspect Louis XIV, for all his wealth and power, would be envious of the Bekkers.

Unsurprisingly Babylonstoren is  now the 2nd most visited gardens in South Africa after Kirstenbosch, Cape Town’s historic  Botanical Gardens, and I’m sure it will take its place  in history amongst the world’s great horticultural creations.

There really is nowhere apart from the Babylonstoren website to look for further information. I bought The Gardens of Babylonstoren by Francesca Watson from The Newt by mail-order but it doesn’t look as if they’ve still got it in stock and otherwise it seems only to be available in South Africa.



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