Stellenberg’s history and gardens: The Ovenstones tell us more about their magical home

Stellenberg homestead

The Stellenberg homestead

More than R80 000 has been raised for St Joseph’s to date by the virtual tour of the Stellenberg Gardens. Since 2015, Stellenberg Gardens in Cape Town has held Open Weekends in aid of St Joseph’s. However, due to the pandemic the gardens have not been open to the public for some time and the virtual tour was launched to enable the fundraising to continue online.

Andrew and Sandy Ovenstone tell us more about Stellenberg’s history and the gardens.

Some history about the Stellenberg property.
The origins of the Stellenberg estate date back to the seventeenth century and early owners under Dutch rule included Francois van der Stel, son of Simon van der Stel, the first governor of the Cape. Jan de Wit and his son Petrus owned the estate from from 1742 to 1767, and built the present manor house. The arrival of the British in 1806 marked the beginning of more than a century under direct British rule and understandably, British influence increased at the Cape and the Regency and Victorian styles started to supersede the local Cape Dutch buildings, which became dated, and even dilapidated. However, Stellenberg was maintained to the highest standards of authentic Cape Dutch style by subsequent owners.  

Stellenberg old manor house

Stellenberg’s old manor house

When the Ovenstone family came to Stellenberg in 1953 they found classical Dutch architecture, already featured in books and paintings and gardens fashionable in the 1930s and 1940s: The original werf or square with its well and surrounding 18th century buildings, old walls, benches, and bridges. This was also the beginning of a period during which the restoration of Old Cape Dutch and Cape Regency buildings was encouraged. And to this end, some, including Stellenberg, were given national monument, now the Heritage status.

Andrew and Sandy Ovenstone returned to Stellenberg in 1973. After undertaking the restoration of an important outbuilding, which had been damaged by fire in 1971, Sandy understood that she did not have a blank canvas on which to redesign the garden, which at the time comprised lawns, English Oaks, rows of Hydrangeas and a large shrubbery with mature trees. She took her time, and only made minor changes for more than a decade, until she felt ready to embark on her garden story, by which time there was no doubt that she would use what was there as central to her design ideas.

Today, after some 48 years of hard work and dedication by the Ovenstones and their staff, incorporating a variety of ideas and inspiration, drawn from Andrew’s Scottish heritage and gardens in England, France and Italy which they visited frequently. There are 16 distinct areas in the gardens, namely the Garden Entrance, the White Garden, the Parterre Garden, the Vegetable Garden, the Garden of Paradise, the Herb Garden, the Shady Walkway, the main lawns and façade, the Wild Garden, the Upper-Stream Garden, Lower-Stream Garden, the Lime Tree Walk, the Garden of Reflection, the Vine Walk allée, the Walled Garden and the Pool Garden.

The Stellenberg Garden Plan

The Stellenberg Garden Plan

Where did the idea of opening up the gardens come from?  How many people have visited the gardens over the years?
A: We opened the gardens for charity in 1991, and were amazed to receive over 400 visitors to our first open week end. Since then the gardens have been open for charity every year until COVID’s intervention. Based on ticket sales, and an estimate of accompanying children who do not pay, approximately 2000 people now visit the garden over an open week end in favourable weather.

What part of the gardens is your favourite for either of you and why?
A: I am sure that Sandy would say that her gardens are like her grandchildren. She loves them all equally. My favourite sections are the stream gardens, quite  masculine, and wild but with enough continuity and structure. In the winter the stream gardens are at their best, while the walled garden becomes different, but Sandy loves its structure and the bare soil duly mulched in most of the planted sections.

How important are water and colour to the design of the gardens?
A: Colour and water are both important. Sandy has moved from bright colours to shades of green and white in some sections, with shades of green and blue in the pool garden, and brighter colours with shades of green in the walled garden. Eleven ponds or water features including the stream speak for the importance of water in the gardens. Sandy finds the sound of water calming.

How did you manage during the drought that we had in Cape Town a few years ago?
A: The drought was difficult. Even the old wells could not cope. Historically, parts of Stellenberg, including what are now the impressive Arderne Gardens, were known as the Stellenberg marsh. A high water table results in the gardens being wetter than normal in winter and not as dry in winter. We resolved not to change the design of the  gardens but to improve the efficiency of our irrigation practice with less daytime irrigation and more computerized night time watering, and to let the lawns take the strain.

Tell us more about your staff and their contribution to keeping everything so beautiful, especially during the pandemic?
A: We pay tribute to the dedication of our staff in the video. They all make a contribution, as do our regular contractors who maintain the property and the houses thereon. We like to believe that with time, they become skilled enough to more than hold their own anywhere.

Where did the idea of a virtual tour come from and who produced the beautiful video for you?
A: We thought about two things, namely, the motivation of our gardeners in the absence of visitors, and our inability to contribute as meaningfully to our charity, St Joseph’s Home, in the COVID-19 environment. The stress in managing the manor house and the gardens with one person, our senior gardener, Jonas, who quarantined here, for four months was great. We decided to make the video as a project to encourage all of us in a creative rather than a financial sense.

The production was done by PMC Films, Popcorn Post Production, Ignition Design and Juice Audio.

How long have you been supporters of St Joseph’s and what about this organisation made you decide to contribute this way?
A: St Joseph’s has been our chosen charitable organisation since 2015.

Anything you would like to add?
A: What were known as the Claremont Public Gardens, now the Arderne Gardens, were originally created by Ralph Arderne on land bought from the then owners of Stellenberg in 1845. These Public Gardens serve all our communities, and have several champion trees, and other areas of interest, including a restored wetland area and Gingko trees directly descended from trees which survived the horrific nuclear bombing of Hiroshima at the end of WW2.

We support the Friends of Arderne Gardens, (FOTAG) without whose work the gardens would be neither as safe nor as well maintained, and encourage our visitors to also visit the Arderne Gardens, or to join one of their regular guided tours.

Stellenberg's White Garden

The White Garden

The Vegetable Garden at Stellenberg

The Vegetable Garden