Under the watchful eye of Stellenbosch Mountain in the leafy suburb of Mostertsdrift, the town’s landmark irrigation channel and Mill Stream run through the utopian gardens of Renee Slee, Nelia Hogenhout, Di van Niekerk, and Elta Markgraaff – a golden thread connecting a community of passionate gardeners making the world a more beautiful place.
Paying it forward | The garden of Renee Slee
Stepping through the entrance of Renee Slee’s front garden on Jonkershoek Road is nothing short of a feast for the eyes.
This ever-evolving wonderland of woodchip paths, fruit trees, lavender, nasturtium, bougainvillea, zinnias, and bridal bloom with cloud-like branches will sweep you off your feet. Starting with a lime green bed of sedum with bright blots of towering red poppies, the garden rises to the house via four terraces, unfolding like a treasure trove of planted beds. A row of knobby apple trees brought in to retire here alongside air plants, succulents, and stubborn irises rise through the middle. And a lacey bed of pink crassula runs across the top terrace like the proverbial cherry on the cake.
Renee is a natural-born gardener that belongs to her plants as much as they belong to her. She navigates her garden with a wonderful sense of familiarity and affinity for her plants, wearing her evident passion for gardening like a golden aura.
Nine years ago, the iris queen of Johannesburg made Mostertsdrift her home and wasted no time transforming the property’s old tennis court and barren soil into a thriving cut flower, dahlia, and vegetable garden. When her mother-in-law passed away, Renee found herself craving peace and space to heal. She cleared the earth to clear her mind and prepared the soil for a new type of garden – one with no rules, no structure, and plenty of joy. Over the years that followed, her spontaneous, unplanned gardening style came into its own. Inspired by the landscaper Patrick Watson to simply let bulbs grow where they fall, Renee’s back garden has matured into a luscious woodland teeming with birdsong, the occasional tortoise or deer, and every plant imaginable.
Renee attributes her gardening instincts to the generations of gardeners that came before her – passed down between families to cultivate respect and love for nature. Putting her intuition for creating beautiful green spaces to work, Renee is determined to leave the world a little better than she found it and hopefully inspire others to do the same.
Family treasures | The garden of Nelia Hogenhout
A few houses down the road, Nelia Hogenhout’s home and garden are a stunning manifestation of planting for the next generation. Nelia and her husband live in his childhood home where her mother-in-law put down the roots of a garden that – unbeknownst to her – her son and his family would come to treasure and enjoy many decades later. Among these remarkable endowments is a frangipani tree planted from a cutting over 50 years ago and a green avocado grown from a pit into a generous, fruit-bearing giant.
At the heart of Nelia’s indoor-outdoor home is another living heirloom - a centuries-old tree in a sea of ferns, clivias, and camellias encased in a glass courtyard. With the neighbouring STIAS garden forest a mere stone’s throw away, the view from the staircase and second floor gives one the feeling of being in a treehouse -– a stroke of luck that makes Nelia feel like the luckiest person in the world.
The surrounding garden is a collection of statement pieces, from the unusual Australian paperbark tree and prehistoric cycad to the lane of citrus trees and botanical playground where Nelia’s love of colours and unusual things come to life. This is also where the grandchildren come to dig, explore, and experience the joys of gardening. Established as a curated display of fynbos, the inviting garden is now a stunning patchwork of colours and diverse plants, including yellow pincushion proteas, buchu, blushing brides, and bright daisies paying homage to Nelia’s Namaqua roots. At the far end, fragrant sweet pea and delicate wild plum blossoms stand in contrast to their hardy neighbours. Over the years, this magical collection of diverse plants has unfolded into a living work of art and a reflection of Nelia’s life and loves.
Horticultural zoo | The garden of Di van Niekerk
Running parallel between Jonkershoek Road and the Mill Stream is the idyllic Rowan Street. From the outside of Di van Niekerk’s house, it's plain to see there’s something special lurking behind the garden walls. Jacarandas, may bush, jasmine, honeysuckle, and pink and white azaleas welcome visitors into this enchanting garden. Foxgloves, scilla, and snowdrops line the path to the front door, where a fresh camelia and a worn anvil pay tribute to the memory of Di’s parents.
When Di moved with her family from Welgemoed to Stellenbosch in 2003, she swopped a sundrenched garden for one with looming shadows on the fertile banks of the Mill Stream. Over the next almost two decades, Di learned the art of shadow gardening and put down the roots for what she now affectionately refers to as her ‘horticultural zoo’ – a garden so steeped in meaning that every plant and stone has a story to tell.
Di’s life story unfolds as you walk through her garden alive with viburnum, japonicas, arum lilies, bromeliads, and clivias. Among the many meaningful landmarks are camellias planted in honour of fallen friends, a tree fern for each of her three daughters, Knysna stinkwood trees gifted by her son, stones from her childhood farm in the Langkloof, and a young wild pear tree marking the family’s brush with Covid-19.
Around the firepit, a moss-covered old peppertree holds court alongside Hong Kong hydrangeas, nandina shrubs, and a white stinkwood tree. It’s also here where Di entertains her grandchildren with tales of fairies hiding in the tree’s crannies. Perched on the Mill Stream’s edge is a favourite nook where Di entertains friends or unwinds with her husband over a glass of wine in full view of the climbing delicious monsters, fern trees, and the first clivias of the season. It is also along this path where you’ll find a fantastical staghorn fern that snacks on bananas, a wild olive tree with its own bouquet of orchids, azaleas in every shade of pink, roses, citrus trees, aspidistras, and air plants hanging from the branches of their hosts.
There’s never a dull moment in this lush sanctuary where hands-on Di starts her day every morning – lovingly tending and talking to her menagerie of plants.
Fragrant forest | The garden of Elta Markgraaff
Upstream from Di’s garden is that of Elta Markgraaff, where her pride and joy, a little gem magnolia, welcomes visitors via a beautifully manicured front garden. Around the side of Elta’s house, the garden unwinds into a forest of green where the lingering scent of a port wine magnolia beckons.
An enchanting white garden of azaleas, camellias, hydrangeas, viburnum, may flowers, dianthus, and white hibiscus lead the way past Elta’s beloved Japanese maple that turns crimson red in autumn into the bulk of her riverside oasis. Among the lush greenery swaying to the sounds of the running Mill Stream are ancient wild almond trees, abundant ferns, giant delicious monsters, and a striking bamboo tree.
Living on the water’s edge remains a novelty for Namibian-born Elta, who fondly recalls growing Namakwa daisies with the area’s typically brackish water in her youth. Years later, Elta would swap her rose garden in Kimberley for this suburban paradise where plants are left to grow and thrive, everything flowers, and the rich soil so eagerly gives to new growth.
The crowning glory of Elta’s garden is a majestic wax tree that towers above the wooden deck. Its generous branches keep the hot sun at bay during summer, followed by a stunning display of yellow and red in autumn before the tree sheds its leaves to let the winter sun warm the earth. The deck floats over the colourful riverbank planted with jasmine trees, large arum lilies from Kimberley, aspidistras, Inca lilies, and lovely hellebores.
It is here where Elta comes to enjoy the peace and tranquility of what she calls her ‘safe haven’ – a sentiment shared by a blue-tinged African paradise flycatcher that returns to this very spot every year to nest in the same tree.
Putting their shared passion to work, Renee, Nelia, Di, and Elta are making their mark in the storied history of Mostertsdrift – one that started more than three centuries ago when the streets were dust, and the first saplings went into the ground. Each garden is a labour of love and a commitment to growing and protecting these natural wonders for the next generation of gardeners to love and enjoy.