The garden Box planted

Without my great aunt, Sheila (Box) Thompson’s love of plants and interest in cultivating interesting species, we would probably not be celebrating spring in Magoebaskloof.

We all love and enjoy the beauty of Cheerio Gardens, particularly in spring – breathtaking azaleas in a myriad colours, Japanese flowering cherry trees covered in clouds of blossom, streams and dams, gentle walks… The list is endless and the feeling you get when visiting Cheerio Gardens, is definitely food for your soul!

History of our garden

Interview with Garden and Home, August 2014 issue

“My aunt Box would probably turn in her grave if she knew what I’ve been doing in her garden,” chuckles Jane Hillary, custodian of the 20 hectares known as Cheerio Gardens.

“She didn’t believe in noisy gardening and no mowers, brush cutters, chippers or chainsaws were used while she was the gardener on the farm. She also firmly believed that nature would take care of dying trees and shrubs in its very own way. “Today,” she smiles, “I use machinery to help me cut down the dead trees and chip them into mulch.”

The story of Sheila (Box) Thompson and Cheerio Gardens is a fascinating fairy tale of an eccentric plant lover and collector who simply couldn’t live without flowers. As a young woman during World War ||, she was sent to Cape Town to the SA Signal Corps where she fell in love with SA’s beautiful indigenous bulbous plants and brought a number home to Haenertsburg in Limpopo to start her own nursery. Ironically, this dream was crushed when the bulbs were destroyed by bush pigs, mole rats and porcupines. But undeterred, she decided to head in a different direction.
She has a natural gift for working with nature, and together with her mother, Googoo (Audrey) and a Mozambican gardener called Station, created the garden from scratch. Terraces and walks were built using rocks from the farm. Box returned elated following a trip to Malawi after seeing how the Malawians rejuvenated their soil by digging in weeds. She nursed the worn-out soil, previously used for mealie farming, back to health organically and began planting. She didn’t work to a formal garden plan, it was just a gloriously wild garden which grew and grew as she sourced more cuttings.

Box was equally determined to share South Africans rich plant life with the rest of the world and began writing articles in botany magazines as well as sending plant material to collectors worldwide. Realising that the climate at Haenertsburg was ideal for northern-hemisphere flowering trees, Box began to source and plant them.

One of her articles were read by the Japanese Emperor’s physician, and in return for sending him seeds of blue-flowering indigenous plants, he sent her some azalea seeds and the pips of a very special cherry.

She got to know the curator at Kew Gardens and was able to source plant material from there including the unusual yellow and orange varieties of azalea on the farm.

To the many blossom trees, Box introduced maples, liquidambars and oaks, all to add to the fiery autumn spectacle created by the yellow and orange leaves of the Japanese flowering cherries. She grew everything from cuttings – she had the knack of making everything grow.
In 1996, Jane took on the mammoth task of caring and curating the iconic South African garden, while her daughter Sarah runs & managers the facilities on the farm which include the tea garden, self-catering cottages and a beautiful wedding venue.
But Jane certainly hasn’t let go of all that her aunt stood for. She doesn’t feed or water the garden – exactly how her legendary aunt taught her – and she doesn’t use insecticides. It almost defies belief that this magical garden, overflowing with blossoms, crammed with different varieties of exquisite flowering Japanese cherries, frothy crab apples, dogwoods, rare camellias and magnolias, rhododendrons and many unusual azaleas – some cross-bred on the farm – thrives without much human intervention.

“Haenertsburg is known for its misty climate,” explains Jane. “I think this might be the secret to the success of growing plants and trees that come predominantly from the Northern Hemisphere. The mist allows shade-loving azaleas to be planted in full sun and the acidic soil is just perfect for them.” She doesn’t feed the plants or soil because it might alter the pH balance, something with which nobody has every tampered.

It goes without saying that maintaining a 20-hectare garden on rough hillside terrain is no easy task. Jane’s right-handed man, Moses Katle, recently reluctantly retired at the age of 80. He knew the name of every azaleas variety – even when they weren’t in flower. Jane replants and trims the plants lining the walkways and removes dead branches and any trees, which look as if they could fall over. Recently she began removing invasive bamboo and replacing it with azaleas. Many of the original azaleas and blossom-tree-lined walkways still provide splendid colour every year.

The garden layout hasn’t changed, other that where a large group of rhododendrons ‘drifted’ down a steep slope after a mud slide in 2000. Box loved to see the pleasure her garden brought to garden lovers. Jane, likewise, hope people will keep visiting the garden – not only in spring – as Cheerio Gardens, like all gardens, can’t show off all it has to offer in just one week. It’s open all year round and each season has its own surprises.