Flowers at the ‘Nellie’ in Cape Town.
If you find yourself in Cape Town I highly recommend afternoon tea at the Mount Nelson Hotel. Not only is the array of cakes and biscuits on offer staggering in both its deliciousness and variety but the nine acre garden is also a delight. And it is just a few steps away from the Company Gardens, South Africa’s oldest public garden established by Dutch settlers in 1652.
The Mount Nelson Hotel or ‘The Nellie’, or ‘The Pink Lady’ as it is sometimes affectionately called opened in 1899 to cater for the Union Castle (shipping) Line’s First Class passengers. The first hotel in South Africa to offer hot and cold water, it was described at the time as ‘even better than its London counterparts’.
The overall colour scheme of the planting is pink, white, blue and silvery grey colours, ‘the colour palette of the hotel’ says Paul Rice, Head Gardener for thirty one years. The gentle hues are both extremely pretty and restful in the intense light of the Cape. In such a revered luxurious institution understatement is all.
Paul has a team of six gardeners. Each has his own area. ‘I allow them freedom to express themselves’. But Paul says credit for much of the design is due to Dame Shirley Sherwood, whose husband Jim built up the whole Belmond collection of hotels, and Graham Viney, a leading South African interior designer. (In 2008 the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art, the only museum in the world devoted to botanical art, opened at Kew Gardens.)
A particularly charming feature are the diminutive gardens in front of the Garden Cottage Suites, conjured up from a row of historic cottages restored in 1990. Each garden is subtly different.
Another attractive feature are the cluster pots either side of the main door onto the garden terrace from the hotel. They are reminiscent of the famous cluster pots outside the front door at Great Dixter.
Sunflowers are a major component of the displays, and Paul plants seeds every ten days.
‘In summer it is easy to pull an striking collection of plants together but in the winter I cheat and use cymbidium orchids which grow well here in the Cape’.
‘The challenge is to keep the garden looking like spring in England at the end of the year’. October, November (the spring in S.Africa) is when most gardens open. By now (February) it is becoming difficult.
‘Winter is very short here.The borders are gutted and stripped out completely in July. It is a little bit of sanitation time. I don’t make grand borders in the winter as there is not the pressure to create great displays.
But you have to remember we don’t get those seasonal changes you have in England. It is very windy and dry in the summer and can be stormy in the winter.’
‘The Mount Nelson is a little sanctuary in the city,’ concludes Paul Rice. ‘It is a joy to work here’. It is also a joy to visit. Do go if you get the chance.