Debby Tenquist is a landscaper. She is the designer of the Garden of St Christopher in Hyde Park, Johannesburg, and she is the owner of Botanica Trading which carries out landscape design, textile design, and garden tours. Her company sells verandah & garden accessories and rare plants, and she lives in and works from South Africa.
How did you decide to create a new company in 2015 that includes landscape, advice and visiting with groups the most beautiful gardens in the world?
My own business Botanica Trading had been on the drawing board for a number of years. It was launched in 2015 after my team and I had completed an all-encompassing intensive five year project developing a 7 acre garden estate. Moving forward I wanted to rebrand as a sole proprietor offering a range of services. Through Instagram I realised that my landscape design consultancy could be offered to a broader international market and that it was an ideal platform to offer high-end exclusive tailor made garden tours. With my background in Decorative Arts I am also interested in all aspects of design and I have recently launched a textile range based on 17th Century VOC porcelain.
You and your partner created the St Christopher Garden, a beautiful enclave in the Hyde Park of Johannesburg. Can you describe it?
Designing the seven acre Garden of St Christopher was a privilege and an opportunity to build a large garden with the ultimate luxury of time. Detailed research was undertaken and interesting ornamental plant collections were amassed. The architecture of the house and the Italian ancestry of the owner prompted an Italianate style garden design with English overtones. An environmentally sensitive approach was employed during the project. We used the stumps of trees we had to remove for a Highgrove-inspired stumpery. This area included a fernery and an unusual collection of large mineral specimens including verdite, sodalite and amethyst which added a tangible energy to that part of the garden. The wood from the felled trees was used for rustic paths in the “Bosco” part of the garden which included the oval reflection pond. The pond was inspired by a similar one by Russell Page designed for Babe Paley at Kiluna Farm on Long Island that sadly no longer exists. The pond is encircled by a bowl of azaleas, acers, dogwoods and flowering cherries that is breath-taking in both spring and autumn. The pond is part of a closed system of three water features that are gravity fed and naturally cleaned by a bog garden in the stumpery. A bird garden and a butterfly-bee garden are aimed at increasing the population of natural wild life. A Neo Renaissance buxus parterre is viewed at a height from a stone clad classical pergola. In front of the house is a 80 meter long tapis vert alongside a 40 meter long and 25 meter deep herbaceous border of blue and white perennials planted in broad drifts anchored by curved buxus hedges that reaches its peak in mid-summer. The garden is home to a wide variety of exotic and indigenous trees including a collection of magnolias, crab apples, flowering cherries, acers and a curated collection of over 200 camellias. The most relaxed part of the garden is a meadow of long grasses with mown pathways that is bisected by a meandering river of Louisiana irises that is traversed by Japanese style bridges.
Do you think that in the confused world in which we live gardens have the place they deserve?
Sadly gardens do not have the place they deserve. I am passionate about preserving the environment as I believe that as a species we will not survive without the vibrant health of the world on which we depend so heavily. Increasingly I recognise the immense healing power of gardens and natural beauty. Meditative time spent in a garden, however contained the space, is vital. Research has revealed that gardening, even in the most impoverished and marginalised communities, including those communities incarcerated in jails, has a tremendous and positive transformational effect. In my view it is vital for the health of our bodies, souls and spirits to spend time in nature, either in a garden or in the wild, as it allows us to connect with our creator and remain grounded.
Do you have some specific gardens that you love and where you organise your visits?
I love the gardens of Britain, France and Italy but I also have an enormous interest in Japanese gardens as I specialised in Japanese Works of Art when I worked for Sotheby’s which I had previously studied at SOAS in London.
In Italy I admire early Renaissance gardens such as the perfect Giardino Giusti in Verona as well as iconic 20th Century Neo Renaissance gardens such as I Tatti and La Foce both designed by English architect Cecil Pinsent. I have recently returned from a successful garden tour of my design built around these gardens.
In England I love the gardens of the Cotswold in particular Iford Manor designed by Harold Peto which is a perfect jewel of a garden. There are many other iconic gardens for instance Rosemary Verey’s Barnsley House and Lawrence Johnson’s Hidcote that are both important and influential and are essential Of course they are many spectacular private gardens to visit as well.
In France I love the gardens of both Normandy and Provence but my favourite is La Louve in Bonnieux designed by Hermes design legend Nicole de Vèsian. I love it for its sculptural beauty and her practical philosophy of using hardy endemic plant material. The tour I am planning for 2017 are the gardens of Normandy and Brittany. We will also visit the rare plant fair Journées des Plantes at Chateau de Chantilly just north of Paris.
In Japan the gardens of the Kyoto Temples are eternally inspiring for their calm beauty especially in spring and autumn at the time of seasonal change. I hope to offer a tour of Japan during Hanami in 2018.
Is there a particular style of gardens in your country South Africa?
The most distinctive “style” one associates with South Africa is the one that is integral to the language of Cape Dutch vernacular architecture of the Cape Provence. It is very simple with an emphasis on the agricultural that includes fruit and wine farms as well as food gardens. A strong reference to their European origins are the large exotic trees planted in front of the houses to provide a shady retreat from the sun. Bablylonstoren near Franschoek in the Cape is an outstanding example of a contemporary South African garden which has drawn on the design of the original VOC Company food gardens of the mid-17th Century.
When I look at your pictures in Instagram I can see gardens in Italy, in France, in the UK, in America. What are the major differences in style?
In Italy the classical Villa gardens of Rome offered a peaceful retreat from the world of commerce. During the Middle Ages, gardens were thought to unite the earthly with the divine. The enclosed garden became an allegory for paradise or a “lost Eden”. In the High Renaissance the garden became powerful platform to illustrate man’s power and control over nature with the symmetrical formal designs and clipped hedges exemplified by the gardens of the Medici family.
The quintessential relaxed French Provincial style of garden with their simple designs and restricted palette of plants have a scale that most of us can relate to. Although I admire them, the large and grand gardens of Versailles and the Chateaux gardens of the Loire Valley are less appealing to me and more florid than the simplicity of grand Italian gardens.
The quintessential garden that people often associate with England is a cottage garden filled to bursting with perennials like foxgloves and delphiniums. In fact there are a myriad of styles such as Capability Brown’s initiated landscape movement as well as the French and Italian inspired formal gardens that abound in Britain. Britain is a nation of gardeners and the enthusiasm with which they visit flower shows, gardens and create their own gardens is testament to that obsession. If I had to generalise wildly British gardens are best represented by the successful marriage of formal structure with loose plantings of perennials.
North America, like 20th Century South Africa, has a range of international influences that are largely Eurocentric. The vast wealth of American entrepreneurs over the past 150 years has helped to build some wonderful gardens such as Henry Du Pont’s Winterthur which like many other gardens are now available to the public. Gardens in America are often dictated to by the plants that the climate will allow. East Coast gardens have access to beautiful endemic woodland plants such as hydrangea quercifolia, hydrangea arborescens and dogwoods, and of course in California they are beset by water issues and so the drought resistant endemic Californian lilac, ceonothus, together with dry Mediterranean style gardening is appropriate. America also has some of the most spectacular and beautifully maintained Botanical gardens in the world.
In order to create a new garden what is the most important thing? Plants, flowers, landscape?
The most important thing I consider, after my client’s brief, is the garden’s ‘Genus Loci’. Explained as ‘Spirit of Place’ I think it is about respecting the soul and pervading spirit of the garden and its immediate environment. It should be celebrated and revealed in the design. The architectural structure comes second, then the plants and finally the flowers.
You seem to like the architecture of the gardens, the greenhouses, the sculptures…
I think that the architecture of a garden is like the skeleton of a body. For a garden to have longevity it is essential to have good bones that add structure, stature and grace. For me the ultimate success of a garden is when the architecture is inconspicuous and so well disguised by appropriate planting and that it disappears into and becomes part of its surrounds, revealing only glimpses of hand-dressed stone work or moulding. Carefully chosen sculpture can enhance a garden and provide a striking focal point. Of course as a plant lover nothing excites me more than the prospect of a working or ornamental greenhouse.
If you had to name some of the landscapers and garden architects who you are inspired by, who would you say?
The garden designers of the past that I revere the most are Harold Peto for his confident architectural approach, Gertrude Jekyll for her immense plant knowledge and perennial planting schemes and of course Russel Page for his extraordinary knowledge and all round visionary talent. Among contemporary luminaries Piet Oudolf stands out for me for his brilliance with texture and colour, Paul Bangay from Australia for his strong architectural gardens and Dan Pearson for his naturalistic style and respect for the environment.
Is it difficult to do your job from South Africa?
With the advances of today’s technology it is possible to do the bulk of design work from afar. Obviously one has to have an exploratory preliminary visit to site to explore and inspect the lay of the land and in so doing discover any potential challenges for the project. Thereafter one can design the garden offsite once provided with a competently drawn-up land survey. Obviously it is necessary for a number of follow up visits to ensure the design and installation process go according to plan.
What kind of clients do you have?
A variety, from young couples to mature clients with more generous budgets
What type of people come with you to visit gardens?
Well-travelled, keen, very experienced and knowledgeable gardeners. “Tenquist Tours” attracts people that are immersed in the creative process of building their own gardens and thus they really appreciate the enormous skill and hard work that has gone into the gardens that we visit.
Do you have a specific plant and a particular flower that you love?
The plant that I have grown to love the most is Hydrangea Annabelle Arborescens. I love the mutability of its colouring, starting off green turning to white and reverting to green. I love that it is a species hydrangea that not only grows fast, it flowers on new growth, it is easy to propagate and has impact when planted in large drifts and last but not least it is a stunning cut and dried flower. What is there not to love?
What are your new projects?
With water security a looming global crises and witnessing the most recent devastating drought in South Africa I have elected to specialise in drought resistant gardening using the Mediterranean dry garden blueprint of little or no grass, drought tolerant plants and drip irrigation. My approach is to create lush looking and beautiful gardens that are not thirsty for water. I have one garden in progress in Westcliff in Johannesburg and another starting soon at a farm in Swellendam in the Cape which will include a walled vegetable garden. Next week I start work on a classic formal green and white garden for a young couple and I am currently in the process of negotiating an exciting project in Connecticut, the owner of which I have just met up with in Provence.
Can you describe your ideal garden?
Over the years my idea of the ideal garden has changed radically. As I have matured in my garden appreciation I desire more simplicity and like to distil things down to their essence. Essential ingredients are patina, character, a balance between evergreen and deciduous and a somewhat reserved use of colour. My perfect garden must be a place of beauty, peace and tranquillity that feeds the soul, akin to the classical early Roman gardens of retreat. I like to closely observe nature, to witness the wonder of the changing seasons on a daily basis. Experiencing the extraordinary miracle of creation at first hand instils in me deep joy and peace.
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June 5th, 2016