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Garden Designer Keith Kirsten

Keith Kirsten and P Allen SmithThe day my friend from South Africa, Keith Kirsten, visited the Garden Home Retreat the temperature was dropping rapidly as a snow storm moved in, but we warmed ourselves with thoughts of the summer garden and some of our favorite plants.

I first heard about Keith Kirsten through some mutual friends who promised that the next time he was in the states they would bring him around for a visit.  I only wish it had been warmer during our time in the garden, but being a keen plants person with a reputation that follows him from Johannesburg to New York and all points in between, Keith saw past the skies and threatening snow and dove into talk about plants with his trademark passion.

Allen:  Keith, I’m so excited you were able to come out here. I'm sorry that it feels like a winter day.

Keith Kirsten, South African Gardening Expert:  We are temperate where I garden and it gets extremely cold at night in the winter.  I live near a river and the temperatures really drop.  So I can only grow things that can really take the cold.  Whereas in other parts of South Africa where there the climate is warmer  they can grow a lot of more of those things that can become almost subtropical.

Allen:  I think it’s interesting that so often we think what you grow in South Africa and what I grow here are completely different, but that’s not true at all.

Keith:  Well you have to overwinter planters and tubs of agapanthus for example whereas we grow them out of doors in most parts of South African and they grow very well.

Allen:  This is our herbaceous border, actually a mixed border because it contains shrubs, butterfly bush, roses and other plants.

Keith:  I think any garden needs a good design and very good structure so that when, like in winter, plants are off the structure still holds the whole garden, the skeleton of it together.

Allen:  You’ve got to have that frame work.  We’ve done that here with mainly just a few workhorse plants.  We’ve used holly, boxwood and roses.

Keith, what sort of workhorse plants do you use in South Africa?

Keith:  We use some of the traditional Northern Hemisphere plants like Buxus.  We also use lots of Viburnum.  And then form plants like ornamental grasses, conifers.  There are quite a few conifers that even last well in the coastal regions where they take the salt laden winds.  And then of course roses, even though they don’t look great in the winter they are good structural plants during the summer months.

Allen:  Yes, I think roses are often overlooked and they are very good structural plants.  Down at each end of the garden we have a big ring of rugosa ‘Sarah van Fleet’, which has very beautiful pale pink blossoms.

Keith:  And we use holly as well.  Various varieties of holly, which is a great plant.

Allen:  The Garden Home Retreat is all about trialing all kinds of new varieties, even some of the old ones.

Keith Kirsten and P Allen SmithKeith:  Right.  Well I think trialing is very important.  And as modern day kind of plant hunter things are being moved around the world and even in South Africa we try this and that and it’s good to find out just how these garden plants perform for the gardener.  And before they get into production.

Allen:  You know Keith the reason I laid this garden out the way I did is do we can keep up with exactly what’s planted.

Keith:  Well I think trial plants have to be kept orderly so that you can keep up with where they are and how they are doing.  And I think the great thing is that you can also test their performance for the length of flowering period, how they take the heat, how they take the different moisture levels and perhaps the dryness.  And I think that it’s important to see just how they perform before they get grown and produced for the market.

Allen:  It’s a big outdoor laboratory.

Keith:  Well I think it’s fantastic.  Long may you carry on trialing and I’m going to carry on looking for new plants and also trialing back home and bring these ideas back to America and maybe bring your ideas into South Africa.

Allen:  Well, I certainly want to apply some of yours right here.