Babylonstoren…I finally get you! You’re that beautiful, expansive, generous private botanical garden outside of Cape Town that for so long, I misunderstood. Where there are fountains and naartjies and tortoises and healing plants, and gardens hidden within gardens. You are not just the pet project of a South African billionaire couple. You are there for the people: to inspire, to refresh and to remind us of the words of Voltaire from Candide:
“Cela est bien dit,’ répondit Candide, ‘mais il faut cultivar notre jardin.’” We must cultivate our garden.
I was late in the game to visit Babylonstoren, which opened at the end of 2010. Like about six years late. Probably because I’d heard how amazing it was from so many people, I thought I couldn’t help but be disappointed. When I finally got there in 2017, I was stunned by its sheer size and dreaminess – a formal garden that felt informal because of its edible and fragrant contents and idyllic layout. Like a farm but more orderly and stylish. It was like I’d died and gone to heaven. But, I was also confused by its purpose.
A private garden that didn’t charge an entrance fee (other than a parking fee that goes towards an education fund)? Where ladders were placed near trees heavy with fruit, silently inviting visitors to climb up and fill a bag with ripe figs or peaches? (This, I confirmed with a staff member, who encouraged me to take as many figs as I wanted. For free.) Really? ‘How was that possible?’ sneered my inner cynic.
Then, three weeks ago, on a day when the heavens opened and Cape Town finally got its much longed-for extended downpour, I attended the launch of a gardening app called Candide, at Babylonstoren. Yes, that’s app, as in the App Store. And it all started to make sense. The free community garden app is an extension of the philosophy of Babylonstoren, which is to get people connected to nature, through gardening. Why? Because it’s good and healthy for humans and the planet, physically and spiritually.
How do you do that, besides visiting this 3,5 hectare (8 acre) garden outside of Franschhoek? By connecting with other gardeners – from novices to experts — and sharing knowledge. Don’t know what plant your kid brought home from a school plant sale? Post a photo of it on Candide and you’re sure to get an answer. Look up the plant on the app and you’ll learn what kind of soil it likes. Got a weird bug chowing your pumpkin leaves? Create a post and you’ll soon get advice about how to get rid of it. Or maybe you’re just incredibly proud of those tomatoes you’ve been nurturing and want to share. Or gooseberries!
The app looks comfortingly like Instagram, with a newsfeed, a Discover section (with curated content about everything from mushroom hunts to immune boosting teas), Places (where to find an open garden or nursery, for example), and Knowledge (the A to Z of hundreds of plants in South Africa). It was first introduced in the UK; South Africa is Candide’s second market. You can set up your profile so that you get content from both countries if you like, or just one.
You might think that an app is as removed from the earthy act of gardening as is possible. I did – I’m not someone who needs more reasons to be on my phone. Yet, once I started playing around with it, I realized it’s a great resource, and that users want to help and share, rather than humiliate lesser experienced gardeners like me. I’m unlikely to buy a gardening magazine, but very likely to check this app to see what people who live around me are growing.
I talked with Babylonstoren’s Master Gardener Gundula Deutschlander about the unlikely marriage of technology and gardening:
“Gardening tends to be quite a solitary activity, sometimes for people who enjoy the company of plants more than humans. While it can be insular, gardeners still get very excited about what they are doing and want to share with others. Gardening is also very temporal and constantly changing: it’s lovely to be able to share these changes.”
We talk about the societal need for gardening today, and why so many non-gardeners and novices find gardening intimidating. “People are intimidated because they are too far removed from nature. Everyone is the master of their own environment, and gardening is about connecting with instinct. It’s energizing to go back to basics and to find out what is in ourselves.”
It is the same with cooking. “We find confidence in ourselves through connecting with food: through taste, touch and smell.”
“The wonderful thing about gardening is losing yourself in a Zen moment. When you are at the service of the greater good around us.”
The day of the launch, we were treated to tea and sandwiches in the Succulent House, which is not usually open to the public. This was no ordinary tea. Gundula poured a blue-hued butterfly pea tea from a magnificent glass bottle. “Add a squeeze of lemon to it, and it will turn purple,” she instructed us. The second tea was rose pelargonium and hibiscus. If I could walk around wreathed in rose pelargonium every day I would: that’s how much I love that scent. The tea sandwiches, which looked like fairy tale stuff, were made with moist matcha tea bread, and filled with sliced strawberries and Babylonstoren’s own labneh. It was as close to an Alice in Wonderland moment as I’m likely to experience.
In that barn-like Succulent House, the ambition of this place became clear to me, once expressed by Ernst van Jaarsveld, Babylonstoren’s Master Botanist. Babylonstoren aspires to become one of the world’s great private gardens, along the lines of the Huntington Botanical Garden in Los Angeles. To someone like me who is obsessed with anything edible or drinkable, it already is. Inspired by the historic Company Garden, set up in Cape Town to supply Spice Route sailors with food and sustenance, it is a true oasis for twenty-first century travelers.
By the time I walked back along the long avenues of the garden to my car, I was giddy with Babylonstoren, its mission and the rain, which bounced off my umbrella and helped fill the garden’s stone-lined irrigation channels. In a place and time of drought, rain feels extra magical.
I’m still energized by the concept that gardening is so good for the soul, for the collective soul. There’s no doubt in my mind that the world would be a better place if we all got our hands in the dirt.
To download the app, look for Candide in the App Store or Google Play.