I had the best time catching up with Lefras one Saturday morning. Lefras’ passion for plants and gardening is infectious and I noted down so many of the tips and tricks he gave me. Lefras works as an IT project manager, a job that currently entails a lot of emails and video calls. So, after hours he finds a creative outlet in gardening and cooking. I was taken with Lefras’ kind and caring nature, something made evident by the care he puts into his plants and the wonderful meals he cooks for his friends and family. I asked him to share more about his gardening journey and to give those of us who are just starting some tips and advice. I could relate to the challenges of gardening in a rented space, and it’s amazing to see what he does on a budget, with careful planning, some trial and error, and a lot of love.
You’ve had green fingers from a young age and you did a school biology project on geraniums even though you weren’t taking the subject! Your boarding school room also became a mini indoor garden, which must have been an interesting experience for your roommates…
I dropped Biology early in the year to do Business Economics, but when I commit myself to something, I finish it! We had to do a hypothesis and the topic I chose was cultivating and crossbreeding geraniums. I took a white Butterfly Geranium, removed the nodes, and taped them closely to the nodes of a Red Bunch Geranium. I took very good care of the plants, along with all the other pot plants that threatened to take over my boarding schoolroom. My high school roommates had to share their space with me and my favourite pot plants and bulbs, like my beloved Amaryllis. This did not always go down well with all the boys… The outcome of the project was a Butterfly Geranium with the most interesting pink colour. By now hundreds of cuttings have been made from this new geranium that started as one small plant. I love seeing my geraniums in friends, family, and neighbours’ homes and gardens. I’ve even spotted them in strangers’ gardens in my hometown!
Your first gardening project was your parents’ garden in Albertinia. You faced a couple of challenges, like the dry climate and a lack of gardening experience. How did you go about creating your very first garden?
The first thing was to do some research and the library was my go-to place in a pre-google era. I also walked around and peeped into neighbours’ gardens to see what plants worked well in the area. First, I had to think about the big picture: where did I want shade in ten years or privacy in six years. This helped me do my overall planning before I focused on the smaller details. Last, but not least, I learnt that seedlings, annuals, and ornamentals are the difference between an average and a fantastic garden. It’s all about the details and finishing touches.
What were the biggest wins and disappointments of this project?
The wins are looking at and enjoying some of the plants that are still growing in the garden. Some of the trees are now over ten meters high. Cutting the first flowers from my new plants or even just smelling them felt like a win! I’ve also made many cuttings from the original plants that I’ve been able to use elsewhere. I also love it when people tell me ‘you cannot grow that around here’ or ‘it will never work’ and it does! That might be the sweetest victory of all. The biggest disappointments were probably when something failed, and I realised those warnings were right… Or when a bulb I was excited about did not come up or a plant died. That was particularly frustrating if I could have prevented it.
I love the artistic and visual way you approach gardening. You mentioned playing with different shades of green and using plants of different sizes and heights. Do you plan your gardening space before you start, or does it develop over time?
If you fail to plan, you plan to fail! Over the years I’ve burned my fingers by underestimating the size some plants grow to but that’s gardening trial and error for you! This might sound like a cliché, but you have to start with your vision: what ‘look’ do you want in a few year’s time? With gardening, you start something now to enjoy it later and somewhere in the middle the work and the joy collide. I recommend starting with trees and shrubs first. I usually draw pictures from all angles and colour them with pencils to get the colour palette right! Keep in mind which plants flower in which season. Your garden needs to look pretty and colourful even if nothing is in bloom and that’s why I like to play with shades of green and grey… add a few dark purples or red leafy shrubs, and you have a winner! If you’re just starting out and still waiting for things to grow, you can use a few quick wins to fill in the gaps. Icebergs, lavender and creepers are handy for this! I don’t like seeing bare soil or unattractive walls. Even attractive walls can be softened with a trellis or a creeper here and there! Depending on the look you are going for, don’t hesitate to cover it! I always love finishing flowerbeds off with mulch or pebbles. For pot plants I’ll use seedlings, small flowers and succulents. It’s the final cherry on the cake to make everything look softer and neat. It’s also a great way to change things from year to year or seasonally if you like to change the look of your garden. It’s like changing the scatter cushions in a room. You can use stones, pebbles, rocks, granite chips, mulch, or even peach pips if you are going more minimalistic, but I prefer using greenery in the form of creepers and small flowers. I even use leftover wine corks in my pots! Covering the soil protects it against wind and keeps it from drying out quickly. If you need another incentive to cover up – more plants in your beds, means less space for weeds.
You mentioned some go-to plants you love to use. What are Lefras’ signature plants?
Firstly, Iceberg Floribunda Roses! I especially love the standards for their height so I can play around with other plants underneath. Secondly, Duranta Sheena’s Gold. That yellowy-green shade just blows my hair back! They can be pruned to any shape and size and grow quite quickly. I have a huge conifer obsession and they come in all shades of green and even grey! Lavender is always a winner and can you even call it a garden without a lemon tree, some herbs and basic edibles. Once your edible plants are established you’ll never want to eat supermarket salad leaves again… and it’ll save you some money. If you have limited space, you can use edible salad leaves as border plants or be creative and use plants like mint as creepers! I know it’s not always ideal planting edibles with other plants and sometimes frowned upon, but if your space is limited this might be the best way to tick all your boxes.
Your top floor apartment is lovely and full of plants and flowers. How do you utilise your space now that you don’t have your own garden?
Hopefully, this is just a temporary arrangement. Luckily, my balcony looks out over the complex gardens and I’ve already planted a few cuttings there. My balcony, flat, and even the stairs leading to my front door, are full of pot plants! I refuse not to have access to fresh herbs or beautiful flowers. I’ve never had to exclusively use containers to create a garden, so I see this as a new challenge.
I mentioned I’m not a fan of palm trees during our chat and you reminded me that context is crucial to everything. Palm trees can look beautiful in the right environment and when properly cared for. The same goes for other plants like succulents or geraniums that some consider old fashioned or boring…
The right plant will fit perfectly in the right environment or ’look’. Palm trees might look fantastic in a modern garden but might not work in a French or English garden. It will also work perfectly where you don’t want to block a sea or field view or where security is an issue. Water-wise plants are back in fashion due to their practicality and the water crisis in many parts of the world. Some of them can look very modern depending on your design and the layout of the garden!
Speaking of succulents, you use them as a cost-effective way to decorate your flowerbeds and pots…
I love to mix and match succulents with other plants. I sometimes use bright purple succulents or dessert roses as border plants. They are tough and finish a flowerbed off nicely. Not to mention, they are basically free since they grow very easily from cuttings. I’ve been renting for most of my life, so it’s only sensible to garden on a budget. I don’t want to spend too much on someone else’s property, but I also want it to be beautiful during my stay. I have a winning list of plants that make excellent cuttings that I’ve used over the years!
You also love cooking and sharing food with friends and family! Tell me more about your new endeavour, t’Uys, and how it’s a positive way to connect and reach out during the ongoing pandemic.
Even though people are working from home and saving time on by not commuting, other things have started absorbing the so-called ‘saved time’. Cooking can be one of those things. People no longer have access to balanced canteen meals and salads at the office. And restaurant dinners four times a week is no longer an option! I noticed my friends and family running out of ideas and time for healthy and delicious meals. I started cooking for my family when I was ten and I’ve always lived with housemates who could not, or would not, cook. So, I’m used to cooking for an army, and now that I live by myself, I found I have tons of leftover food. With the encouragement of my friends Carla, Marzaan, Josh and Dan, and my sister-in-law, Cretienne and her mother Alet, who gave me the initial idea, I decided to start a small business. t’Uys offers high-quality freezer meals to busy families. I only use my favourite recipes and the best ingredients. I’m enjoying it so far and I know I’m making my ‘clients’ lives easier during this pandemic. The joy from this thought alone has been so amazing! It gives my life more purpose knowing that others can rely on me to help them and care for them.
We spoke quite a bit about gardening on a budget, especially if you’re gardening in a rented space. If budget or space weren’t an issue, what would your dream garden look like?
Oh, this is a question you should not have asked!! I could go on! In short, I would like a garden I can get lost in every single day. It would almost be like a maze with different spaces or ‘rooms’ that surprise and delight everyone who visits. I believe in spreading joy and I’d love the space to be open to others to enjoy and share it with me. It would have beautiful lookout and picnic spots, a massive rose garden, an edible/herb garden, flowers, ornamental shrubs, and trees everywhere, with fountains and dams… Every garden needs at least one water element! And then I would love a greenhouse attached to my house, simply filled with a massive collection of orchids where I can have my morning coffee. I’ll just have to continue playing the National Lottery.
Lastly, what advice can you give people who are eager to try their hand at gardening but who are nervous because they don’t have much gardening knowledge and experience?
Every garden starts with a single plant! Just start somewhere, even if it’s just one plant that you fell in love with at the shop! Soon it will look lonely, and you’ll get another one and before you know it, you’ve started your garden. If you keep your eyes open everywhere you go, you’ll start noticing patterns and trends. This way you can learn what works and what doesn’t and which plants thrive in which conditions without going through the trial and error yourself. To give you an example, as a child I noticed the hydrangeas planted by the church look better on the south side than those on the east side. So, when I planted my own years later, I was sure to plant them south facing! Take note of the type of soil in your area and choose plants accordingly, and keep an eye out for what others in your neighbourhood are planting and what does well. Do your research and plan thoroughly, always keeping your vision and budget in mind. But don’t be scared to experiment over time. Soon the gardening-bug will bite you… and believe me, it always does! Before you know it, you’ll be one of those crazy people singing to your plants as you tend them. And remember: gardens just need lots of love.
Thank you so much for sharing your story with the Wild Library blog, Lefras. I feel so inspired and I’m definitely going to try some of your tips – soon you won’t see a patch of bare soil in my garden 😉 I’m sure your garden (and pot plants) will grow and flourish wherever you go and I wish you all the best with your new business.
Thank you, dear reader, for visiting the Wild Library blog. If this is your first time here, do feel free to hang around and read some more stories. If you’re here for gardening and plants, you might be interested to know why I’m on a mission to learn about and identify Ireland’s wildflowers this year. Or, if you’d like to read more stories of inspirational people, have a look at my Stories that Inspire series.
You can learn more about Lefras and t’Uys (his Johannesburg based business) here.
Have a wonderful day,