SOME WILL tell you that gardening in Stilbaai’s alkaline soil produces an abundance of disappointment, but one man of the hardier flower-grower type has overcome many a hindrance to harvest a lifetime of pleasure from his study of fynbos and how to cultivate it.
Jan du Preez, 83, is a retired, award-winning chemistry professor who successfully grows veldblomme of the kind he learnt to love as a small child in the Sandveld and Citrusdal areas of the Western Cape, just this side of Namaqualand.
Today his garden in Stilbaai is awash with colour year round from a splendour of wild gladioli, 36 proteas, bushes of Erica, especially the Albertinia heath, and countless other flowering fynbos.
He grows the bulbous gladioli from corms that year after year have produced wild gladiolus species such as Riversdale bluebells, the miniatus (rietpypie), the carneus (Riversdale painted lady) and the liliaceus (groot bruin aandblom), to name a few.
Du Preez traces his love of gladioli back to the beauty of the bright little red lily, also called the Sandveld Lily or pienk Afrikaner, that imprinted itself on his 6-year-old mind as he and his mother delighted in it on walks in the veld. His appreciation for wild flowers expanded when the family moved to the Piketberg Mountain area, where varieties of proteas included a type of cynaroides, the repens (sugabush) and nitida (waboom). Today his garden has spectacular displays of leucadendrons, leucospermums and sugarbushes.
After teaching chemistry for 40 years at the University of Port Elizabeth and winning two gold medals for research, not surprisingly his approach to obstacles in the way of growing the blooms he chooses leans to the scientific.
“I’ve noticed that some bulbous plants don’t do well in Stilbaai. I measured the pH of Stilbaai’s water and it was eight, which is too alkaline for a number of plants.” (pH is a measure of acidity or alkalinity. The scale goes from 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral.)
Some plants Du Preez grows want no fertiliser of any kind. For instance, his beloved Sandveld Lily, or gladiolus caryophyllaceus, in its native habitat grows in sand that is pure white, in which he could not detect manure, compost or any organic material. “It’s like river sand. I returned to the Sandveld to get 12 bulbs from people who lived there, and I planted the bulbs in the same white sand they grew in.”
He produces a photograph of the magnificent gladioli that bloomed. “They have a delightful scent day and night. I’ve planted the Sandveld Lily here for five or six years in succession, and every year it divides into two and I get more flowers.
“But you must remove the corms just after they’ve bloomed, wash them in an anti-fungal agent that you sprinkle on again when you’ve dried them, and store the corms in a dry paper bag, not plastic. They will rest in the bag until March or April, when it becomes cooler, and you can plant them again. They will produce. I plant the corms once they start showing signs of growth, not before.”
Most fynbos is easy to grow, says Du Preez. Problems include the alkaline soil and water, moles, insects and lice and especially fungal attacks.