The muse of moss

Japanese garden principles meet South African natural beauty to create an oasis of serenity. Willem Pretorius describes how Anna-Marie Ferreira’s vision of a moss garden is being brought to life by Gert van Tonder.

The different textures of moss used in the garden will create a natural tapestry.

Anna-Marie Ferreira had a number of ideas about what she’d like to do with the old tennis court at the Tokara wine estate outside Stellenbosch. Surrounded by a rock wall, it had fallen into disuse and seemed to be waiting for someone to integrate it into the lovely garden already in existence. As an avid reader, Anne-Marie had scoured many books for inspiration from outstanding garden designs in different parts of the world.

The eureka moment came when word reached her about a South African designer of moss gardens who had recently arrived at the Cape after living in Japan for many years. And slowly her own vision took shape. “I knew I wanted something special. Not a Japanese garden per se, but a South African moss garden where one can enjoy the quiet and the dramatic backdrop of the surrounding mountains,” says Anne-Marie. “I also wanted it to have local plants and materials and a natural feel, as if pruned by the wind. When we bought Tokara about 25 years ago there was just grass. Little attempt had been made to do any landscaping, so each time a section of the garden was developed it was like a clean canvas in front of a painter.”

So what was the vision of the woman whose dad had nurtured her love for gardening when she was a child in Namibia, diligently tending her vegetable garden? And how would she bring her imaginative concept to fruition? Did she have a vision of a garden that would develop over hundreds of years and be a historical document for generations to come?

“We have always regarded Tokara as a creation for our own pleasure,” replies Anne-Marie. “What happens after we pass away is not for us to decide. We think it is unfair to burden future generations with our wishes. We can only do the best with our time and resources to create something to enjoy.”

LEFT: The handcrafted stepping stones on top of the edging at the entrance to the garden with beautiful natural rocks framing the path leading up to the waterfall. RIGHT: Gert shows off his miniature moss garden with rocks in a traditional bonsai pot that comes to life when misted with water.

Enter the designer of moss gardens Gert van Tonder, who says himself that his muse is moss. As a 12-year-old budding ornithologist, Gert experienced an epiphany. Before him, in a patch of moss in the often dull-looking grasslands of what is now North West Province, sat a jewel-like, exotic-looking Angola pitta as if it were an apparition. The bedazzled boy created his first moss garden, hoping to lure this beautiful bird onto his parents’ property. The bird never came, but the moss muse took over.

After gaining a master’s degree in electronic engineering from Pretoria University, Gert went to Japan in 1995 to study further at Kyoto University. While completing his doctorate in neuroscience, he also served as an apprentice at the Uwe-oto landscaping company, which entailed working in Zen temple gardens. Here Gert also met his future wife Ai, a classically trained painter from an acclaimed Japanese family of artists. Their teenage daughter, Nora, currently attends high school in Franschhoek. “We wanted our child to know the rainbow nation.”

LEFT: The level of precision can be seen in this hand-cut channel. RIGHT: A panoramic view of the waterway through the rocks leading down to the boathouse.

From 2003, Gert was tenured as an associate professor of the neuroscience of human visual perception at Kyoto Institute of Technology and as a visiting professor at Stanford, Princeton and other universities, until he left academia in 2016 to focus on creating Japanese gardens full time. Home is where the heart is, and Gert’s heart beats in tandem in Franschhoek and his old house in Kyoto. When in Japan, he routinely revisits the gardens of the masters for inspiration, with Katsura, Shisendo and Ryoanji among his favourites.

Anne-Marie and Gert met in late 2019 to look at some of his miniature moss gardens. It was as though two visions overlapped into a single focused image – and so the mammoth task began. Building such a garden in Japan would have involved skilled craft guilds that had developed over centuries, such as specialist moss nurseries, stone masons and garden bonsai experts. Without such a local skills base, Gert had the entire kaleidoscope of technical and logistical challenges on his plate.

The laying of huge slates of stone with a level to assure they are completely in line takes teamwork and patience.

So what are we talking about and what is the scale? Thousands of foundation rocks had to be planted into the 800m2 tennis court to stabilise thousands more garden rocks at specific elevations and angles in an unfolding landscape that epitomises the essence of the Cape Fold mountains. Add to this the challenge of contouring the soil to control the flow and sound of water and then of integrating handcrafted stone masonry – the formal framework that offsets the complexity of the natural rocks. This latter exercise entailed moving more than 1,600 tons of material. The biggest rocks, weighing 20 tons, had to be installed using two cranes. Working from the back to the front of the tennis court, the chronological logistics required more than 3,500 design drawings to keep construction on target.

Anne-Marie says she loves Gert’s eye for detail and the precision of his work. “It is always special to visit the site and see how the garden is developing. I love the intricate way in which every stone fits into precisely the correct spot. And to observe how he sets rocks in the mountain stream to tune the sound of flowing water is amazing. It is quite a feat to think that everything has to be made by hand. Even the gravel is handmade, and the patina on the walking stones is created by special Japanese hammers.”

Gert also studied ancient Japanese gardening texts. “The old masters believed that you have to show the skin, flesh and bones to create a great garden. The garden at Tokara is built in a style that is known as Gokuraku-En. It’s a difficult style because of the sumptuous number and variety of elements, and quite different from the sparse aesthetic of a Zen monastery. The dramatic surroundings at Tokara naturally invited this type of design. From the vineyards above the main house you can see the entire Cape – Table Mountain, Sea Point, Jonkershoek, Drakenstein, Hawequa and all – and I wanted to capture this richness.”

Even once the skeleton of garden rocks is in place, you can’t just begin draping moss, fynbos and trees onto it.

Before any construction began, Gert first had to search for suitable mosses and obtain permission from local authorities and private landowners to collect material. Then he had to build the first moss nursery in Africa. More than 50 species of moss will adorn the Tokara garden, but to get the moss was challenging. South Africa has roughly 750 species, of which about 500 are found in the Little Karoo. It may seem counterintuitive but, says Gert, many mosses like the sun and will soon die from overwatering. His favourite party trick is to spray mist onto a desiccated patch of moss and giggle as onlookers’ jaws drop when the moss quickly turns green. “I hope to create the first commercial South African moss nursery in the near future,” he adds.

So is it a Japanese garden?

“Ideally, it should look as much at home next to a tea hut in Kyoto as it should feel like an undiscovered jewel in the mountain wilderness around Franschhoek; my work should adhere to classical Japanese landscaping ideals and respect the natural material from which each component is built. If a Japanese person wants to call it a Japanese garden that’s fine, but I am satisfied to think of it as a Japanese-inspired vision of the South African landscape. Japanese indigenous gardens have been around for more than 1,400 years. Within that scope, I think we are still taking baby steps – but what an exciting journey.”

LEFT: Different textures of the one water channel can clearly be seen. RIGHT: On some rocks, moss has already started growing and the lichen will soon join.

Adamastor: The Moss Garden at Tokara

Adamastor – or man untamable – is the last accepted addition to Greek mythology. The poet Luís de Camões created Adamastor in 1572 after Portuguese seafarers finally rounded the southernmost tip of Africa. In this tale, Adamastor fell in love with a sea nymph, Thetis, but was deceived by her mother Doris and chained down by the gods as he approached what he thought to be the waiting bride with her sea-green hair. In fact, it was a rock covered in moss. The enraged Adamastor became the rugged promontory of Cape Point, battering land and sea with storms henceforth.

“Aptly naming a garden can be quite tricky,” says its designer, Gert van Tonder. “Construction was already well under way when a rock designated as ‘Cape Point’ reminded me of Adamastor. The Portuguese connection with the Ferreira family name and its reference to moss made it the obvious choice for the garden’s name.”