Gardens, gardening culture and the development of a semi-vernacular garden style in Batho, Mangaung, 1918-1939: a historical perspective
Du Bruyn, Hendrik Jeremias
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Topiary had been a feature of European gardens – particularly those laid out in the Netherlands and Britain – for centuries. Since the occupation and subsequent colonisation of the Cape of Good Hope, first by the Dutch and then the British during the 17th and 18th centuries, the South African garden style and gardening culture had been strongly influenced by these two gardening nations. Importantly, such cultural influence was not limited to the white colonists’ gardens and gardening culture. Due to acculturation and inter-cultural influencing, the garden style and gardening culture of South Africa’s black people and other indigenous groups were influenced by white gardeners’ preference for formality, symmetry and, above all, topiary. The traditional African vernacular garden/field, which may be described as an ‘agricultural garden’ and/or ‘horticultural field’, was characterised by an orderly yet mostly informal layout and the absence of a strict separation between gardens (vegetables) and fields (crops). Due to British and European influence, particularly in the region which became known as South Africa, the vernacular food-only gardens of some black people and indigenous groups gradually became semi-vernacular. The once informal layout of gardens and fields had become more regimented and seed was sown in rows instead of scattered randomly. Furthermore, the ancient Western and traditional African concept of a garden as an enclosed area was reinforced by the white colonists’ taste for gardens enclosed by clipped hedges. British and European missionaries who had established mission stations across the mentioned region also played an important role in strengthening a gardening culture among the ‘Bantu’-speaking black people and other indigenous groups, such as the Khoesan. Furthermore, mission schools and training institutions were used as vehicles to promote ‘industrial education’ for black people and indigenous groups. Gardening and Nature Study were considered industrial subjects which not only taught learners the principles of practical gardening but also promoted a predominantly formal garden style. During the 20th century, industrial education became official policy in government-funded black schools to secure a steady supply of suitably trained manual labourers for the ‘white’ economy, including labourers to work in gardens and fields. During the 19th century, the taste for formality and topiary spread to the region beyond the Cape Colony, including the Transgariep, which became the Orange Free State republic with Bloemfontein as its capital (1854). Bloemfontein’s first gardeners were of Dutch, German and British origin; consequently, the local garden style and gardening culture were European. Due to the increased availability of cheap black manual labour, Bloemfontein’s gardens were maintained by black garden labourers. In the white people’s gardens, the black garden labourers were exposed to a preference for the formal garden style and topiary, particularly clipped hedges. The development of ‘gardening relationships’ between white employers and black labourers led to the transference of gardening knowledge and skills, including topiary skills. Bloemfontein’s oldest locations, notably Waaihoek and Cape Stands, were not devoid of gardens. However, the Bloemfontein municipality deemed it necessary to encourage location residents to beautify their domestic surroundings by erecting decent houses and laying out small gardens. In addition to food-only gardens, food-and-ornamental gardens became increasingly popular. Rapid urbanisation after the end of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) caused a substantial increase in Bloemfontein’s black and coloured population, which resulted in overcrowding and the development of slum conditions in the locations. The municipality’s efforts to address this challenge reached a climax with the founding of Batho (1918) as one of the Union of South Africa’s first ‘model locations’. Thanks to the efforts of influential municipal officials, Bloemfontein’s ‘model location’ was turned into a ‘garden location’ with plots made big enough to allow space for the laying out of gardens. Measures taken to encourage residents to lay out gardens paid off and, in due course, semi-vernacular location gardens – in this case, topiary gardens – were laid out in Batho. Batho’s topiary gardens may be described as simple formal axial gardens characterised by English cottage-style planting inside a formal framework. The outstanding feature of most Batho gardens was the presence of topiary, including clipped hedges, shapes and living sculpture. Essentially, an ancient European garden art was indigenised and Africanised in the location environment and, in the process, turned into a phenomenon described as ‘township topiary’. Since Batho’s founding, its gardening culture had been sustained by the transference of gardening knowledge and skills – including those related to ‘township topiary’ – from one generation of gardeners to the next.
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