Gundula Deutschlander, the head gardener at Babylonstoren, has a degree in fine arts and used to paint miniatures in oils, “but gardening is in my blood and got the better of me,” she confesses. “I especially like ‘painting’ in time using plants. Dreaming up a future garden. Realizing an ideal,” she says.
Coming to Babylonstoren nearly eight years ago was “like a sailor returning home” – she grew up nearby, but more recently worked as a gardener on a garden estate in Greece for the antiquarian E.Martinos and also for a few years at Brantwood, the estate of John Ruskin in the Lake District.
“I had travelled the world in search of paradise (from Iceland to Iran) learning by the sweat on my brow and devouring books,” she says. “Fortunately Babylonstoren was a blank canvas upon which I could weave the entire world, creating a library of plants that feed both the belly and soul of the owner and passing travellers.”
“My life took a bit of a somersault when my son was born, but he has just turned four-year-old and fortunately we are catching up on the torturous time when he was a baby, stealing all my reading and gardening time for himself,” she says. “We now treasure our bedtime reading. At the library I try to hunt down the books that marked my childhood: Leo Lionni and Maurice Sendak and of course we find all sorts of treasures in between. Its rather sobering to absorb the complexities of our surrounding world in these distillations made for children.”
What are you reading at the moment?
Roman Fever by Edith Wharton. I enjoyed this collection of short stories: I marvel at Edith’s sharp, but never accusing commentary of her own social class. She holds the mirror with sly humor for the reader to judge if necessary .
How do you decide what to read next?
I scrounge through my mother’s book club books, or my sister passes one on to me.
What book has had the greatest impact on you?
For work, The Lotus Quest by Mark Griffiths. It changed my way of gardening. Usually it is left to Nature to inspire, or I have been impressed by gardens I have visited, but this book described the influence and value of the lotus so thoroughly that I have never have been the same since. I’m lucky to have been able to plant lotus in our garden, making a point of passing by with visitors to experience this sacred plant as it rises clean and pure from out of the swamp. With a plant so sensual to the eye, I liked it that this book could draw my attention again to gardening with all the senses and the soul. In Japan, gardeners would leave the tattered and dried autumn leaves of the lotus to sound as percussions when the first rain of the season starts to fall.
For life, Janosch’s Oh, wie schön ist Panama. This has been a recurring theme in all my life. A valuable lesson for a traveller like myself. It’s a storybook for children, in which a bear and a tiger are seduced into finding their dream home, after accidentally finding an empty box scented of bananas and labeled PANAMA. It’s about returning to where you started, only with more appreciation and humility.
Stevie Smith, a biography by Frances Spalding. Stevie Smith somehow just stuck to me. This collection of her works makes it easy to dip in for fun or dive in deep, just to want to come up for air again.
What is your favourite novel of all-time?
Passenger to Tehran by Vita Sackville-West. I have always admired Vita, but grew up reading those heroic, tough-as-biltong desert travellers like Wilfred The Singer. They shaped my aspirations and made me brave enough to cast myself out into the world. Only after I had been to Persia did I find this little Penguin book, but this is it! I’ve ploughed through Vita’s letters and biographies, but this is fresh. I suppose I appreciate the book more, knowing she wrote The Land in Persia (capturing the beauty and essence of her homeland back in England) similar to how I regained my mother tongue while living abroad.
What were your favourite books as a child?
Eleanor Farjeon’s books. I can’t recall the stories, just the marvellous magical quality and one of the skipping rhymes. Delicate slip-sliding fantasy and lovely illustrations.
What’s the last book you gave as a gift?
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer. Given to a friend in Kenya that I met on pilgrimage there 15 years ago, we have just caught up again
Which book have you never been able to finish?
Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence. Just couldn’t get into it even though I thoroughly enjoyed some of his other books and find Istanbul a fascinating place. I suppose I had other expectations.
What book do you turn to for advice?
Ben-Erik van Wyk and Nigel Gericke’s People’s Plants. Few books make identifying and using our indigenous plants so helpful. If I was to be left to fend for myself in a forest in Europe, I’d possibly manage to survive, but here, in my backyard in the rugged Drakenstein mountain range, I doubt I would survive for more than three days. This book helps me to understand the environment into which I was born, but with no other means of knowing what and how the plants are of use. This is Khoi and Xhosa knowledge backed with modern chemistry that I otherwise would only learn about through someone else’s ouma or oupa.
Do you read mostly paper books? On your iPad? Kindle? All three?
Your favourite book about gardening?
Gardens of Iran; Ancient Wisdom, New Vision published by the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. This book was given to me as a gift from a generous gentleman for whom I pruned roses on weekends, so that I could save up enough money to travel to Iran to visit the gardens of paradise. This book is as rare a find as this gentleman who gave it, is. In Iran I was given an undercover name: Gul, meaning Rose. I have appreciated the preparation that went into this journey, but also the reflection thereafter. Gardening is an encouragement to live, laugh, love in the midst of the desert.
If you were stuck in a lift for three hours with an author (alive or dead), who would it be, and what would you ask them?
Tim Winton. “Going up?” I’ve chosen someone who wouldn’t feel trapped or anxious in this situation. I’ve just finished reading Tim Winton’s Eyrie and think he’d be a good companion in such a sticky situation. Someone who would make time fly, telling stories rather than delving into the meaning of a lift being stuck. He always makes me taste the salt in the air.