A Cut Above
Words Marianne Heron, pics David Morgan and supplied
The roots of flower farming run deep along the Spaanschemat River in Constantia Valley, none deeper than those of Moses Jaftha’s family. Their story stretches back to the 1800s to Moses’ great-grandmother Susan Williams, a member of the Christian community who grew flowers and strawberries in the area for generations, a vanished tradition remembered in the name Strawberry Lane.
In those days Susan and her eldest sons would rise before dawn to walk to Adderley Street, Cape Town to sell strawberries and violets. But under the Group Areas Act, the families in the valley were forcibly removed from their leased land in the late 1960s, and relocated to Parkwood Estate near Grassy Park. Luckily, 28 years ago now, Moses was offered land on lease in this valley when childhood mate André Badenhorst gave up his strawberry growing business in the area, and Moses was able to establish his flowers there.
Today a simple road sign that announces ‘fresh cut flowers’ entices customers from across the southern Peninsula, from Newlands to Simon’s Town, to buy bunches from Moses and his sons Malcolm and Charles at the Brounger Road Flower Stall. “Customers like to see the flowers growing because they know they are fresh,” says Moses.
But perhaps there is more to the attraction than that, for the Jaftha’s flower farm is a patch of rural paradise surrounded by affluent suburbs and upmarket wine farms, protected by its wetland status. Cocks, hens and ducks root about under the fig and plums trees Moses grew from cuttings. Throughout the year, the12ha garden is magnificent, with rows of sweet peas, strelitzia, sweet William, watsonia, agapanthus, feverfew and poppies on either side of the Spaanschemat River, where tiny fish dart about in the clear water.
All the cultivation is done by hand, with nesting sparrowhawks, plus caracal and porcupine among the visiting wildlife. Malcolm now manages the farm while Charles looks after sales, takes flowers to market in Cape Town and buys some varieties from suppliers for the stall.
Listening to Malcolm talk about his flowers – which plants self-sow, how to get sweet peas to grow straight and tall or how to store dahlia tubers (dahlias are their biggest sellers), is like taking a crash course in gardening. “I learnt it all from my father,” says Malcolm, who gave up his job as manager at Chapman’s Peak Hotel four years ago in preparation for carrying on the business with Charles when his father retires. Ask him which job he prefers and he doesn’t hesitate. “This one any day,” he says. “But it isn’t low maintenance.”
Farming has been handed down from generation to generation in the Jaftha family. Moses learned from his mother Susan, a flower seller. “We used to cut grass for hens, feed the pigs, and we had to carry water in two pails on a stick,” recalls Moses. “It was very hard after school.”
Moses has nine grandchildren and already three of the older boys, Seth, Samuel and James, arrive at the farm on Fridays to help. Will the family tradition continue? ”We will have to see,” says Malcolm, his eyes twinkling.
If you’ve ever wondered where your bouquet of chrysanthemums – long-lasting queens of the vase – comes from, the chances are, if you live in the Cape, it’s Oak Valley Estate in Elgin, the biggest flower grower in the province.
The flower farm in a valley beneath the Groenlandberg mountains is surrounded by Oak Valley’s apple and pear orchards, vineyards for cool-climate wines and pastures where grass-fed cattle and acorn-fed pigs are raised. Flowers are either grown in shade houses or in climate-controlled greenhouses on five hectares, using methods developed by the Dutch – long-established masters of the flower trade.
The flower farm was founded in 1978 by a Dutch horticulturist named Arend Doorduin, who worked closely with the current fourth-generation owner Anthony Rawbone-Viljoen. After a flirtation with tomato growing on the estate, Arend started with chrysanthemums for the cut-flower trade and launched what was to become the largest flower-production unit in the Western Cape. Today, the flower division employs 160 workers that produce more than 40 varieties of chrysanthemums alone, plus alstroemeria, lisianthus , three different types of lilies (Asiatic, Oriental and St Joseph’s), gladiolus in summer, iris and freesia in winter and seasonal flowers like Queen Anne’s lace, tulips, sweet William and snapdragon.
Growing large volumes of flowers to order requires expertise: harnessing technology combined with knowledge, not only of the requirements of each flower type but the lifecycle of pests like western flower thrips, where the female is capable of laying 150 eggs every day for 15 days. Those chrysanthemums, for example, are grown in a computer-controlled environment that manipulates the amount of light and heat to replicate autumn conditions, so that the plants are persuaded to flower year round.
“For instance, if we want chrysanthemums to flower on 19 December for the Christmas period, we have to plant them in spring,” explains production manager Carel Malherbe. “And as soon as we harvest them we have to replant in order to get four cycles a year.” Each section of plants has a chart, a bit like a hospital patient does, detailing progress. Timing is everything when it comes to picking the blooms too. “There is a half-day window of opportunity, otherwise we are in trouble,” says Carel. The farm sells around 800 000 bunches of chrysanthemums a year, each bunch sold by weight, with five to eight stems per bunch. Peak times in the flower trade are the festive season and Valentine’s and Mother’s days. “I just don’t have Christmas and I can never take holidays until after Mother’s Day in May,” says Carel with a laugh.
In Holland, many cut flowers are now farmed using robots, (forget those jolly images of ladies in national costume gathering tulips). But at Oak Valley there are specialised teams for planting, cultivation, picking and packaging, while good old-fashioned methods like composting and a fertiliser made from vermicasts are used. And The Man Above still ultimately takes a hand in decisions like which nights will be cold and which days warm, and what affects things like the colour of blooms. Computers don’t always have the last word.
Flowers are literally a way of life for Hannes Stander and his partner DP (Daniel) Ferreira. They are the foundation on which their business Ecozest is built. The flower garden that supplies their business surrounds Woodcutters Forest Cottages – their home and their guest cottages on the edge of the forest above Knysna, on the Garden Route. And Hannes and DP spend time in the workshop creating bouquets with flowers and natural material from their surroundings.
In the heart of their four-acre smallholding near Jubilee Creek is a cutting garden where they harvest flowers both for arrangements and for the flower workshops they hold at their home, an original woodcutter’s cottage dating back to 1827. The garden, filled with dozens of species of flowering plants and shrubs, from strelitzias to pelargoniums, roses to viburnum, is gradually being expanded. And the indigenous forest and vlei that border the garden provide decorative material and a playground for Hannes and DP’s five dogs, two Dutch decoy spaniels, a peke and two lurchers.
Hannes and DP’s former florist shop on Thesen Island, Kynsna has evolved into Ecozest, a home-based business where their imaginative creations range from pyramids of proteas plus a display of different protea species for a wedding, to branches hung with plants and lights for a golf tournament.
It’s a way of life that keeps them in touch with nature and brings an appreciation of the changing seasons. “It’s such a harmonious thing to do and so many people have lost that connection with nature,” says DP. The self-catering guest cottages, with cosy fires for winter, are in the vernacular style, and anyone who joins the workshops can stay there, where a welcome bouquet of freshly picked flowers is guaranteed.
Source: Country Life