Old Nectar Gardens, Stellenbosch - Our History



Old Nectar & Una van der Spuy

The land around Old Nectar, then encompassing most of the Jonkershoek Valley, was granted to two freed slaves; Jan and Marquard van Ceylon (from Ceylon, now Sri Lanka) in 1692.

Although the archives record the subsequent divisions and sale of the land, there are no known records of building on this site. However, from architectural studies it appears that the original homestead dates back to the early 1700s. Subsequent changes were made in the early 1800s, with the building of the magnificent neo-classical front gable, dated 1815, the year in which Napoleon’s empire came to its ignominious end.

This farm changed hands many times; few previous owners stayed more than 20 years. Eugene Marais (Soul of the Ape; Soul of the Ant) was born here. In the early 1900s Alice Tenant, the artist, lived here. Between the two World Wars it was owned by an Irishman ( a Mr Murphy, naturally), who returned to Ireland because he found the Cape summers too hot!

The then Glenconner in the early 1900’s has been known as ‘Nektar’, then it became Glen Vashti. It was given the name ‘Old Nectar’ by Kenneth and Una van der Spuy, who, in their later years, referred to themselves as ‘the Old Nectarines’.

In 1941 Old Nectar became the family home of Ken and Una. They have been the longest owners in the life of this property. At that time it was one of only six farms in the Jonkershoek Valley outside Stellenbosch.

Una took up residence with a three-year son and another child on the way. Her husband, General Kenneth van der Spuy, was engaged in war work. Situated on a muddy hill slope, the homestead had no electricity or indoor baths or toilets.

To earn an income Una cultivated berries and vegetables for the local market, then graduated to cultivating roses and shrubs for the Southern African market, using the income towards renovating Old Nectar and the outbuildings. Una constructed bathrooms and made the outbuildings habitable for labourers and, subsequently, paying tenants.

Una’s labour source was Italian POW’s (Prisoners of War, from the Abyssinian campaigns). South Africa was one of the destinations for POWs who were seconded as labourers to a number of farms around South Africa. Imagine the 30 year old Una managing a group of male POWs on her own!

Not surprisingly, the POWs, being enemy aliens, did their best to upset Una’s plans. They played mischievous tricks such as planting the rose and shrub cuttings upside-down.

However, they soon fell in line with the inspirational leadership of this remarkable young woman, who used a large frying pan to instil order when needed – she chose not to use the heavy .45 Military Colt issued to her by the prison camp authorities. These young POWs provided the labour and skills to start what became Old Nectar Nurseries, which supplied roses and shrubs to gardeners throughout Southern Africa, from the Cape to as far north as Malawi.

From 1941 to 1945 Una and the POWs worked together to create from this muddy hill slope Old Nectar’s stone walled terraces, lawns, ponds, the pergola and the shrub and rose gardens. This major earth-moving undertaking was done using the available tools of the day; wheelbarrow, pickaxe, spade, muscle power and perseverance.

Una’s main interests were international finance and politics; she had no experience in gardening and no guides other than a copy of Brunnings Gardening (published in Australia in 1845 and still in print). However, Una knew many of the famous gardens of England, which she had visited before WWII. She was also blessed with a very good sense of proportion and design and great foresight in finding and planting the trees, shrubs and roses that we see in the Old Nectar gardens today. It is worth noting that, other than for the giant +200 year oak trees (Quercus robur), every tree, rose and shrub at Old Nectar was planted by Una during her 70+ years of residence.

At that time there were very few plant nurseries in South Africa. Una managed to track down what she wanted, sometimes resorting to begging cuttings and seeds from the owners of trees and shrubs that she had seen, sometimes bringing to Old Nectar seeds and cuttings from overseas – secreted in her bra!

Una believed gardens are like people; each has its own personality and each always evolving – never static. The Old Nectar gardens have been evolving for over 70 years and we continue to carry Una’s vision forward.

Azaleas were Una’s favourite plants. However, a few days before her sudden death just four days short of her centenary, she declared that when she returns to Earth it will be in the form of a Magnolia tree. Today we sense Una’s presence in her gardens when we see her superb Magnolia trees in full bloom late in winter.

Una became well known through the Old Nectar Nurseries and her gardens, but even more so through her writing - she wrote and published 15 books.

In 2004, aged 92, Una damaged her spine in a fall during an early-morning walk. During her recuperation she started using her newly acquired digital camera and digital processing techniques, she amassed thousands of photographs of her gardens.

Deciding that these needed to be shared, she wrote the first of her final trilogy, ‘Old Nectar, a garden for all seasons’, published in November 2009, fifty six years after her first book ‘Gardening in Southern Africa, with Una having turned 95. This is a beautifully illustrated book and a delight to read. Then followed a revision of her garden planning book under the new title ‘How to Design Your Garden’, published in February 2011.

The last of Una’s writings; ‘My favourite plants for the garden’ needs to be on the bookshelf of every gardener, professional and amateur alike. It is the distillation of Una’s 70+ years of practical gardening wisdom. Una completed the last of the revisions less than a week before her sudden death on July 16 2012, four days before her hundredth birthday. It is wonderfully illustrated, much of the photography coming from Una’s camera. This book will serve the world of gardeners for at least as long as her first book has and it will be a gardening classic, both for reference as for the sheer joy of reading. It was published in October, 2012.

Old Nectar remains in the van der Spuy family and the Old Nectar gardens tradition continues.