Stoep Story

PHOTOS: Lien Botha | WORDS: Dave Pepler & Allan Davies


The traditional stoep is a window on the world – and so are its traditional plants. 

I drag a stool to the low wall above the street and climb onto it. If I stand on tiptoe and stretch my neck, I can just reach the lowest bunch of wax flowers with my tongue. They opened this week; at the heart of each flower, a round drop of nectar gleams.

I close my eyes and let the nectar trickle into my mouth. When I open them again, I see the street through a lens of leaves. My Ouma Lilly’s stoep in the bodorp was a place for people and plants, a salon where you could converse, read, daydream or doze, but above all, observe. It was our camera obscura on the street.

But the stoep as a place to meet – and to live – has long been a thing of the past. With the death of radio, the birth of television and the affordable car, the stoep lost its social function. We have forgotten our old street culture: when families would go for an evening stroll, like the Spanish paseo; when we would take baskets of garden produce to our neighbours; when the front stoep and its plants were the pride and joy of the lady of the house; when you could sleep out on a stoep bed and wake in the early hours to the whistle of a steam train, phantoms from the streetlamps on the wall.

I am certain that the plant-filled stoep evolved in hot climates. Think of a narrow street in Seville: through the bars of the gate you can see the portal where a widow in a jet-black dress sits watching the street, the shadowy placita beyond, the light-green leaves of pot plants against the patterned Moorish tiles.

Think of Istanbul in summer, where the narrow streets have driven the verandahs upwards and turned them into balconies – you are constantly aware of eyes behind the plants, seraglio eyes heavily outlined in kohl. In Troisk, a little town in Kazakhstan on the old Silk Route, I remember how, with a fat forearm, an old babushka parted a screen of salmon-coloured hollyhocks to peer out into the dusty street.

How predictable stoep gardens are – philodendrons, cinerarias, crotons, a ficus, a maidenhair fern on a rickety wooden stand – and cyclamens, those plants with beautiful leaves and extraordinary flowers. Stoep plants must like coolness and shade, tannies who polish their leaves and smokers who stub out sneaked cigarettes in their pots.

Now we have replaced our stoeps with balconies and atriums; we no longer watch the street or chat with the neighbours. But we do still have the quiet presence of plants, which is better than nothing because, even in their pot prisons, plants connect us to the faraway world of the soil.

Happily, near where I live, the stoep is still alive and well. Where I ride my bicycle through Ida’s Valley, every house still has one, complete with plants and a tannie. The floors are painted red or green and there are pots and pots of plants standing around brazenly or festooning diamond trellises. A grandmother, cocooned in a blanket and woolly hat, peers at the street through a curtain of leaves.

People still come over to greet you and when you stop, you get all the news of the street. Ask for a slip of a special plant and it will be given with pride. Only in this kind of community are there still stoeps – stoeps with people and stories and plants. This is the kind of street where I will always want to live.

The return of the exotic

The majority of our classic stoep and indoor plants are natives of tropical forests. They thrive in warmth, humidity and low light, which is what makes them able to survive under cover and indoors. After years of scorn and neglect, these lush creatures are back in fashion for several good reasons.

Firstly, as cities grow, we long for the wild, and tropical plants are as wild as you can get. Secondly, as waterwise leaves spread their grey stipple over gardens (beautiful and sensible as that may be), we feel another longing, this time for the vast umbrellas and deep greens of the jungle. Suddenly, we see these familiar yet forgotten exotics with a fresh eye and new pleasure. Lastly, they serve to remind us not only of the great forests under threat worldwide, but also of a gentler habitat already lost – the stoep itself.

So, it is time to give these exotic creatures the limelight they deserve in your decor. On stoeps and in indoor garden arrangements, they have traditionally been placed together in tight groupings. The trend now is to feature a single plant or geometrically spaced groupings in a clear space or minimal setting. Placing them close together creates more humidity and more favourable growing conditions, so it is important to make sure that you provide adequate humidity for solo plants (see overleaf).

Treat each plant as a sculpture. Invest in a beautiful container that suits its shape and colour. Look for – or create – elegant frames for plants such as philodendrons that require climbing support.

All plants need more than bare soil around them to look their best. Larger pots and plants can be underplanted with groundcovers, or even shade grass. Moss, bark or pebbles are good for surrounding jungle plants. Keep your plants well groomed: remove dead leaves and flowers and clean the leaves regularly.

Basic growing needs

• A warm, draught-free spot with bright light but no direct sunlight, which may scorch the leaves.

• Careful watering: keep them moist but don’t drown them.

• Humidity: stand the pot in a bed of pebbles in a tray of water. Give the leaves a daily misting with tepid water.

• Nip problems in the bud. Keep a lookout for scale, and mealie bug, the most common pests.

• Feed plants regularly, or use a slow-release granular fertiliser.

• Give plants a rest period, usually in winter when feeding should be stopped and watering reduced.

• Repot plants annually.

• Invest in a good book in which you can check the specific needs of your plants: House Plants by Paul Williams (Dorling Kindersley, 2006) contains excellent photographs that show the shape and detail of plants, as well as all you need on how to grow and position them.

Top 10 classics

Adiantum capillus-veneris (black maidenhair fern)

Aglaonema crispum ‘Silver King’ (painted drop tongue)

Alocasia x amazonica (Amazon lily)

Codiaeum variegatum (croton)

Dieffenbachia seguine (dumb cane)

Dracaena marginata (Madagascar dragon tree)

Hoya lanceolata (wax plant)

Maranta leuconeura (prayer plant)

Monstera deliciosa (delicious monster)

Philodendron

A number of house plants are also air fresheners, able to filter out volatile chemicals and household pollutants. These include: Ficus benjamina (weeping fig), Spathiphyllum wallisii (white sails), Calathea makoyana (peacock plant) and Chlorophytum comosum (hen-and-chickens).