Urban Eden

PHOTOS: Marie Viljoen | WORDS: Johan van Zyl and Marie Viljoen

On a tiny, cramped balcony in New York, a boeremeisie grows everything from garlic and herbs to roses and figs. And she documents her cultivating escapades on her blog, 66 Square Feet.

What does a clever South Africa-born opera singer with flame red hair and green fingers do when a disease from the history books – whooping cough – strikes you in the New York subway in the year 2000?

After never-ending doctor’s visits, you start thinking back to the first piece of soil your mother entrusted to your care, behind the birdcage in the backyard in Bloemfontein, where you got your first green stripes with radishes and sweetpeas and delphiniums. Or the herb garden with stepping stones you saw at the age of 13 in the New Forest in England and then lovingly recreated in your mother’s garden in Constantia in the Cape. And you remember “the most beautiful thing ever” in the home of one of your mother’s friends, Marita Swanepoel: a landscaping plan.

And then what do you do?

You cough and splutter your way to the Chelsea Garden Center, at that time one of only two nurseries in Manhattan (in a somewhat unsavoury neighbourhood to boot) and start earning a living as a shop assistant who dishes out design tips to go with the North American plants you’re starting to get to know.

You quickly learn all about gardening on roofs and balconies – the only gardening spots New Yorkers have at their disposal – and, before you know it, you’re design director/head of design for Holly, Wood and Vine, the other nursery on the island, where you create luscious havens of 37 m2 to 280 m2 for your clients, head up gardening teams, plan budgets, run their website and make several appearances on TV shows.

Compulsive documentiser

Ten years after the whooping cough episode, Marie Viljoen is visiting her parents in Cape Town, with her Canadian love, photographer Vincent Mounier, in tow. She calls herself a compulsive documentiser who keeps her digital camera close at hand to capture “everything that’s beautiful or makes me feel good” so as to document a “much edited version” thereof on her blog, 66 Square Feet.

“A friend of mine had a blog, but I wasn’t comfortable with discussing my personal life, so I started a blog for my cat, Estorbo (“disturbance” in Spanish) and wrote everything in his heavy Dominican accent.

“And then I realised that much of what I wrote to my mother and friends was about things I saw, or what I planted, or which plant died or what I cooked. So I decided to keep a diary of my gardening and cooking. I’ve always loved writing, sharing stuff with people and with a blog there is daily gratification” Here it is, immediately published so people can react to it.”

Initially, about 30 people would visit the blog, then 70 and when the New York Times reported on it, the numbers shot up to 1 500 readers, most of whom Marie didn’t know at all.

It’s also how she met Vincent. After she enquired about something completely different, they started reading each other’s blogs, commenting on entries and, after a week, “switched to something a little more intimate – emails”.

Many emails of “Jane Austen-like proportions” followed and two months later Vince came to New York. The pair realised they did indeed share similar values and even approached the world the same way.

A new kind of snobbishness

Neither has much time for fashionable trends, says Marie, “because people don’t really think about it before following suit.”

“In Brooklyn, everyone wants to be a farmer, cultivating vegetables, keeping chickens and living the rural lifestyle. It’s a fantastic trend, especially in the giant concrete mass that is New York, but it does lead to a new kind of snobbishness. The restaurant on the corner will boast that their tomatoes were cultivated one roof down on the same street, but sell them at a farm’s price!”  

“I can’t subsist on the tomatoes I grow on my balcony, but I’m much more conscious of how a tomato becomes a tomato, how it ends up in the supermarket, how much water it needs and where that water comes from. I’m part of a bigger circle. And that’s what is most important.”