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A Piece of Eden on the Garden Route

A Piece of Eden on the Garden Route
It took one good idea and a bunch of public-spirited plant lovers to transform a neglected piece of heritage on the Garden Route into a beautiful fynbos garden…

Words: Marion Whitehead

Pictures: Marion Whitehead and Supplied

They say the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. Well, it wasn’t quite that long ago that I joined a bunch of volunteers planting a forest in the Garden Route Botanical Garden (GRBG) in George, but I wanted to see how it had turned out, so I decided to visit.

We’d planted our pioneer patch under the direction of ecosystems expert Jan Vlok, soon after the municipality of George had handed over the neglected Van Kervel Gardens to the GRBG Trust in 1997. The area is famous for Afromontane giants like yellowwoods and ironwoods, but Jan had us planting dozens of bitou shrubs and fast-growing baby keurbooms – and not a single yellowwood.

“Don’t worry about those, the birds will bring the seeds and do the work for us, once these pioneer plants get going,” Jan assured us.

Had he been right, I wondered, as I pulled up in the parking lot outside the garden’s Audrey Moriarty Environmental Centre. As always, the magnificent setting below the highest peaks of the Outeniqua Mountains took my breath away.

This was William John Burchell’s beloved piece of Eden 200 years ago.  The intrepid British explorer and naturalist camped here in his ox wagon for more than a month in the spring of 1814, one of the longest stops on his four-year journey of some 7 000 kilometres around South Africa. He was so enthralled he called it Sylvan Station and collected many specimens here to add to his extensive collection of plants and animals that was eventually shipped back to England, many of them new to science.

The abundance of water here was the reason the woodcutter’s outpost of George was declared the seat of a new drostdy in 1811. The first landdrost had furrows dug from the Rooi River to supply the little town with leiwater and the area around the storage dams became known as the AG Van Kerwel Gardens, after the landdrost.

It became a popular spot for outings and picnics and, in 1968, was saved from urban sprawl when it was proclaimed a nature reserve. But by the 1990s, neglect had set in. The municipal park was being used as a dump for building rubble, and vagrants had moved in. Tourists looking for ‘the garden’ in the Garden Route certainly did not pull in there.

Medicinal herb mound
Garden manager Tarita Pollicutte

All this is hard to believe when you stand there today. The original leiwater dams are magnets for birds, and for twitchers who frequent the bird hide on the wetland edge. Concerts are held on the lawns in summer, picnickers lay out feasts under trees, joggers pound the paths and children love climbing the circular route to the top of the medicinal mound, with its elevated view of George Peak towering above the Outeniqua forests. Hikers and mountain bikers access trails in the state forests via the garden’s northern gate, and moms and tots chill in the tea garden.

“It would never have happened without the volunteers,” says Yvette van Wijk, founder of the Southern Cape Herbarium, who rallied us to help in those early days. She set up the herbarium in what was little more than a cupboard in the George Museum in 1995 and was one of the driving forces behind getting the garden going after a dedicated group of plant lovers decided to turn the alien-infested reserve into a botanical garden.

As I entered the doors of the Audrey Moriarty Environmental Centre, I recalled meeting the artist and author of Outeniqua Tsitsikamma & Eastern Little Karoo: South African Wild Flower Guide 2 after whom the environmental centre is named. Thanks to Audrey’s bequest, the property and building next door to the garden was bought to house the environmental centre, which acts as the offices for the GRBG, the tea room, the herbarium and Audrey’s original paintings used to illustrate the book. A remarkable woman indeed. Her generous gift gave the GRBG a home from which to operate.

In the tea garden, I met another of the early activists, Professor Adré Boshoff, and over coffee and cheesecake he told me the story of how he and fellow retired professor, John Reid, then chairman of the Garden Route branch of the Botanical Society of South Africa (Botsoc), took a stroll in the neglected Van Kerwel Gardens. “We decided it was the ideal site for a botanical garden – and it would provide a focus for branch members.”

The project gained momentum after the GRBG Trust was formed in 1997. The real spadework started after the grand opening of the 30-hectare garden the following year.

Among the founding trustees were landscaper Diana Grant, who drew up planting plans, and Mandy Fick of New Plant Nursery, who brought her passion for indigenous species into the mix.

As always, funding was a struggle. “Botsoc provided funding toward the construction of beds and seed procurement, and local members organised annual plant sales to raise more funds,” said Adré. “And during Botsoc’s centenary in 2013, the organisation donated R30 000 for the construction of a very useful propagation yard.”

Maré Collett heads up the volunteers working in the plant nursery and said their plant sales are a popular way of promoting indigenous species. “We made nearly R55 000 at the spring plant sale, one of our best ever,” she said. “And our Arbour Week sales brought in R17 000 profit – much-needed income for the garden.”

The volunteers are an interesting mix of older folk, who care about keeping the garden going. “It’s a great social thing and everybody gets their hands dirty, repotting, pruning, weeding, you name it. None of us is an expert, but we all learn from experience and each other,” said Maré.

The herbarium moved out of its museum cubicle into the Audrey Moriarty Environmental Centre when it amalgamated with GRBG. Yvette retired in 2006 and is now doing a PhD, despite being well into her 70s, so now it’s part-time curator Priscilla Burgoyne and her volunteers who ensure there’s always a display naming the specimens currently in flower in the garden.

“The herbarium has about 11 000 dried plant specimens for the Garden Route region and we are busy databasing them electronically for scientific study,” said Priscilla. Di Turner and the ‘Ou Tramps’ of the local CREW (Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers) continue adding red data species to the collection and have found a number of new and missing species.

GRBG Trust chairman Colin Ralston delights in photographing the rich biodiversity in the garden and his
tally so far is 134 birds, 51 butterflies, 15 dragonflies… and counting. “Friends joke that I only take photos of people if they have a butterfly on their head,” quipped Colin.

Garden curator Tarita Pollicutte, who heads the small group of permanent staff, took me on a tour of the garden’s latest developments. A George lass, she studied horticulture at the Cape Peninsula Technikon (as it was then) and worked in a George nursery before landing the job at GRBG. “The volunteers are great; they help with everything, from selling entrance tickets at the gate (a modest R5 for non-members) to running the plant sales,” she told me as we passed the bust of Burchell erected in the garden on the bicentenary of his visit.

We climbed the circular path up the medicinal mound, planted with indigenous healing plants, and she pointed out the latest feather in the garden’s crown of achievements: a new environmental-education centre, constructed courtesy of R4-million from the Department of Environmental Affairs. Now all the Trust and its supporters have to do is raise funds to furnish it and make it a welcoming workspace.

Finally, we strolled along the dam wall to where I had helped plant seedlings more than 15 years ago. It’s a dense shady forest now. The pink blossoms of the little keurbooms brush the sky and young yellowwoods have taken root – just like Jan said they would.

The best time to plant a tree may well be 20 years ago, but it’s never too late to get digging. Every generation adds to the heritage of our gardens by planting a new crop. The joy is in watching it all grow.

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