And so to our final walk of the trip. Through the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve and Kogelberg mountains to the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden.
This rugged and exceptionally untouched landscape was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998. Like Fernkloof, it has huge floral diversity, far exceeding the Amazon rainforest in terms of species per square kilometre, but its status as a UNESCO biosphere reserve gives it far higher protection. We had some paperwork to get our hiking permits in order and seemed to be the only people walking that day.
The grown-up definition of biosphere reserves, according to UNESCO, is:
“areas comprising terrestrial, marine and coastal ecosystems. Each reserve promotes solutions reconciling the conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use.”
But, and despite all I’ve been taught about Harvard referencing, personally I quite like extracts from the children’s version on ‘Simple English Wikipedia’:
A biosphere reserve is an ecosystem with plants and animals of unusual scientific and natural interest. [UNESCO’s] plan is to promote management, research and education in ecosystem conservation [and] sustainable use of natural resources. The aim is to get a balanced relationship between mankind and nature.
You can’t really argue with that.
The wonderful Gilly and Ralph Louw guided us again, patiently stopping to allow me to take photos and answering my 57,000 questions about the plants we saw. They told us about one lady from China, who high up on the isolated mountain, stopped in her tracks, in awe of the colourful scene in front of her, speechless for quite some time. Eventually, she slowly turned around and with an incredulous look, simply asked, ‘but who planted all these flowers?’.
It’s a delightful, but really not such a naive thing to say, when you see the view she had. It’s not just the quantity of flowers but also both the variety and artistic layout of the plants. We’ve all seen photos of bluebell woods or poppy fields but it’s rare you see such intensity combined with such variety. It’s genuinely hard to imagine this hadn’t been thought through on paper first off.
Combining plants in aesthetically pleasing ways is one of the hardest gardening skills to master, not least because each plant in each grouping is constantly changing: as it grows over the years and also each and every season. Seeing plants growing in the wild in South Africa has given me so many design ideas.
You can clearly see the idea of matrix planting: a subtle–but dominant by volume–plant giving a cohesive backdrop, with more special plants popping up within in. It allows for plenty of variety without a feeling of ‘bittiness’. The photo at the very top of the page, with white Erica sessiliflora and deep pink Berzelia rubra spheres set amongst a matrix of Restio and proteas is a great example of this.
Kogelberg shows us how species can work both in isolation or within groups, if certain other factors apply. We are often told to plant in threes, or fives, but actually nature very often has solitary species, the wider matrix holding the whole picture together.
Rules, such as the three and five one, are useful and have been created for good reason to avoid common weak points in design. But we can become too rigid in following them. As we learn and tweak our gardens, we can move on from the standard rules to apply some dynamism, spontaneity and personalisation, which takes them to a whole new level, beyond the formulaic and into a new, creative world that’s just our own. Spending time in nature is one of the most inspiring ways of seeing new opportunities and avenues for our gardens.
This particular walk was also about seeing the rare and the wonderful. Gilly and Ralph are practiced hikers, guiding groups on multi-day treks throughout the year. So carrying the very hefty ‘Field Guide to Fynbos’ (amongst many other goodies for along the way) was no challenge whatsoever. They had prepared us for some of the endemic plants that could only be seen on this walk–no where else on earth–and it felt as exciting to me as any thrill-seeking African safari! In much the same way as in Kruger National Park, it wasn’t entirely coincidental to stumble across magnificent wildlife–our guides taught us where to look–but it was still extraordinary to find these incredibly rare specimens ourselves.
As I said in my last post, after seeing all these spectacular natural scenes, it would be easy to feel a little downhearted that, despite our best efforts, gardens can never quite meet the bar of the very best of nature. So how did I square this away?
There are a few things we need to remember. Isn’t our evolutionary bond to nature exactly what makes us love gardens so much? And whilst being in nature is a wonderful thing, it doesn’t necessarily meet all our basic needs. Do we not love to be creative ourselves, to make and design, to beautify and nurture things? In our gardens we are able to recreate some of those feelings we experience in nature, whilst simultaneously meeting many other, really quite divergent, needs.
We all have different preferences regarding gardens. My recent survey has demonstrated that, if ever we needed proof. But the longer I garden, the more I have a particularly soft spot for natural gardens. And the more natural landscapes I see, the more inspired I become, the more ideas I have and the more sure I am that naturalistic is the style that I want for myself, at least for the time.
Much of the South African fynbos has an intensity of interest that is rare in most parts of the world. It’s the full herbaceous border of flowers rather than the more typical one-or-two-species-dominant, green outlook that we more commonly see in the countryside. I absorbed the fynbos with fresh and hungry eyes, noting how beautiful and complex naturalistic plantings can be. If we take plants that fit with our own surroundings and work them as hard as the plants in the Cape, we can find an outlet for our creativity and produce something (almost as) spectacular ourselves.
Creative needs aside, as idyllic as it sounds, we can’t all live in untouched regions and so gardens have a huge part to play in our lives. I think my brain will be forever turning over ideas of how we can combine plants to make them even more beautiful and for this, both nature and gardens provide much stimulation.
So I’m very happy to be able to take in both types of green spaces and to learn something and gain something different from each. Often the joy of a garden takes on new heights when you see the joy it evokes in the face of its owner and maker; something a little harder to experience in Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve! Connections come in all shapes and sizes in gardens–historical, personal, architectural, ecological–and these connections all add new dimensions to the depth of our experience.
And so I’ll very happily continue to visit both nature and gardens, wherever I can find them both. I hope you’ve enjoyed visiting some of South Africa with me on my very own gardening African safari! I’ve got just one more trip coming up to see the gardens of warmer climes before I get stuck in to my tour of English gardens this summer…it’s incredibly exciting to have the whole season ahead of us!