Kogelberg and Harold Porter Gardens, South Africa

And so to our final walk of the trip. Through the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve and Kogelberg mountains to the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden.

Colours merge into green at a distance but close up put on such a show

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.

So many different species all packed into each tiny space at Kogelberg

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.”

This looked like something that should be under the sea: but isn’t it fabulous?

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.

Newly planted green roofs at Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve: the buildings seem to naturally slot into their little space along the valley floor

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?’.

Every time I look at this I see a planting plan with just the right level of contrast, unity and repetition!

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.

Even the foliage is fascinating at Kogelberg. You can see the snaking path we were to take down to the Harold Porter National Botanical Garden (top middle)

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.

Pink Erica and golden ‘Elegia’ restios look almost falsely bright at Kogelberg Nature Reserve. We were told the consolation for grey skies were brighter plant colours

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.

Perfect fynbos: Protea, Erica and Restio clustered together at Kogelberg

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.

Syncarpha everlasting flowers spring up either side of the path at Kogelberg

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.

The very rare Sonderothamnus petraeus. Only found, “in crevices in sandstone rocks and cliffs around Kogelberg”

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.

Even the baboons (centre right) seemed to adhere to the principles of biosphere reserves: there were no tomato plants in sight at Kogelberg!

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?

Surprisingly, I could count on one hand the number of wild Agapanthus I saw in South Africa. This deep blue, solitary plant was the best of the lot!

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.

The Harold Porter National Botanical Gardens, at the end of the Kogelberg walk

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.

Curving pathways lead you through the Harold Porter National Botanical Gardens

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.

The wonderfully named, rooistompie (or ‘red stump’), Brunia stokoei. One of the driving forces for the evolution of such great diversity in this area is intense competition between plants for the attention of relatively few mammal, bird and insect pollinators. I’m sure I’d be tempted by this one!

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.

Deep, rich colours of restios contrast beautifully with the neighbouring sage green foliage in the Harold Porter National Botanic Gardens

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.

A fantastic spot for an absolutely delicious lunch, made by the photographer, Gilly Louw…

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!

…and this was our view!

23 thoughts on “Kogelberg and Harold Porter Gardens, South Africa

  1. LynEbert says:

    It has been such a joy to follow your South African hikes and garden tours through both your commentary and pictures. Thank you. Lyn E

  2. rusty duck says:

    Marvellous. I think this is my favourite post of the lot! You certainly saved the best till last. And you’ve definitely convinced me to visit this part of South Africa. What better source of inspiration can there be?

    • jannaschreier says:

      Can’t wait to hear about your visit to SA! Right now, I need to read about Sydney. I’ve been looking forward to reading your post but am oh so behind as we’re in the process of moving. Only just got to my laptop!

    • jannaschreier says:

      It was the most special place to sit and have lunch. The photos all look a bit washed out due to the cloud but it was absolutely perfect walking and enjoying the view weather.

  3. Adriana Fraser says:

    I must say Janna – after seeing the Onderothamnus petraeus peeping out of the cracks of those fabulous rocks, I too started to think why on earth do I bother? But you are right we can’t compete with nature but we do need to feel close to it in our daily lives (well many of us). I too think naturalistic is the way to go for the larger garden — and that can encompass all sorts of possibilities. A wonderful series of posts and what a stunning part of the world, it makes your heart soar, especially when we hear so much negativity about Africa in general. AND obviously neither you nor Paul suffer from vertigo! I couldn’t bear sitting on a ledge like that or being within 100 metres of one – but someone has to do it! Thanks Janna, can’t wait to see where you are headed off to next.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Aren’t those pink flowers amazing? We always love rare things too! Africa is certainly firmly in my heart now. It is so special in so many ways. It was a bit hairy getting to and from the lunch spot but the ledge sloped backwards giving a really cosy, secure seat once you were in it. I was more worried about the walking route to the bottom as I couldn’t see a non-rock climbing path. It turned out it was directly behind us!

  4. Diana Studer says:

    You make that hike look so effortless, but we only got about 2/3 way up, before I turned back.

    The little cluster of hobbit houses is built in the footprint of the former forester’s village. Imagine harvesting wood from the trees in the kloof.

    I’m trying to remember if I have ever seen wild Agapanthus.

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