A Return to the Wild

Portion of a garden that’s no longer manicured and has been given back to Nature.

Some years ago, a friend asked if she could bring her garden club to look round my ‘garden.’  This was problematic. To begin with, the 3.5 acres in which our house sits isn’t a garden in the traditional sense.  It’s a wilderness – not through neglect, I hasten to add, for it took enormous time, effort and hard cash to transform it from a conventional, well-laid out, ‘park-like’ garden to its wild state.  Here, we don’t tidy up, beyond mowing the increasingly narrow strip of grass around the pool and house and, infrequently, cutting down the growth in the middlemannetjie in our driveway; nor do we irrigate, rake, trim, sweep, apply insecticides or fertilizers, or use peace-shattering leaf blowers that blast tiny critters into smithereens.  Dropped leaves and branches stay where they fall, supplying free mulch and compost. Whatever takes root on our property, as long as it’s indigenous and will get eaten, stays.  Pruning is taken care of by the hard working plant-munchers (from caterpillars to dassies to antelope) that have moved in.  Principles such as form, colour, size, perfection, focal point, visual spectacle are of no consequence. 

Would the keen gardeners get it though? Would they suspend, for a moment, their notions of beauty and accepted trends to consider that perhaps there are other ways of interacting with the space around our homes whether that be just a tiny yard, or an expansive estate? “They’ve got to learn,” my friend said.  Well, they didn’t. The event was a disaster, the gardeners unable to conceal their shock at the rambling, apparently unkempt nature of the place.  Within ten minutes of their arrival, they were asking for their tea. 

A healthy colony of dassies lives among a jumble of boulders.

I did try to explain my ‘gardening’ philosophy while my unhappy guests found solace in their cream scones served on my mercifully neat and clean veranda.   That philosophy, in short, is about restoring habitat and extending natural corridors, then that done, standing back and letting nature prevail.  Management is reduced to removing exotic species that may return or that spread from neighbouring gardens.  And so the land, given the chance to evolve according to its own terms and at its own pace, becomes a dynamic, ever-changing system that pulsates with life as nature intended.  For the wild at heart, there can be no better reward.

Facilitating the restoration of wilderness goes beyond personal reward though.   The burgeoning human population is annihilating biodiversity on which all living beings depend.  Plants and animals are going extinct at an unprecedented rate, while those that still survive have to make do with increasingly fragmented habitat.  Of all the species on Earth, man surely has the biggest footprint.  To contemplate the global environmental crisis can be overwhelming to the extent that we ordinary people might want to stick our heads in the sand. But if we each did something practical, the cumulative impact could make all the difference. 

For us, that something practical was to allow for habitat to evolve: to practice what we call wilding as opposed to gardening. And so it was a case of out with the old – i.e. everything exotic, whether invasive or not – and in with appropriate indigenous species that occur naturally in our region.  That done and being non-gardeners, we had no interest in interfering further and more-or-less took a back seat.  After all, Nature knows best.

Tetradenia riparia
Tetradenia riparia is a big hit with many species of pollinators, arguably among the most important creatures on the planet.

Over the past decade, we have marveled at the recovery of ecosystems here.  Along with the plants we put in, others have arrived spontaneously – or at least by courtesy of birds, monkeys, and the wind. Among these are trees common to the remaining untransformed natural areas in our region, and beautiful flowering species like indigenous ground orchids that burst forth like jewels each year in a small patch of cherished grassland.  Because we don’t tidy or weed (beyond removing exotics), pioneer species have thrived, their role to advance the next stage in the evolutionary cycle. One such forerunner is the Pigeonwood tree – Trema orientalis.  It occurs commonly in high rainfall areas from the Eastern Cape, through KZN into tropical Africa and into Asia. And what a generous tree!  It seems that half the world lives off it, stripping it to the bone of its leaves and fruits.  But it bounces back with vigour, ready to feed everyone again for yet another season while all those satisfied feeders pay things forward by either being food themselves, or pollinators, or dispersers of seed. That’s what true habitat does.

We have an alley of self-established Tremas – Trema Alley – that is evolving into a proper forest biome, the undergrowth and secondary stage trees and shrubs growing more robust with each season thereby extending the now-correct scarp forest that forms half of our property. This year, it’s as if Trema Alley, like the rest of our ‘garden’ has come of age, the life it supports being beyond measure and the bird life (at least 90 species recorded so far) mesmerizing.  

Diehards will say it’s not for them, that they don’t want their plants turning to lace, and the garden a jungle.  Each to his own, of course, but we are encouraged by responses from more recent, often young, visitors.  “I totally get your garden,” said a man who came to fix a kitchen appliance, while a young woman pursuing a master’s degree in environmental science declared, “This is an epic garden!  You don’t need to go to the bush – you’ve got it right here.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


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