A concise history of the Garden Route Botanical Garden – George

written by Ken Gie / As at March 2015


SAVED BY THE STROKE OF A PEN

1986 – A stretch of land North of Caledon Street, (12 hectare, later expanded by about 9 hectare), now occupied by the Garden Route Botanical Garden (GRBG), was saved from being swallowed up by urban crawl when in 1986 administrator, Nico Malan, proclaimed the old Van Kervel garden a nature reserve.

THREATS TO FYNBOS

During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s massive developments, such as golf estates and retirement villages, emerged and rapid urbanization in the Southern Cape triggered an urgent need to protect and preserve our unique, and fast dwindling, floral kingdom (fynbos and the Forest Biome).

1992 – RESCUED BY THE BOTANICAL SOCIETY OF SOUTH AFRICA (BotSoc)

The oldest conservation body in SA, formally founded on 13 June 1913, the Botanical Society of South Africa, responded by establishing the Garden Route branch in 1992 to operate in Southern Cape region.

Key BotSoc members played a vital role in securing the land where the Garden is today, especially Prof Adré Boshoff who planted the seed (pun intended!) for the need of a botanical garden in the region to preserve our precious green heritage.  Prof Boshoff, together with the late Prof John Reid (Chairman of BotSoc Garden Route Branch 1990 to 1996), and Mrs Mandy Fick spearheaded the project with additional support from Dr Charles Deacon. The old Van Kervel Nature Reserve was earmarked as the ideal site for a botanical garden and this formidable negotiating and founding team fought relentlessly to secure the land engaging custodian, Cape Nature, represented at that time by the late Gavin Hellström who played a significant role in the process.

1995 – THE SOUTHERN CAPE HERBARIUM IS ESTABLISHED

Also vital to the success of the botanical garden project was the establishment of an herbarium. BotSoc member, Yvette van Wijk played the leading role, securing a space in the George Museum. Volunteers from the herbarium used to scour the surrounding region for indigenous plants to preserve in the herbarium and later built up plant stock for the botanical garden. To-day the herbarium, located at the Audrey Moriarty Environmental Centre adjoining the GRBG, preserves more than 10,000 dried plant species from our region and is indeed a huge asset for the garden and for scientific study.

FUNDING DILEMMA

As always, projects of this nature struggle to obtain funding from the authorities as they do not deem the preservation our natural heritage as important (does not catch votes amongst the masses!) while the general public, unless they are keen naturalists or gardeners, consider such projects as elitist.

BotSoc of SA stepped forward and awarded the proceeds of the Levitsky bequest as seed funding toward the construction of beds, seed procurement, etc. Garden Route Branch members organised annual plant sales to raise much needed funding and the Botanical Society periodically stepped in with assistance in cash and in kind.  During the Society’s centenary year, 2013, the Garden Route Branch donated R30 000 for the construction a much needed propagation yard and roof covering. The propagation yard supplies plant stock to the in-house nursery and stock for plant sales, both being a vital source of regular income for the Garden today.

1995 – RAPID MOMENTUM

Post 1995 the project started gaining momentum after the George Municipality agreed in principle to cede the fallow and alien infested land to house a botanical garden. By then vagrants had also moved onto the land. Nevertheless, the municipality insisted that an independent Trust be registered to operate the garden.

A Draft Trust Deed, dated 23 October 1996, was drawn up, the GRBG Trust was formed in 1997 and in 1998 the first  Trustee Committee was appointed. BotSoc Garden Route members: Yvette van Wijk, Adré Boshoff, Dudley King, Jan Vlok, Mandy Fick, Claire Wallace, Di Grant, and Pat Gillespie all volunteered to manage the business of the garden.

1998 – GRAND OPENING

In November 1998 the Garden Route Botanical Garden was officially opened by the then mayor Melford Ntshokovu. Much enthusiasm prevailed during the ceremony since a huge amount of planning and hard work had gone into the birthing process of the Garden. This occasion certainly signaled just rewards for all those who never flinched from their vision.

THEN THE WORK STARTED

Under the guidance of landscaper and trustee member, Di Grant, further layouts were planned. Margaret Addinall, BotSoc Garden Route stalwart, devoted her undivided energy to the clearing of alien vegetation, preparing beds and planting numerous plants collected or rescued from development sites by BotSoc Garden Route members and Herbarium volunteers.

There is no doubt that BotSoc and particularly the Garden Route Branch played the major role in establishing the Garden and over the course of time continued their financial support,   contributing over R300,000 (1998-2013) by way of grants, donations and until 2007 all annual plant sale profits to fund running expenses and projects at the Garden.

Furthermore, the academic and scientific knowledge and particularly practical experience drawn from BotSoc members formed the bedrock of this most successful project, which until 2007 was the primary focus of the Garden Route Branch. (My comment which I want to stress at future meetings: It is indeed mandatory that the current Board of Trustees reflect their appreciation of having inherited such a valuable legacy, by managing the Garden with utmost care and discretion.)

2001 -AMALGAMATION OG GRBG AND HERBARIUM

In 2001 the Southern Cape Herbarium and the GRBG amalgamated when the herbarium moved from the George Museum into the Audrey Moriarty Environmental Centre adjoining the Garden, The herbarium is represented on the Board of Trustees thereby keeping management updated on progress and developments at the herbarium.

2008/2009 THE GRBG BECOMES INDEPENDENT

Circumstances necessitated a refocus of the BotSoc Garden Route Branch activities post 2007. By then the GRBG Trust had registered as an NPO in its own right, was well established with its own “Friends of the Garden” membership base and ready to take on the GRBG project as their own.  A committee of concerned “Friends of the Garden” was formed during 2008/2009. The Friends Committee formulated and adopted a new strategy and the GRBG Trust finally took full responsibility as governing body for the Garden. Robin Clark became chairman of the Board of Trustees and served in this capacity for several years. Those BotSoc – Garden Route Branch members with a particular interest in the Garden remained involved and many are still active as volunteers, be it in the nursery, herbarium, or during plant sales and they still assist in many other key functions today.

AUDREY MORIARTY LEGACY

In 2002, the late Audrey Moriarty purchased 49 Caledon St, adjoining the Garden – known to-day as the Audrey Moriarty Environmental Centre. The house serves as the administrative office for the Garden and a part of the building is used as a kitchen and indoor dining area for use by the newly established Botanical Brew’s operator. The recent upgrading of this facility required an investment of approximately R60, 000 which should be recovered from the rental charged to the Operator within a year.

A further R2m was allocated to the Garden by Audrey Moriarty’s executors, but this fund has dwindled rapidly as the Garden has been, for a number of years, struggling to survive the ravages of inflation and the Trustees have been, and are still forced, to draw funds from this capital investment.

THE FUTURE

At present the current Board of Trustees are formulating vigorous business plans and implementing cost saving measures to ensure that the Garden becomes financially independent, with a view to eventually eliminate dependence on donations, rental income and reliance on small fund raising events such as plant sales, car-boot sales and concerts.

A new Rm10 Environmental Education Centre is to be built on the Garden’s land during the latter half of 2015 and there is huge potential that the centre will provide the necessary momentum towards our quest for financial independence.

A team of professional botanists and landscape architects are developing formal plant layout plans for the Garden. This augurs well for the development of the area into a true Botanical Garden supplemented by a fully functioning herbarium. The public of the larger Eden area will in future be able to enjoy the benefits of having the GRBG making a significant contribution to the preservation and restoration of the flora of the area and be able to use the Garden as an attractive space for relaxation and recreation.