Create your own green paradise

2011-02-21 00:00

WALKING with Penny Wheeler through what is now a lush grassland in Winterskloof, it is hard to believe that the area was once so thickly infested with aliens that the only access was a very narrow path.

“To get down to the bottom of our property when we first moved here in 1997 we had to walk single file along a track between huge wattle and eucalyptus­ trees. The land was 99% infested with aliens, including bug weed, lantana and sestrum. We had no concept of the extent of our property as we could not get access to the far reaches of it. We started slowly and it eventually took us five years to transform it into what it is today.”

Penny is a nursing sister in the occupational health field and her husband Mike is an agricultural economist running his own consultancy. They have two daughters, Mary (10) and Rachel (5). Mary has a tree house in a large fig tree in the grassland (see picture in the fig tree on the right) and the girls spend many happy hours playing there — “they have free rein there as long as we know where they are. It is a wonderful educational tool for them, sometimes they have competitions to see how many creatures they can find living in the tree stumps. The house is full of vases of grasses they have collected and Rachel recently took a dead snake to school, which eventually came back in a very smelly state. We walk the dogs in the grassland every evening and spend a lot of time there with the girls on weekends too.

“We want the area to return to what it should be, a mistbelt grassland, because grasslands are under such threat. We also feel that we have to put something back. We take so much from the Earth that we have a responsibility to try to make the planet a better­ place. We live in paradise here and we want to make sure it doesn’t deteriorate, as well as encourage biodiversity­ that supports such a wide variety of animal and plant life.”

The Wheelers started by brushcutting and slashing the undergrowth to clear aliens, then poisoning the stumps. To get rid of the big trees, they first had to clear a road onto the property­ so contractors could get in to fell the old eucalyptus and wattles.

“What we were paid out for the harvested­ timber covered the cost of all the clearing. It wasn’t just a few trees, it was a whole plantation we had down here.”

They have not done any planting to reintroduce indigenous vegetation, just left the natural plant life to reassert itself. “If you eradicate the aliens as they come up again, the natural grassland vegetation will reassert itself. We keep the aliens under control and have cleared some of the indigenous bushes and trees that have come up to encourage the grassland to spread. I am looking forward to wild flowers coming up too, but so far we have only a few snake lilies.”

Wheeler said the most important thing about taking on a greening project of this nature was commitment. “Once you start you have to keep at it. It takes constant vigilance and maintenance. You cannot stop for a few months as the aliens grow back immediately.”

Her advice to property owners wanting to tackle a similar alien-clearing project is to get professional advice and have a plan. “Start small and work at it gradually. It is no good clearing a hectare of lantana and then sitting back and thinking that’s all there is to it. You have to have a follow-up plan for what you will do to deal with the regrowth. The work is ongoing — it is always a work in progress, particularly as we have neighbours with aliens on their properties, so we have to work at keeping them out of ours.

“We really want to encourage our neighbours and others­ to clear up the properties and indigenise their gardens because natural habitats are so rich and diverse.”

The Wheelers belong to the Winterskloof Conservancy which has plans to try to clear the whole valley of alien vegetation and open up walking trails around the railway line. The conservancy includes members who are willing to help and advise land owners on how to set about clearing aliens and “greening” their properties. Contact: pennywheeler@xsinet.co.za

 

 

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