Making the garden grow

2010-03-18 00:00

I SQUIRMED uncomfortably as my interviewee stated: “I started out working as a garden boy when I was 13.” “Don’t you mean a gardener?” I asked. “No, it was Empangeni in the early nineties. I was a garden boy,” he said emphatically.

The newly appointed curator of the Botanical Gardens, Gcina Allen Nene (30), has come a long way from working in a garden on a Saturday morning to earn extra money. “That is where it started. I discovered I had a gift for gardening and a great interest in plants, flowers particularly.”

Nene’s father was a panel beater, but his mother was a farmer who grew vegetables on the family’s land. “I was not interested in vegetables, but I became passionate about flowers. I visited nurseries with my employers and learned a lot from them and eventually I was choosing the plants for their gardens. Together we developed their gardens, which introduced me to landscaping and I found I had a flair for that too.”

After matriculating at King Bhekuzulu High School in the Nongoma district, Nene realised that he could make a career out of his love for gardens and gardening. He studied for a diploma in horticulture at the Durban University of Technology. “Landscaping is my strong point, so I have a lot of plans for the Botanical Gardens,” he smiles.

Nene comes to his new post with considerable experience. After a spell in a commercial organisation specialising in interior plantscaping and indoor plants, he worked at the Free State Botanical Gardens in Bloemfontein as a senior horticulturist. That was followed by close to two years as a chief horticulturist at the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens in Roodepoort, Gauteng.

Moving from the grassland environment of the Free State to Gauteng and now to KwaZulu-Natal has cemented Nene’s passion for indigenous plants and given him exposure to widely differing biomes. “Bloemfontein gets frost, while Roodepoort is very hot in summer and very cold in winter. Many people do not realise that you can use indigenous plants successfully for landscaping projects. They often complain and say that there is little colour in indigenous plants, but that is not true. I want to show people how they can use indigenous plants in their gardens.”

Nene’s ambitious plans for “Bot Gardens” include upgrading the standard of the landscaping. “I want to make it more relevant to current landscaping styles and promote indigenous landscaping. I want to introduce more colour and choose plants to ensure that there will always be something in bloom, no matter what the season. “There are more than 200 varieties of plants in the garden, mostly from KZN, but there are some from all over the country and I want to introduce more.”

Nene explained: “We aren’t going to chop down the exotics, but as they die off naturally, we will replace them with indigenous varieties.”

He said that the well-known exotic plane trees in the avenue are protected by heritage legislation because they are more than 60 years old.

His plans include attractions to draw people from different communities in the city, especially younger people. “We seldom see people younger than 25 and not many families with children either.” He was ready with a quick answer when I pointed out that this was partly, if not largely, because children are banned from activities they would naturally do outside such as playing with a ball or riding bikes. “That’s why we are planning to install theme gardens, including an adventure playground and a children’s garden. I also want to expand the succulent garden and garden of what I call ‘people’s plants’, plants that have practical uses like medicinal purposes.”

To make the gardens into what he calls “a destination of choice and the best picnic spot in the city and surrounds”, Nene aims to outsource amenities and services like a children’s train and a tuck shop. He is planning a programme of events to suit different tastes and ages. These include different styles of musical concerts, star-gazing evenings, and a bigger-and-better tea party in the avenue.

Work has already started on upgrading the public toilets and the 100-seat conference venue that used to house the restaurant. “We will welcome wedding services and receptions, as well as wedding photos, which are already a regular occurrence on weekends. We are also looking into security in the garden, to make sure that it maintains its ‘zero incidents record’.”

A final project that Nene talked of enthusiastically was the current skills development project, which will end in July unless new funding can be found. “The garden employs 50 casual workers to work in the gardens for six months. During that time we pay them and train them so that at the end, they have certified skills that can help them to find employment. We’d love to continue the project, if someone would come forward to fund it.”

 

HOME TOWN: Empangeni

STUDIED: Diploma in Horticulture, DUT

WORKED: Free State and Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens, Roodepoort

LIVES: Prestbury

FAMILY: Engaged to Nomazotsho, also a horticulturalist; two daughters aged 11 and 3

TO RELAX: Music

PASSIONATE ABOUT: Landscaping and beautiful gardens

BUCKET LIST: To grow old with my partner and bring up my children well

DREAMS: To make this the best Botanical Gardens in the country

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