LIFE An iconic wine farm has trees on the up- South Africa

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Trees — they’re the new grapes. Well, perhaps not quite but where Vergelegen, the 300-year-old Somerset West wine farm is concerned, they’re certainly a growing prospect.

In fact, the historic brand has just announced it plans to plant 7,500 trees over the next 10 years.

If you’ve been to any of the globally renowned botanical gardens, like those at Kew in London, you’ll know that tree-visiting is big business. There, for example, the UK’s largest chestnut-leaved oak really gets the crowds going. There are 14,000 trees on the Kew property, but even being able to amble through several thousand appeals greatly.

Of course, trees are also the poster children of both sustainability and protection of biodiversity. And their planting at Vergelegen speaks to a brand moving into a future affected by global warming and water shortages.

"Agriculture is tough and not getting easier," says Wade Bales, a wine négociant for the past 25 years. "Wine farming and grape farming are tricky at the best of times. Farms have to be increasingly conscious about how they position for the future."

Farmlands could morph into urban areas. Vergelegen is on the urban fringe, and there is pressure to develop that area along with parts of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. Owners could get a better return if they sold to developers, who would build multiple units on the land. But, luckily, there are long-term owners intent on preserving the natural vegetation of the area.

Vergelegen already has 18 gardens, and this arboretum (the word used for a general collection of trees) will yield a further 54ha of botanical garden devoted to trees. Guests are already strolling around the area, which will offer various footpaths and walking trails, but a 3.5km walkway will edge the new development.

The site was previously open ground and home to an orchard, whose fruit trees had reached the end of their fruit-bearing lifespan. Instead of replanting, the decision was made to create the arboretum with its striking views of the Hottentots Holland and Helderberg mountains.

Concept plan for the arboretum
For 30 years, management at Vergelegen has been restoring the historic estate — all the while with a long-term eye on sustainability. It completed the clearing of 220ha of dense alien vegetation in 2018, the largest privately funded clearing project in the country. Of this, 1,900ha have been declared a private nature reserve with the same protection status as the Kruger National Park.

About nine years ago, the owners decided to upgrade the hospitality assets with a new wine-tasting centre, two restaurants and the East Garden, the 18th on the estate.

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The arboretum is a natural continuation of these plans and serves as a transition between the cultivated and natural landscapes, says Leslie Naidoo, commercial and risk manager at Vergelegen.

Research was undertaken at various gardens, including the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the Yorkshire Arboretum. Landscape architects were then approached to develop a concept, which evolved into where the owners are now. "The intention is to create a unique horticultural, environmental and historic destination, based on four design principles of variety, intricacy, connection and quality," says Naidoo.

The arboretum will be divided into concentric paths and tree avenues, and each ring is symbolic of a tree ring and a timeline of events on the estate from 1700. The theme for tree planting is based on groups of tree families overlaid by species, character, height, size and deciduous or evergreen.

Three 45m-wide vistas in the form of a triangle form the core of the arboretum. Each vista is lined with double row plantings of liquidambar, yellowwood and swamp cypress trees. The vistas are intersected at various intervals featuring four large semicircles planted with avenues of trees of Dutch, Asian, English and French origin. These will reflect the layered history of the estate, which is a provincial heritage site.

Clearing and preparing the land started in 2017, while planting the section of rosids (a group of plants that includes 70,000 species) with 1,216 trees started in 2019. Next on the agenda is sourcing and planting 1,500 trees from the asterid group of plants. These come from local nurseries, and rare specimens will be propagated.

Naidoo says this enormous undertaking is possible because the estate is self-sufficient in water, following the clearing and rehabilitation project. This unleashed abundant water resources, which are fed by the Hottentots Holland catchment area.

There are already numerous historic trees on the Vergelegen property, including five camphors standing sentry outside the homestead. These were declared national monuments in 1942.