Cycles of Life

As a leading player within the luxury hospitality sector, we are increasingly conscious of our vital role in saving the planet, but for renowned gardener and conservationist Corné Pretorius, it has always been a way of life. Hand Picked Hotels recently invited Corné over to the UK from his native South Africa for a series of enlightening talks on sustainability. We spoke to him exclusively about living in harmony with nature, going back to basics, and the power of one.

As a fourth-generation horticulturalist, Corné was born with a deep love and respect for nature. From a young age, his grandparents taught him the joy and passion for growth that would culminate in the creation of Riebeek Valley Garden Centre, a renowned nursery and sanctuary for rare and indigenous plants in South Africa’s Western Cape, which he, with his partner André Beaurain, started in 1999.

Corné explains in his soothing South African lilt, “It was always going to be plants for me, nothing else. It was a gift that my grandparents gave me. From age four, I was taught the bliss of harvesting and savoring home-grown food that we’d cultivated from a tiny seed.” He continues, “My childhood was about a love of nature’s abundance and its wonder, that has shaped my path. I’m a big believer in genetic memory and passing our knowledge on to the next generation. Sometimes I can still hear my grandfather’s words in my head, and it’s comforting to think that life never really dies.”

These themes of regeneration and the cycles of life and nature recur throughout our conversation. At a time when many are fearful for the planet’s future, Corné shares a critical message of hope that we all have the power to bring about positive change. “Nature makes me feel so small; we are all so tiny in the big scheme of things, but even a small fleck can create change,” he explains. To highlight the point, Corné recounts the story of a rare and ancient Cycad plant that he managed to pollinate with a female of the species two years ago. Having painstakingly pollinated the female, he endured a year-long wait for the seed to arrive, and another year before it germinated. Having almost given up hope on the seed, the baby plant emerged two days before he left for the UK. “It was such a magical moment,” he exclaims. “Some things, sadly, are not possible in nature anymore, and this shows human interaction can be a force for good. I won’t get to see that plant reach maturity, but it is a new generation that others can now enjoy, and that’s very special,” he smiles.

He sees this principle of everyone playing their small part as paramount to the climate change fight. “It is so big that people don’t want to think about it, but we can all make a difference.” He continues, “It’s about going back to basics; before the industrial revolution, we understood nature, but we’ve somehow lost our instincts along the way.”

“We need to learn to live in harmony again and understand we are not in charge of nature”

“We need to learn to live in harmony again and understand we are not in charge of nature; it’s about mutual respect,” Corné tells an enlightening tale of an experience as a student, spending time with indigenous bushmen when one of the elders challenged this view, “How can you own something that you are born onto and buried into? You can’t! The ground owns you.”

For Corné, however, the future isn’t as bleak as some imagine. “For younger generations, protecting nature is in their being. They want change, and it’s our responsibility to guide them in the right direction.”

Corné has an almost spiritual awareness of nature’s power that has shaped both his career and his home life. Together, he and André created their own organic swimming pool, with only a modest budget and the help of some German DIY books, that has become a haven for the many animals living in the grounds. “It’s just incredible to feel nature on your skin every time you take a swim,” he explains enthusiastically. “It restores your chemical balance and has the most powerful regenerative properties. We don’t believe in using pesticides, so the pool is a natural oasis for every being to enjoy.”

The all-inclusive nature of the nursery extends far and wide: tortoises, spiders, dogs, cats, chickens, and a resident guineafowl live together in close proximity while, somewhat alarmingly, the open-plan snake sanctuary is home to native Cape cobras. “The snakes have as much right to be here as every other organism, but they have much more to fear than us.” So concerned were Corné and Andre that their serpentine neighbors should feel at home, they enlisted the help of an animal whisperer to ease any worries and ensure that all of the nursery’s inhabitants lived together harmoniously. For even the most cynical, it can be hard to discount their influence when no fatalities, neither cobra, man nor animal, have been reported to date.

The power of community is another topic that frequently comes to the fore. During his time touring our Hand Picked Hotels’ properties, Corné has been encouraged to see our conservation efforts at work. “You really are leading the way for the luxury hospitality sector. Switching from plastic to glass, including locally-sourced produce on your menus, and encouraging nature to thrive in your gardens is fantastic,” he explains. “There is always work to be done, but through these actions, you are paving the way for others to follow and giving your guests a different experience, which is wonderful to see.”

He sees a healthy community as one that supports each other, working together to protect the land through acts of kindness and inclusion, with every member playing an equal part in contributing to its success. “It’s like taking a bite of an apple and then passing it on,” he concludes. “There’s plenty to go around, no-one needs to go hungry but everyone needs to feed from it so nothing goes to waste.”

From South Africa to Chelsea

Corné’s trip to the UK coincided with the main highlight in the British horticultural calendar, RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Hand Picked Hotels, a supporter of The Prince’s Trust, sponsored Cornwall-based Burncoose Nurseries, who used their garden at this year’s Show to promote non-native species that will thrive in our changing climate while also helping to combat it. Water conservation was a main focus of the exhibit, alongside plants that can survive the longer, hotter, dryer summers without the need for extra watering.

Julia Hands mentioned that Burncoose Nurseries uses their garden at Chelsea every year to address an important theme. This year, they focused on practical ideas for sustainability and water conservation while introducing non-native trees and shrubs. Hand Picked Hotels, as they assess the gardens at their country house hotel properties, will draw inspiration from the various species displayed at the Burncoose garden.

Dame Joanna Lumley, a Prince’s Trust Ambassador and gardening enthusiast, joined Julia and Charles Williams, the owner of Burncoose Nurseries, at the Burncoose stand during the event. Dame Joanna emphasized the importance of understanding and supporting the environment, praising the garden’s focus on wildlife, water conservation, and climate change mitigation. She also highlighted the idea of using personal gardens as sanctuaries that contribute to environmental conservation while providing relaxation.

Corné’s Top 5 Gardening Tips

  1. I always remind people that a gardener never makes a mistake – it’s always just an experiment that doesn’t work.
  2. Never stop educating yourself; study your subjects and read up on as much as you can – it’s a constant learning curve.
  3. If you think a cactus needs watering, wait a week to make sure – they’re used to going without water for long periods of time.
  4. Always leave dead leaves until they are completely brown. Plants take microelements from brown leaves, which they send down to the mother plant to use for new leaves – it’s an important part ofthe life cycle.
  5. Give your plants names! It will help you to form an attachment that ensures you nurture them