Gardening in Greece

Greek gardening. Now there is an oxymoron. Combine arid, poor, stony soils, six months with no rain at all during very hot summers and some islands with no fresh water – the range of plants that can be grown is pretty limited. That is not to say that people do not surround themselves with some foliage and flowers but it hardly warrants the term “gardening”.

In late September, the flowers were almost exclusively oleanders (I recall admiring these in flower in Gisborne one January), bougainvillea (I hadn’t seen the golden orange form before but I remain unconvinced that it is of great merit), hibiscus, jasmine and geraniums (99% the common red one). Second Daughter, who was travelling with me, commented that she had never liked the red geranium before she went to Italy and now Greece, but it is wonderfully evocative of Continental summertime. If my memory serves me right, prominent Taranaki gardener, Gwyn Masters, used red geraniums in terracotta pots in her Italianate garden created in a disused swimming pool. It helps to have the panache of Mrs Masters to avoid it merely looking cliched or tatty in our gardening environment.

Featured trees were conifers, palms, yuccas, Australian eucalyptus (true! Dating back to the 1920s apparently), figs, olives, citrus, almonds and tamarisk. I don’t know conifers at all so all I can do is to suggest they may have been Cupressus and Pinus graecum (a nomenclature bluff, that one. There are no such varieties). I went to Greece hoping for fresh figs but while London had been full of them on every fruit stall, there were none for sale anywhere we went in Greece. The only fruit we got to eat were purloined from roadside trees. I did learn however, that figs do not have to be brown to be ripe. Presumably they brown quickly after picking, but the soft green ones we ate fresh from the trees had the same texture and taste. I am determined to try my figs in a warmer spot to see if I can beat the birds and actually get a harvest.

The fresh almonds gathered by our neighbours on Lipsi (an English hunter gatherer couple reminiscent of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall of TV’s “Return to River Cottage”) were divine – quite the best almonds I have eaten.

Greece is another of those countries (like much of Asia) where it is a mistake to assume that footpaths are for pedestrians. No. They are there for outdoor seating for tavernas, for parking (the roads are very narrow) and for amenity tree planting. On the large island of Kos the local Council had undertaken a massive tree planting programme and most were fair and square in the centre of the footpaths – mostly palms, plane trees and oleanders. Pedestrians walk on the side of the road.

The tamarisk trees must take the award for hardiness. These gnarled old, multi trunked trees of relatively small stature (three to five metres high) are a vital part of Aegean beaches. Where summer temperatures soar above 40, they provide shade. And they grow in pure sand and shingle a few metres from the sea so their roots must reach down to the very salty water table. The Aegean Sea is not tidal (there is a curious fact for you) and is extremely salty. It makes swimming very easy (great buoyancy) but I was amazed that the tamarisk could grow in such conditions. While they are not the world’s most exciting tree (a bit like a gnarled pin oak), there is a shortage of hardy subjects for coastal conditions and they are smaller than the only two candidates we have here – the pohutakawa and the Norfolk Island Pine.

Curiously, in this arid land, there seemed to be no attempt to gather seasonal rainwater. I did not see any spouting or rainwater tanks. On totally dry islands like Lipsi where we stayed, water arrives by tanker from Rhodes once a week.

In contrast, a few kilometres across the sea in Turkey, we saw an old method of gathering water. Located over seasonal wells and springs were large concrete spheres many metres across with many holes designed to funnel rainfall. They had a lunar module look to them. Presumably in times past, before the weekly water tanker, the Greeks used to have methods for storing winter rainfall.
Terracotta pots and red geraniums on the tiny island of Arki.
Terracotta pots and red geraniums on the tiny island of Arki.

The islands of Leros and Kalymnos had ground water but it was so salty and thick with lime scale that it was necessary to use bottled water, even for making tea and coffee. And despite the water issues, Greek toilets had large water cisterns. A great deal of the precious commodity must go down the sewers.

Living in New Zealand where close to 100% of our garden pots are imported from Asia, it had not occurred to me before that much of the design history of the ornamental terracotta pot is of course Greek. And if I could import anything from Greece, it would be the urns and planters. These were wonderful. Simple, elegant and classic in design, usually large, sometimes planted and sometimes just lying around. The colours were more muted and sandy, at times even pink, rather than the hard orange terracotta we see in New Zealand. I wanted them.

The formula for the Greek garden is very simple. Take one white cubist house, flat roofed of course, set on a hill. Retain the hill with stone walls (collected locally). Pave all flat areas in tile, marble or flat stone (no grass – it doesn’t grow there at all. But no concrete paving either). Plant a few citrus trees and oleanders. Have a bright bougainvillea growing over the building, a rampant wisteria for spring and a few pots of red geraniums. If you are a keen gardener, add a few succulents. Allow the figs to self seed or sucker on the boundary. Set up the outdoor seating area with white resin furniture. Done.

It was magic in Greece but it is not a look that will translate readily to our lush and verdant west coast.