Posts belonging to Category Mediterranean Journey


MGS-Blog-#1My last post, on the beginning of our 2002 European garden journey, made me take pause. Our starting out at the gardens of Sparoza now seems to have been both appropriate and auspicious. Our explorations were to be aided at so many points by members of the Mediterranean Garden society. And during this last year we came to realize that, while Sparoza was the fountainhead of the Society, the vast majority of members had never visited it – or even knew much about it. It was because of this that I was asked by the Society to travel to Greece this spring in order to produce a video documentary of the gardens for DVD release. With my trip there so large in my imagination today, I’ve decided to do this post on the Sparoza of 2010 before continuing on with our earlier journey. A brief heartfelt soliloquy on that lovely place seems to me the right candle by which to softly light the remembrances of our maiden voyage among the gardens of the Mediterranean.


Sparoza is a work in progress that retains the permanency of deep nature. The narrow beds of the terraces which Jacky Tyrwhitt laid out almost 50 years ago have, over time, been connected with other area, further and further from the  house, which are reminiscent of the informal, or even “wild”,  Greek landscape. For instance, a section of the phrygana (the local garigue) shows swaths of Phlomis fruticosa and Asphodelus that have been subtly augmented by agaves an  aloes. One might protest, “But this is not really wild, not truly natural!” But, then, what is wild, what natural? People have been walking and planting the land in Greece for at least 6,000 years. And were not these earlier inhabitants “natural”?



Perhaps Penelope Hobhouse put it best when she said that the Greeks have never been great horticulturists as such, but then all of Greece is a garden.


The seamless drift  from wildflower lawn to stately yuccas, from humble but beautiful flowering vetch to casually placed cypress, or from electric flowering, dancing masses of euphorbias to  slim-leaved, intensely colored South African Crocosmias – all of this draws one in to that intense place where are and nature meet.

Call it the human place. Call it a garden.



Now that I have lived, from dawn to dark, for 13 days in the world of Sparoza, I realize that its gardens were like a lens for us as we began our journey, helping us to focus on and see clearly the vast variation on that most ancient of themes called “the Mediterranean Garden”.



Connecting Our Two Worlds

In the winter of our Cretan journey we moved into an apartment in the Old town district of Rethymnon, on Souliou Street, where late night diners wandered home, stopping to softly sing in the reverberating space of this tiny pedestrian way. One day we found , in a bookstore on that street, a copy of “Making a Garden on a Greek Hillside” by Mary Jacqueline Tyrwhitt. This eminent British city planner had retired to the countryside north of Athens, where she slowly, over 20 years, built up a garden from seeds and cuttings from around the world – from what we now call mediterranean climate zones.  Her book chronicled, month by month, not only how the plants grew, but also the tasks in the garden, the weather, the animals, and the festivals of the month. The impression we had of her garden was as vivid as if we had lived there.

Terri on Souliou Street

A few weeks later a newspaper article in Athens, about a “Mediterranean Garden Society”, led us to the discovery that Ms. Tyrwhitt’s garden and house were the headquarters of that Society and that the gardeners who had formed the Mediterranean Garden Society in 1994, eleven years after her death, were some of the people involved in developing the concept of  mediterranean climate zones. All through our time on Crete Terri was deeply involved in finding out how she would garden at our village home: what plants worked and where could they be gotten, what one did for soil and compost, and all of the other concerns that, back in the Pacific Northwest, were already settled. Our discovery of the Mediterranean Garden Society  (aka the MGS) promised to light these darkened areas for us.  We returned home to Bainbridge Island that spring with two goals. First was to write a book on this Mediterranean movement and what it meant for gardens in both of our homes. Secondly, we joined the MGS and made plans to attend the annual general meeting in Athens that fall. After a summer of devouring huge stacks of books on the history and styles of gardening, we arrived in Athens in late September, 2001 and entered a warm and welcoming world of seasoned  gardeners from around the world.  We visited island village gardens, a fabulous villa, and heard lectures on the  gardens of Classical Athens.

Village Cafe Garden, Island of Aegina

Village Cafe Garden, Island of Aegina

Pyrocanthus Arch Near Athens

Pyrocanthus Arch Near Athens

Villa in Attica

Villa in Attica

We also, most important, visited the MGS garden at Sparoza. The calm maturity of the place, even in the dry, burnt-out month of October, impressed us – as might the discovery of a stunning masterpiece of painting in a quiet corner of a small provincial museum.

Sparoza - Phlomis

Sparoza - Pomegranates and Aloes

Sparoza-Pomegranates and Aloe

For a week we dined, discussed plants, and traded addresses with gardeners from across Europe, making plans to return as soon as possible to see the places that we had come to consider our heritage – and to start our book.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             The last night with our new friends we

had a unusual meeting with three Greek musicians. We were eating outside in the tourist area of the Plaka, beneath the Acropolis. The musicians approached our tables playing “Never on Sunday”, a lovely Greek “vesper”, much overdone for decades. I looked up and asked, in my best Greek, if they could play “Cloudy Sunday”? They stopped in mid-strain, their mouths open.  This was a special song about the day the Nazis marched into Athens, written by Vassilis Tsitsanis, the legendary composer and bouzouki player.  It was almost a national anthem to most Greeks, who stood up and sang it whenever it was play in public. They nodded and began to play the soaring and haunting melody.  I couldn’t help but join, in Greek, to this cry from the heart of courage. When they finished, one asked,  “How is it that you know this song?” I answered, ” It’s in the air!” They laughed and  launched  with gusto into a long set of classic 1920’s Rebetika songs. There were few Americans in Athens that fall. But we had come  to follow that path that began for us on Crete –  and we would be coming back soon.  Surrounded by four tables filled with mediterranean gardeners who were now our friends, we leaned back, savoring the tang of autumn and  humming along with the old tunes into the night.

Living in the Middle of the World

The road from the village to the olive fields

The road from the village to the olive fields

After months of roaming about the valleys and shores of Crete, marveling as we went at the contrasts between the rough, craggy face of the land and the surprising beauty of plants like miniature iris, tulip, and ground orchids, we wondered more with each new village: Where are the gardens? Not the little plots of summer and winter vegetables or the figs, mandarins, pomegranates, and sinuous grape vines that shade and feed, but the spaces where the tame clasps the wild and connects the lives and histories of people and places?

A story from our friend George Vlastos at last turned us in the right direction. He told how centuries before the Cretan farmers had turned from selective breeding of olives that produced prodigious fruit to grafting their cultivar onto the giant wild trees, which were able to easily put up with seven months of drought. However, the new olive cultivar is best gathered when it falls totally black and ripened. This requires that farmers gather them fairly quickly as they fall. Today this is accomplished by laying out large nets under the trees, then lifting the filled nets and bagging the olives, and again laying out the nets – often as many as five times in a season. Because of this extended harvest, farmers have to live near their orchards.

Vlastos says, “Yes, we domesticated the olives; but they also domesticated us.”

We considered this relation between olives and civilization as we continued our travels. The sprawling olive fields that often filled an entire valley between two villages seemed less like a old growth forest and more like the informal grounds of a grand estate, which comprised most of the island.

Olive groves are, perhaps, the real gardens of Crete. In winter an oxalis fills the spaces between the trees. By March arums begin to rise up through the green carpet and, later, iris, anemone, Lupin palestinus, and wild orchids, like Dactylorhiza romana, Anacamptia pyramidalis, and Ophrys lutea and scolopax (the latter looking like a tiny archaic “Bee Man”).

Lupin palestinus fill a spring field at the Minoan site of Monastiraki

Lupin palestinus fill a spring field at the Minoan site of Monastiraki


The oldest tree in the Amari Valley surrounded by anemones. She was shattered in the spring storm of 2003.

These fields are vistas with similarity of style, but also with endless variations in both terrain and other plant varieties. They are unintentional gardens, in the Western sense; but they are also conscious responses of the people who planted them to the landscape in which they live.

In the last few decades, many farmers have begun raising the smaller wild tree(a cultivar of Olea europea), which yields a tiny fruit with a big pit. They need more water to flourish and have often been given the drip irrigation treatment. Yet, they have an advantage suited to contemporary Cretan history. Their entire crop can be harvested in two weeks each autumn by knocking the olives down into the nets while still green. The oil that is pressed from these is greenish and bitter and must age for several months before it is really palatable.

The “advantage” to the farmers is that they no longer have to live near their trees but can fly back from Athens, for instance, and take a working holiday to do the harvest and visit old friends and family.

Since World War II people have been leaving the villages for cities and the greater international diaspora. Olive fields planted in recent years look like the well-ordered fruit orchards of California. The rolling groves that once connected places are slowly fading, with none being replaced.

Some day soon they may stand apart from the villages that spawned them, like parks…or like the gardens of some ancient estate.

Sheep graze among the thousand year old + giants near the Agia Galini River

Sheep graze among the thousand year old + giants near the Agia Galini River

An orderly field of the new "turbo tree". Yet, the place itself feels very ancient and powerful. The landscape still rules.

An orderly field of the new "turbo tree". Yet, the place itself feels very ancient and powerful. The landscape still rules.

We called this grove the Valley of the Giants. A morning walk there in the mists was like time travel.

We called this grove the Valley of the Giants. A morning walk there in the mists was like time travel.