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Into the Labyrinth of Gardens

I have just returned from the gardens of Sparoza, where our journey through European gardening began in 2002. For two weeks I woke up every dawn there , walked out  to begin shooting video and stills, and continued  shooting until the last light went. When it came time to return home to Bainbridge Island, I felt  there was so much that I hadn’t yet captured of this incredible place where light changed as much throughout each day as the plants had changed in the years since Terri and I had last visited and worked there.

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In the Cactus Garden

When we began our 2002 journey, we had started at Sparoza for two reasons: first, it was where we had encountered the mediterranean Garden Society, whose members would help us through our journey to come; secondly, the gardens of Sparoza were like a huge, fantastic guide book to the landscape, climate, and plants of the Mediterranean Basin. Just walking the grounds there, as the April sun brought constant changes, was the best preparation that travelers into the world of mediterranean gardening could hope for.

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Irises and Poppies

We saw the variations upon wild landscapes and subtle designs that would help us to understand the varieties of settings that lay ahead of us. There was something about the place that combined the very best of a huge natural history museum with an art gallery. Horticulture and European culture were seamlessly interwoven in the landscape – which, in many ways , was what we were trying to accomplish in our trip. We wanted very much to connect what we were seeing in the Pacific Northwest with its wellsprings across the Atlantic.  Oddly enough, we were familiar back home with the Pacific and Asian roots of our gardening ways, yet we had almost forgotten our other tradition – the Mediterranean.

Dancing Euphorbias, Dancing Olives

Dancing Euphorbias, Dancing Olives

After a few days at Sparoza we began to recognize plants, colors, and, yes, many feelings that we knew so well from our own gardens at home. And we readied ourselves to go deeper, toward the center of the Labyrinth.

Sun at the Heart of the Tree

Sun at the Heart of the Tree

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.