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Cornucopia - Making a Mountain Garden in Crete

Making a Mountain Garden in Crete
Elaine Trevitt

At the end of May I went off with my husband to stay with an old friend who now lives in Crete. Patricia comes home to England for three winter months each year to catch up with friends and culture, but has otherwise settled for life in rural Crete, in a small village about half way down the west coast. She had given up her house and steeply sloping terraced garden in Lancaster to enable her to do this. She had intimated that she had taken up a new garden project in Crete but we had no idea really what we were going to. I expected the usual Greek courtyard garden, pelargoniums and hollyhocks and English roses, which always look out of place to me in that context, but do very well in the climate, a few vegetables and herbs, an olive tree and a vine perhaps, oleanders, maybe a palm, or a cactus, some bright creepers. All these things were in evidence the moment we arrived (including a fruiting kumquat, mmm! delicious) spread out over three different courtyard areas, and also a wild patch in the middle of the road that goes past her house, which she is encouraging. But the extent of her project became apparent only once we had stepped through into the main courtyard. Behind her house was a steeply sloping, in parts almost vertical rock face, and she proudly introduced us to her developing ‘mountain garden’. For me, getting a handle on the extent of the mountain garden project immediately took precedence over that very English requirement for weary travellers, a cup of tea!

Patricia is impeded by an arthritic hip and had also recently broken her arm, but she was undeterred. She had managed the project thus far with the help of a local handyman. Panayiotis, unusually diligent and imaginative, had picked up Patricia’s ideas and was running with them, taking great pride in the project. Together they had been out foraging for slabs of rock and large beach cobbles (no one there would think it was a problem to do this, if you were mad enough to want to bother, just the reverse of here). Panayoitis had carried each up the mountain into its place, building a series of stepways and pathways, some, where he had used rocks with mica in, that glinted in the sunshine. He had laid some interesting cobbled areas in odd corners, including a high level cobbled patio around an old olive tree which marked the entrance to a cave at the very ‘top’ of the garden! (Top means as far as was reachable, as Patricia’s ownership of land went up and beyond this). Retaining walls had been built and earth moved to make pockets for tree planting and a comprehensive irrigation system had been put in place. I think they are intending to push the boundaries up even further.

For aeons the hillside had been inhabited by goats and the soil, where there is any, is fertile as a result. It is Patricia’s assumption that with the addition of water, she can grow almost anything she might want to, if she can get it established. Wild animals, tsouridas, (pine martens) come digging in the night, and leave a trail of destruction, digging up newly planted specimens. The ground had already been cleared of native scrub, but several ancient olive trees had been left, as had a carob tree overhanging from the cliff above, a fig, a stand of white iris, just finished flowering. Adjacent to the iris she had added a massed planting of lavender, the pinnate variety usually seen there. Strawberries were flourishing in one of the pockets, and she planned for courgettes, cucumbers and other vegetables along the well-irrigated central pathway. She had already planted another (black) fig, an apricot, a cherry, nectarine, pear, pomegranate and a black plum, and had further aspirations to plant a walnut tree.

I was particularly interested in exploring the possibilities of using indigenous plants. Some were already there, sprouting again or self seeded in the clearing. I was excited to find Clematis and Bryonia scrambling over architectural gnarled old olive stumps, the leaves of the autumn mandrake Mandragora autumnalis growing in odd corners, the pretty local mallow Malva cretica, the Cretan bluebell Petromarula pinnata. and spiky leaf rosettes of Acanthus. It seemed that one end of the mountain garden could happily become the wilder back end, with its separate steps up from the back of the house.

Spring was late in Crete too this year which meant that some flowers were still good, much to my delight. The gorges were overflowing with various Salvia, Phlomis, Ebenus cretica. and the pitch vetch, Psoralea bituminosa. On the hillsides Genista and Ballota together were the dominant species in the local garrigue, whilst further away it was Phlomis. It seemed obvious to me that these would all make perfect subjects for Patricia’s mountain garden, and I hoped that my enthusiasm would encourage her to think so too. I could see that she might have great difficulty persuading her help that these things were garden worthy, for they are seen as weeds there, and possibly not even seen at all! They are all plants that I would dearly love to be able to grow at home, but the wet winters and lack of light in my own Lancaster garden invariably finish them off.

Off we went to the local nursery (a day of thunder and lightening and torrential rain!) where indeed none of these things were to be found, where dark green and exotic species (palms, bananas) or bright bedding was given dominance. We came home with Patricia’s car stuffed with plants though, including some colourful succulents, Agapanthus and lots of Tulbaghia (€3.50 per litre pot crammed full enough to split into several, whereas I have seen them here for £4.50 for one flowering spike!). The Tulbaghia were spread along the central main pathway, about half way up the garden, and had to be chiselled into the foot of stonewalls and rocks, the Agapanthus on the edge of an outcrop so you could look up at it from the patio below. I had also persuaded Patricia to plant an Agave, which I thought would make a superb statement. Patricia had been reluctant to go for anything spiny as viewed from the house, so this went in the wilder, back, end.

It fell to my husband Richard to do the planting, he being the most able bodied of the three of us! This was no mean feat in such stony and vertiginous ground. (Handrails are planned but not yet in place everywhere). We women carried extra water with which to fill planting holes. Two days after the rain the ground on the mountain garden was dry as a bone! I came back to the garden with various cuttings of Phlomis, Salvia, Ebenus and Vitex agnus-castus The latter is well known to herbalists, used to treat ‘women’s conditions’. It has a beautiful deep blue flower spike on feathery foliage and grew down the road on the way to the beach. Also tiny rooted springs of the pitch vetch and convolvulus. These all had to take their chance in situ, as Patricia was reluctant to use up an irrigated pocket to give them a dedicated ‘nursery’ bed.

I don’t know if any of these cuttings have taken, only time will tell. In a recent email from her Patricia did say that she and Panayiotis had had ‘words’ because he had scrubbed up her own chosen bit of wild, in the middle of the road, when she was out one day. But they had made up again. They were still collecting rocks. Panayoitis had acquired and planted a walnut and, up in the ‘gully’, bananas! I hope we may go back one day to see how it all goes.

First published in the Cumbria Group Newsletter, Autumn/Winter 2011
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 29.
© Copyright for this article: Elaine Trevitt

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2012. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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