I Love Gardens
Perhaps this is because I’m English and grew up with gardens all around me. As a child I loved wandering and dreaming in my wealthier grandmother’s garden, imagining all kinds of wonderful scenes. But this was not where I made my first garden, no, that was in the backyard of my other (less wealthy) grandma’s garden. I was about five years old and wanted to make a garden, and the only place seemed to be right on the top of an old air-raid dugout. The problem was that on top of this dugout there was very little soil. As I think of it I’m pretty sure that I planted Alyssum, a Mediterranean plant that grows easily from seed. I think it was a wise gardening uncle who gave me a packet of Alyssum to sow here. It is almost fool proof and forms pretty cushions of white scented flowers.
Alyssum is a typical Mediterranean, a low growing ‘cushion’ plant coming from the mountains of Spain and France, another form comes from coastal districts of Central and Eastern Mediterranean. In England this plant is also known as Sweet Alice. The white variety, called Little Dorrit, is sweet scented and blooms profusely. I brought a packet of seed with me to Greece and planted it in the herb bed, and now I have it appearing every year somewhere in the garden. I just cut back when the plants become straggly, and each year there are enough new plants throughout the garden to keep me happy.
I have made gardens in every place I have lived - Lemnos is no exception. Though it was never going to be easy to get a garden going here, we were only going to live there for half of every year, the area looked like an uncared for playing field, the summers were continuously hot with no rain, and the nurseries were very limited. But we did have a well, and so I started drawing up plans.
First Garden Plan
Ancient Greek and Roman Gardens
To make a Mediterranean garden, of the sort I dreamed of, is uncommon in Greece. You can see them in France and Italy, and while there are a few flower and leisure gardens in Greece they are rare. In fact this has always been so in Greece. Historically Greek gardens have been used to beautify temples or to decorate a few recreational spaces. This is because the Greeks have long been people who valued sporting competitions, intellectual debate, and sculpture, with little time and effort given to the cultivation of private gardens. If there were Greek gardens these were functional farm gardens, for the purpose of growing fruit. Even in the period when other arts in Greece were rapidly advancing to their highest point of development, we hear nothing about a Greek garden culture. In fact it seems that this democractic people watched any such development with a jealous eye, seeing this as a form of personal excess.
However in Crete there reigned royal families who lived in peace protected by the sea. Here there were no fortress walls and we can see a love of the plants in the ornamentation of their vessels and on the frescoes that decorated their rooms.
It was in the Roman civilization that gardens become more developed, for instance the ornamental family and public gardens found in the city of Pompeii. Each large house there had a garden that was regarded as a place of peace and tranquillity – a refuge from urban life. The Roman gardens were also places filled with religious and symbolic meanings.
'Over a fifth of the site evacuated at Pompeii was devoted to gardens, vineyards and cultiation, and over a third of the homes were centred around a garden, with apartment dwellers keeping pots on terraces and balconies... Ornamental gardens were surrounded with walls decorated with frescoes of birds and flowers, and with the arrival of piped water under Augustus, fountains and basins became a viatal part of a conspicuous display of wealth, with the added benefit of cooling the garden.'
'Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum', display at The British Museum, London, 2013.
Our courtyard, place of tranquillity and meetings
Horticulture on Lemnos Island
Lemian horticulture today is still mainly centered around plantings for practical purposes. The men tend their allotments, the women gather horta and grow herbs in pots.
On farms the Lemians keep sheep, goats and pigs and grow wheat and grapes. The food they prepare is largely based upon these staples. Sheep are kept for their milk and wool.
Lemnos has long produced thyme honey, ewe’s milk cheese, known in Greece as kalathaki, meaning ‘small basket’ and the wine that Homer referred to when he wrote about Agamemnon reprimanding his soldiers for their laziness and wine drinking, ‘Once while in Lemnos…drinking wine in overflowing glasses.’
I wanted to grow vegetables and fruit trees, but I also wanted to bring into our garden some of the natural beauties of the island...
Beaches and Seashores
Beside having a source of water in our well, the other great asset was the fact that Greece naturally has such a great variety of plants. I did buy somethings from the nurseries, but I also collected plants from the roadsides and hills. These are tough Mediterranean wild plants and while some like tougher conditions than they got in my garden (and expired from too much attention), many other have survived and even threaten to take over.
These plants are the result of the juxtaposition of two great continents and the existence of many separated islands between them. Thus, many different varieties and species have developed close to each other but separated by the sea from each other.
Today we can find more than 6,000 species of plants in Greece, and in proportion to its size Greece has more species of flowers than any other European country, or even the United States.
Books on Mediterranean GardensCarol Drinkwater, The Olive Route: A Personal Journey to the Heart of the Mediterranean (Orion Publishing Co., 2007) With many interesting stories of people she visited along the way Drinkwater tells of her travels around the Mediterranean to find out more about the history of olive growing.
Carol Drinkwater knowns for her television acting career, www.caroldrinkwater.com
Maria Letizia Tani and Adrea Innocenti’s book on the Flowers of Greece (English Edition, Bonechi Florence, 2004) offers a clearly illustrated and funcionally organized list of Greek flowering plants.