Monday, 26 October 2015

Greek Gardening Trials and Tribulations

Greek Gardening Trials and Tribulations
Greece is known to have a Mediterranean climate, but in fact to say it has ‘hot summers and cool wet winter’ is too simplistic, the situation is far more complicated than that. This is because Greece is filled with micro-climates.

Greece is a small country that covers a large area, and as it is made up of very tall mountains and deep ravines, and hundreds of islands breezes come off the sea or funnel down the mountainsides.  Thus its not just latitude that creates different climates, altitude and an island’s position in the sea makes a difference (whether it is close to one of the three surrounding continents or set apart).

Plants and Climates

I’ve grown plumbago in a number of gardens and I’m sure that if I travelled around Greece I might also find it flourishes in some places or has to be coddled in others. It is a tough plant from South America. It can cope with a large variety or soils and climates though not frost.

In one sea-side garden in Australia, where the soil was sandy and there was very little rain I had a vigorous and colourful hedge of plumbago along the driveway. In another house (this one in a forest where it got lots of rain) I planted it along the front fence but it remained leggy and had only a few flowers.

In Lemnos plumbago is sold in the nurseries so I thought I’d give it a go, but it succumbed to the frosts. Then I noticed that the islanders planted it in large terracotta pots. I’ve now done this with another plant and another I’ve place in a very sheltered spot close to a wall.


The Windy Island

In the case of my garden inLemnos, wind it the big drawback. The island is in the Northern Aegean, set out in the sea away from the continents or other islands and the winter winds (the Vorias) come sweeping down from the Black Sea. They are cold and snow bearing. However the summer winds (the Meltemi) are welcomed. They are cooling in the summer heat giving the island a temperature 4-5 degrees cooler than Thessaloniki and Athens.

But the severity of the winter wind does mean that trees have to be staked hard to survive the winter. Anestis, my helper in the garden, drives heavy posts in next to them and ties them up to prevent them blowing over. They may not blow right over but sometimes they are so shaken the roots are loosened and when summer arrives they’ll suddenly die during the heat. This happened to one of my pencil pines, and one of two cypresses I was training two as an archway. Not much of an archway was left! So I had to cut the other cypress down too. I suspect this is the reason too why my plum tree produced a huge harvest and then suddenly died. The other thing locals do is to prune trees very hard so that the wind passes through the short bare branches.


Frost and Snow

Citrus bed, against the back wall
Citrus trees are sold in the local plant nursery and I’m trying to grow lemons, oranges and cumquats as I’ve seen some in other gardens but I’ve had a lot of losses. I planted them in the shelter of a tall wall to protect them from the northern winds, but frosts and snow several times cut down the young trees. They have to be protected so I tried to cover their roots with mulch before I left but then the wind whipped that away. So in the end I covered the mulch with a net pinned over the top. Maybe I’ve succeeded, but I won’t be surprised if I go back and find they’ve been cut back yet again by a hard winter.

Pruning, Mulch and Compost

As you will see often things have to be done differently in this garden. Pruning can be a sore point between me and Anestis. One problem is that I don’t speak Greek and can’t always rely on Takis to translate what I want done. Another is that mulch and compost is not available, I use dried weeds and seaweed for mulch. And though sheep's dung is sold by the gypsies, it really is nothing more than stony topsoil so we rely on our homemade compost bins.

I can see why locals prune back very hard, but sometimes Anestis pruning will decimate a tree and it does not recover in spring. And then, though I ask him to prune the roses very hard (Copsi Megala) he only cuts them back modestly. Roses have been a surprise and joy in Lemnos. I’ve tried in other gardens to grow roses, but they did not grow in the seaside sandy garden and in my city garden the possums ate them. Here I’ve discovered roses bloom abundantly, especially in spring. Locals tend to just be satisfied with that, however I tend to keep light pruning and watering my bushes, to get a more continuous flowering.

And as to Anesis and me, we do manage and the garden between us. I tell myself it’s a good thing I don’t always get my way. He is an enthusiastic and willing gardener. (And I think he enjoys working with me more than in the house renovating with Takis!) He provides the sort of help any gardener loves, strong muscles to move rocks, carry buckets and yank out stubborn roots.

Anestis clearing pre-building the wall behind the herb garden

Making the herb garden
The finished herb garden

And though we both don’t admit it we have learnt a thing or two from each other. He now mulches (though mulch is hard to come by and we tend to just use dried weeds to prevent too much evaporation in summer), and he now is happy and proud of our compost heaps (to which I add seaweed, a real eye opener for him).

And I have learnt not to sprinkle water on the topsoil but to dig a trench beside the vegetables and pour the water in there every three days, to soak the roots deeply.


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