Making a Garden in Jerusalem

By: Katherine Greenberg

Katherine Hayes Greenberg is a garden designer with a passion for California’s native plants. She is a past president of…

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A view of the entry gate in September 2000. Photographs by Marianne Friedman, except as noted

A view of the entry gate in September 2000. Photographs by Marianne Friedman, except as noted

Part of Jerusalem’s allure is purely visual….I study the birds and the oddly juxtaposed trees: pines and palms, lemon and eucalyptus, firs and figs blossom everywhere. Whether lacy or aromatic, they fill the courtyards, encircle each home, towering above the stones that turn rose, lavender, yellow, white and gray under the oscillating summer light.

Wendy Orange, Coming Home to Jerusalem

Traditional Mediterranean gardens have always fascinated me. When Marianne and Herb Friedman asked me to design a garden for their home in Jerusalem, I was excited about the possibilities. Jerusalem had a profound effect on me when I first visited the city in 1965, and I have never forgotten the experience. Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel said of Jerusalem, “no one can enter it and remain unchanged.” As I recalled the several trips made to Jerusalem with my family, I wondered what this new experience would bring.

The Friedmans live in California but spend part of the year in Israel visiting their son and his family. Several years ago, they acquired a second home near the old center of Jerusalem and began extensive renovations. They took great care to preserve its historic character as they updated the house and its garden for modern living.

I would have to design the garden from California without making a site visit, but I eagerly accepted the Friedmans’ invitation to join them for the garden installation. It is unusual to have a garden in Jerusalem. Their home is located in a historic neighborhood established by Moroccan Jews. According to the historic register, the house was built in the 1860s, in the second settlement developed outside the walls of the old city, across the valley from Jaffa Gate.

One of the olives (Olea europaea) showing more than two feet of growth in four months. Photographs by Marianne Friedman, except as noted

One of the olives (Olea europaea) showing more than two feet of growth in four months

The Friedmans supplied me with site dimensions, photographs, and blueprints of their home and asked me to design a drought-tolerant garden that would be undemanding in terms of maintenance. The existing garden had been neglected for years. Only an olive (Olea europaea) and a pomegranate (Punica granatum) remained from the original plantings, and they did not survive the reconstruction of the house. Both trees would have to be replaced as close as possible to their original location in the garden, because they were recorded in the historic register.

Inspirations—Spiritual and Natural

As I considered various possibilities for the design of the garden, I was inspired by a passage from Deuteronomy 8:8: “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey.” Springs occur throughout this arid land, and, in the nineteenth century, a tunnel was discovered leading to a pool fed by Gihon Spring, the water source for Jerusalem when King David made the city his capitol, three thousand years ago. Despite these natural springs, water is always a precious resource in a Mediterranean climate. Israel was in the third year of a drought cycle when I began the project, so concerns about water conservation were heightened.

The landscape around Jerusalem is characterized by terraced hillsides planted with ancient olives, figs (Ficus carica), and cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens). These trees are adapted to the region’s climate and survive with little or no water during the dry summer months. The city is situated in the Judean Hills, between the coastal plains and the desert, at an elevation of 2,600 feet above sea level on bare, limestone slopes that were once covered with forests. The entire city is built of limestone, giving Jerusalem its unique character. It has a moderate climate, similar to the interior slopes and canyons of southern California (equivalent to Sunset zones 21 and 22), with two distinct seasons: cold and rainy winters with occasional dustings of snow, and hot, dry summers.

A view of the entry courtyard in the Friedman garden in May 2000, shortly after planting and before mulching. The Jerusalem limestone gives continuity to the garden, even in its first month. Author’s photograph

A view of the entry courtyard in the Friedman garden in May 2000, shortly after planting and before mulching. The Jerusalem limestone gives continuity to the garden, even in its first month. Author’s photograph

The Friedman’s L-shaped garden, enclosed by a stone wall, is well proportioned in relation to their home, which is built of the typical Jerusalem stone. Interior and exterior spaces are integrated architecturally and functionally. The living room opens to the patio and garden. The patio is one of the hallmarks of traditional Mediterranean gardens. Here, high stone walls surround the patio on three sides, creating a secure and private enclosure. The east-facing entry alcove receives the morning sun, and the patio is in full sun for most of the day. With light and heat radiating from stone walls and paving, plants in the garden were essential to create an inviting space for outdoor living.

I envisioned a garden with several trees for structure and shade. The original olive near the front door would be replaced and balanced by another planted on the west side of the garden. The spreading canopy of a fig would provide much-needed shade between the entry gate and the patio. Figs are ideal patio trees, both sheltering and productive, and they have the advantage of being fast-growing. Pomegranates became a theme in the garden as well as in artwork collected by the Friedmans and displayed inside their home.

To mark the entrance to the garden I suggested planting a cypress, echoing the cypresses that stand like sentinels throughout Jerusalem and in the surrounding hills. Although several people noted, with concern, the common association of cypresses with cemeteries, we decided to plant one beside the gate, hoping that it would not disturb the neighbors. So far, there have been no complaints.

To complete the design, I chose a selection of native Mediterranean plants with aromatic foliage in shades of green and gray, including myrtle (Myrtus communis), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), lavender (Lavandula spp.), sage (Salvia spp.), and thyme (Thymus spp.). Their textures and forms will sustain interest in the garden after the irises, roses, and herbs have finished blooming. Ben Ettun, the landscape contractor, warned that several plants on the plan might not be available, including rock rose (Cistus sp.), which, ironically, grows wild in the hills around Jerusalem.

The Installation

I communicated by phone and fax with Ben, a seventh-generation Jerusalemite, during the planning phase of the project. When the design was finished, we worked out a time-line for the installation in order to complete the project during my brief stay in Jerusalem in May 2000. The patio and walkways were already in place, incorporating some of the original stones. Ben agreed to do the preparatory work prior to my arrival; that included removal of construction debris, the addition of new soil (a local mix called terra rossa), grading, and the installation of drip irrigation. We planned to visit nurseries together to select plants and containers.

An unexpected dilemma arose over the custom of shmita, the practice of letting the land lie fallow every seven years according to Leviticus 25:2-7: “In the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest….You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard.” The Friedmans were advised not to plant before shmita, but they decided to go ahead after confirming that the new garden could be watered and pruned for the health of the plants during shmita, which is still observed by Orthodox Jews in Israel. It would begin with the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashana, in September 2000. “Despite the relatively low level of its observance, the sabbatical year is, in principle, extremely important. It represents the first recorded agricultural policy to provide for the replenishment of the soil. In this sense, the sabbatical year, which reminds the farmer that the earth is not inexhaustible, is an example of sound land management,” according to Ellen Bernstein in Ecology & the Jewish Spirit.

After two years of construction, the Friedmans finally moved into their home, shortly before I arrived. I took a taxi from the airport to their street and walked down the narrow alley to their green gate. When I entered the garden on a glorious spring day, I was delighted to discover that the property adjoins several other homes with enchanting gardens. It is located in a quiet neighborhood where bird songs fill the air rather than the noise of traffic.

Although the soil had recently been cleared of weeds, tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) had already seeded itself into the garden. This tree is an invasive species that made its way from China to California in the nineteenth century, planted by Chinese immigrants to remind them of their homeland. It is an opportunistic tree that survives drought and poor soils, and unfortunately many of these trees are now also growing around Jerusalem. Dr Michael Avishai, director of the Jerusalem Botanical Garden, warns about “super introductions” like ailanthus that threaten native habitats. We eliminated the seedlings on the first day in the Friedmans’ garden.

Several small plants were spilling out of the Friedmans’ recently restored and re-grouted wall, an unlikely place to find anything growing. Yet, Beronica syriaca is the same plant that cascades out of crevices between stones in the Western Wall, where the faithful go to worship. Walls such as these limestone ones, are ideal for creating vertical displays that expand the gardenable space in a small garden; these volunteer seedlings will share the space with climbing roses.

Bearded iris (Iris hybrid). Author’s photograph

Bearded iris (Iris hybrid). Author’s photograph

Marianne and I spent an entire day visiting nurseries with Ben. On our first stop, we chose several beautiful containers, hand-crafted in Jerusalem and accented with black and terracotta colored pebbles that were pressed into interesting concrete forms. We also found most of the plants we needed including a beautiful climbing rose featuring red flowers with yellow centers and a bearded iris in complementary colors.

Another nursery had a selection of fifty-year-old olives that had been transplanted from the north of Israel. Although their branches and roots had been severely pruned, we chose two trees with well-developed trunks and a good branching structure. Olives are exceedingly long lived, and even trees that are hundreds of years old can be successfully transplanted.

On the morning scheduled for delivery of the plants, Marianne and I were astonished to see an olive tree floating across the sky suspended from a crane on cables. This created quite a stir in the neighborhood, everyone stopping to watch the crew maneuver the olives and several boulders around a neighboring house, over the wall, and into the garden. The crew rolled the olives into place and planted them. The process was repeated with three craggy, limestone boulders imbedded with fossilized sea shells that immediately became sculptural elements in the garden.

The contractor and his crew were careful and efficient, and my concerns about working in Israel were soon put to rest. Even though the men did not speak English, we were able to communicate effectively with gestures when Ben was not available to translate. As quickly as I placed the plants, the crew planted them and activated the irrigation system. Drip irrigation technology was developed in Israel in the 1960s, and it has been widely used both in Israel and worldwide to conserve water by reducing its application to the minimum amount required for each plant. To further conserve moisture, discourage weeds, and conceal the drip irrigation tubing, I specified a layer of bark chips to mulch the bare soil between plants. Mulching is not a common practice in Jerusalem; the contractor said this was only the second time he had been asked to use it.

Landscape lighting was the last phase of the installation. We mounted lights at the base of the garden wall to highlight the texture of the stones, and added accent lights for trees and boulders. It was exciting to see the magical effects of this lighting in the newly planted garden—mimicking the entire city of Jerusalem, which is transformed at night when the walls of the old city and its historic buildings are illuminated.

During the installation of the project, I was immersed in the daily life of Jerusalem. Whether meandering along the city’s narrow streets or meeting with family and friends, each day offered new possibilities and perspectives. After exploring this dynamic city, the Friedmans’ garden was a welcome retreat for reflection under the brilliant Jerusalem sky.

Several months after the garden was planted, the Friedmans returned to Jerusalem, and Marianne wrote, “When we looked out the upstairs windows we discovered figs! The fig tree doesn’t really look bigger, but the olive trees are unbelievable. A friend says it’s the drip system and my husband thinks it’s Ben’s soil mix. . . in any event, the whole garden looks fabulous!”

Flowers and fruit on dwarf pomegranate (Punica granatum ‘Nana’) with the foliage of sage (Salvia officinalis)

Flowers and fruit on dwarf pomegranate (Punica granatum ‘Nana’) with the foliage of sage (Salvia officinalis)