The Garden at Sparoza

Sparoza’s east terraces at the peak of spring flowering. Photograph by Katherine Greenberg

Sparoza’s east terraces at the peak of spring flowering. Photograph by Katherine Greenberg

“…perhaps the most beloved of all, was the garden of Sparoza [that Jacky] envisioned extending into perpetuity; her sharing of this happy place with future generations….they who will pass unknowingly the sleeping mandrake root will nevertheless, thanks to her vision, thoughfulness and love, be able to walk through those timeless fields of asphodel and enjoy the peace and beauty that she brought to the “Hill of Sparrows”.

Ray Alexander, quoted in Making a Garden on a Greek Hillside,
by Mary Jaqueline Tyrwhitt

Lying to the northeast of Athens, Greece, is the fertile plain of the Mesoghia, which, like the word mediterranean, literally means “the middle of the earth.” One of the gentle small hills that dot the plain is the hill of Sparoza, on which Jaqueline Tyrwhitt made her garden and house, now the seat of the Mediterranean Garden Society. (See a review of Tyrwhitt’s book about Sparoza in Pacific Horticulture, Fall ’99)

The modest front entrance to the home built by Jacky Tyrwhitt at Sparoza with containers providing seasonal color. Photograph by Katherine Greenberg

The modest front entrance to the home built by Jacky Tyrwhitt at Sparoza with containers providing seasonal color. Photograph by Katherine Greenberg

Jacky Tyrwhitt wrote of the garden at Sparoza that “anything that grew under the difficult conditions prevailing here would be almost certain to grow better elsewhere.” An exposed, stony hillside—hot, arid, treeless, and windy—is certainly not, at first sight, the most promising place to make a garden. It is worth taking a look at Sparoza, thirty-five odd years after its creation, and considering how some of its challenges were met.

The first thing to be noted about the garden is that it is unfenced. To the east and west, it is bounded by narrow private roads. To the north and south the garden blends by degrees into the natural vegetation of the hillside. This characteristic naturally imposes its own discipline: sensitive handling is required to avoid any jarring demarcation between the parts of the garden that are “gardened” and the parts that are wild. The plants chosen must not only be able to thrive with little water in sun-baked, alkaline soil but must also look as if they belong in this landscape. From the beginning, Jacky took a pluralistic view. A garden planted entirely with local species would, she felt, be devoid of color and interest during the long, hot months of summer dormancy; thus she decided to include plants from other arid regions of the world.

Iris unguicularis subsp. cretensis with the mottled foliage of Cerinthe retorta

Iris unguicularis subsp. cretensis with the mottled foliage of Cerinthe retorta. Author’s photographs, except as noted

The Main Terraces

The main part of the garden, originally designed for Jacky by Marina Adams, is laid out in a series of three long east-facing terraces, bisected by a stepped path leading down to the private road. These terraces are planted with an eclectic mixture of bulbs, perennials, shrubs, and small trees. At the northern end of the terraces, beyond a group of tall, dark Italian cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens), Derek Toms established a rock garden for Greek native plants in 1994-1995. A great many bulbs grow here, among them: Crocus cartwrightianus, C. goulimyi, C. niveus, and C. sativus (the saffron crocus); Gynandriris sisyrinchium; Iris pumila subsp. attica; Hermodactylus tuberosus (the widow iris); Narcissus papyraceus and N. serotinus; Sternbergia lutea; and the Cretan Tulipa saxatilis. There are also several species of rock rose (Cistus), the blue-flowered Globularia alypum, Iris unguicularis subsp. cretensis, Ballota acetabulosa, Teucrium chamaedrys, Mandragora autumnalis, and the exquisite Convolvulus oleifolium, with narrow silver leaves and white flowers whose unfolding creases are faintly marked with pale pink. Beyond this rock garden are two large adjoining pools, full of waterlilies and forming a U-shape cradled in the hillside. This U-shape is echoed in the small walled garden to the south of the house (accessed only from the house) and in the area of frygana (a native plant community of low shrubs and bulbs) into which the garden blends at its southern end.

View south of the garden dominated by frygana, a native plant community of low shrubs and bulbs. Photograph by RGT

View south of the garden dominated by frygana, a native plant community of low shrubs and bulbs. Photograph by RGT

Naturally, the first priority for a garden on a bare hillside is to plant trees. Those planted when the garden was begun in the early 1960s include a eucalypt (probably Eucalyptus globulus, widely planted in Greece), the cypresses at the northern end of each terrace planted close together to serve as a windbreak, Judas trees (Cercis siliquastrum), pomegranates (Punica granatum), jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia), pines (Pinus halepensis and P. pinea), and a single specimen of Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia), the only elm to do well in these conditions. All are by now well grown and contribute their height, shade, and wind-filtering capacities. Recently an extensive tree-planting program has been carried out on the hillside above the garden to the north; about one hundred cypresses have been planted, as well as three pepper trees (Schinus molle) and a few acacias (A. cyanophyllodes) lower on the slope where the hillside meets the garden proper. It should be noted that the prevailing wind here blows from the north – and in the summer months often reaches gale force.

Cyclamen hederifolium, a common plant in the frygana. Photograph by RGT

Cyclamen hederifolium, a common plant in the frygana. Photograph by RGT

Another ongoing priority has been the improvement of the soil using strictly organic means; no chemical fertilizers are used in the garden. The plain of the Mesoghia has been a wine-producing area since antiquity. One of the organic substances used to enrich and lighten the poor soil at Sparoza has been tsipouro, the pips and residue left after the grapes have been pressed for wine (not the distilled grape spirit known by the same name!). More recently, copious amounts of crushed cocoa-bean shells have been dug in, acquired from a local chocolate factory. Pioneer plant species are sometimes used to improve the ground so that, in due course, other more demanding plants may be planted in their place; aloes (Aloe vera, A. striata, A. pratensis, A. saponaria, A. aristata, A. arborescens, A. variegata) are being employed for this purpose in the wild area to the south of the terraces. No chemical fertilizers are used in the garden.

The Question of Water

Of course, the biggest challenge to be faced is water, or rather the lack of it. The water used at Sparoza is pumped to a tank at the top of the hill from a well situated further down; it is used with great economy and only occasionally supplemented with municipal water when the level in the well drops dramatically in summer. A drip irrigation system installed in 2000 allows the quantity of water given to each section of the garden to be carefully controlled. The new trees recently planted on the hillside, for example, receive twenty liters (ca. 4.5 gallons) every three weeks and will continue to do so for about three to four years or until they are well established and able to survive without further help. Plants adapted to a mediterranean climate rely on winter rainfall; if this is inadequate, plants have trouble coping with the long, hot summer.

Rainfall in the winter of 1999-2000 was exceptionally sparse at Sparoza, with the result that the following summer saw some unexpected losses, including a carob (Ceratonia siliqua), Melia azederach, pines, kermes oak (Quercus coccifera), lentisk (Pistacia lentiscus), rosemary, and even Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa)—all species that normally withstand the hot months without any irrigation whatsoever. In the winter of 2000-2001 Sparoza received slightly more rain, although nowhere near the normal amount of 400 millimeters (sixteen inches). However, between February 2001 and the time of writing (October 2001), no rain fell at all, and, to make matters worse, there was an unseasonable heat wave in March. Such dry conditions are placing great stress on established trees and shrubs in the wild, unirrigated parts of the garden; kermes oaks, for example, failed to produce any acorns. It will be interesting to observe how plants that receive no water fare in the coming year.

It is also interesting to note which plants took the extreme drought in their stride and emerged unscathed: of particular note were drought-deciduous Medicago arborea, grey-leaved bush germander (Teucrium fruticans), and Cneorum tricoccon, a native of the western Mediterranean, with narrow, dark green leaves and small clear yellow flowers followed by orange berries in groups of three. (See Pacific Horticulture, Fall ’95)

Pines and cypresses protect the east terraces from the north wind at Sparoza

Pines and cypresses protect Sparoza’s east terraces from the north wind

Sages, Lavenders, and More

Although the plants flourishing on the terraces do receive some summer irrigation, they are by no means pampered; it is thus not surprising that genera such as Salvia, Teucrium, and Lavandula are well represented. The sages include that faithful old stand-by, common sage (Salvia officinalis); a yet-unidentified, small, compact, mauve-flowered sage like a dapper younger brother of S. officinalis; S. leucantha with white and mauve, chenille-textured flowers; the magnificent burgundy-colored S. canariensis with handsome triangular leaves; S. microphylla with small crimson flowers; great clumps of purple-flowered S. candelabrum; and the notably subtle clary sage (S. sclarea), a tall plant whose flowers are at the same time pink and mauve and silvery (rather the color that I always imagined the robe couleur du temps must be in the French fairy tale Peau d’Ane). The lavenders include the winter-flowering French lavender (Lavandula dentata) and the smaller L. multifida; Spanish lavender (L. stoechas), which grows wild in many parts of Greece, is absent from the property. Teucrium flavum makes a tall and elegant clump, while T. chamaedrys, with pink-purple flowers is lower growing. The woolly gray, Greek species, T. polium, has a taste for even drier conditions than are found in the terraces and is thus grown elsewhere in the garden. A recent addition, T. creticum grows in a border between the topmost terrace and the house, cheek by jowl with two other Cretan natives: dittany (Origanum dictamnus), with small gray, velvet leaves, and Ebenus cretica, a handsome leguminous shrub with pink, clover-like flowers that turn rusty brown as they fade.

Eriocephalus africanus, one of the many drought-tolerant shrubs at Sparoza

Eriocephalus africanus, one of the many drought-tolerant shrubs at Sparoza

And there is, of course, much more. A number of euphorbs thrive at Sparoza: Euphorbia characias, E. acanthothamnos, the sprawling, gray blue E. myrsinites, and a thus-far nameless one acquired from a nursery in the southern Peloponnese. Two enormous, bushy clumps of blue-flowered Echium candicans, as well as one white-flowered, more delicate form, flourish with the cypress trees behind to protect them from the north wind. The feathery silver Artemisia arborescens grows successfully right under the cypresses, with Salvia microphylla and the drought-resistant Eriocephalus africanus keeping it company. Among the extensive list of bulbs are the tall, slender, sweet-scented South African Gladiolus tristis, whose cream-colored flowers are feathered with brownish indigo markings in early spring, the near-black flowers of Fritillaria obliqua from southern Greece, and the slightly sinister, waxy coral flowers of Haemanthus coccineus that appear in late summer or autumn and are followed by leaves of improbable size.

Annuals are allowed to seed themselves throughout the garden, thus providing a further blurring of the demarcations between the cultivated and uncultivated parts; some of them are fairly well-behaved, like the local poppy, Papaver rhoeas, the Greek delphinium, Delphinium staphisagria, and the larkspur, Consolida ambigua, which flowers from spring into early summer. A couple of months earlier in the season, other plants, such as the white-edged Lamium moschatum and the wonderful Cerinthe retorta with silver-spotted leaves and blackish purple bracts, occasionally need a firm hand to restrain their thuggish tendency to spread indiscriminately.

All these plants have one thing in common: they grow well under difficult conditions with minimal watering. The garden at Sparoza is, in a sense, experimental, in that plants are constantly being tested for their ability, not simply to survive, but to thrive in heat and drought and poor soil. There are failures, of course, there are deaths—yet over the years Jacky Tyrwhitt’s initial premise has proved true. The stoniest of bare hillsides can indeed be turned into a diverse and alluring garden.


The Mediterranean Garden Society

The Mediterranean Garden Society was more or less born at Sparoza. Early in 1994 Derek Toms—already turning over in his mind the need for some kind of society where Mediterranean gardeners could share their experiences—asked the author about interesting gardens in the vicinity of Athens, to which she replied firmly “There’s only one that immediately springs to mind: Sparoza.” She took him there, he met Sally Razelou, Sparoza’s current custodian, and, before six months had passed, the legal process of registering the infant MGS was under way. Sally served as its first president and was succeeded in that role by Heidi Gildemeister.

The Mediterranean Garden Society is a non-profit, international organization that serves as a forum for everyone who has a special interest in the plants and gardens of the mediterranean climate regions of the world. The current president of the MGS is Katherine Greenberg, a resident of Lafayette, California, and frequent contributor to Pacific Horticulture. Branches of the MGS have formed in several European countries, in Australia, and in both Northern and Southern California; the California branches will be co-sponsors of the 2002 Pacific Horticulture symposium, Gardening Under Mediterranean Skies (see announcement, page 6).

Readers interested in joining the Mediterranean Garden Society may do so by contacting The Secretary, MGS, PO Box 14, Peania, GR-19002 Greece. Annual membership dues are US$30, which includes a subscription to the quarterly journal, The Mediterranean Garden, and an invitation to participate in local branch activities. Additional information can be obtained from the MGS website at www.MediterrraneanGardenSociety.org.