Historic Athens site goes organic

The keepers of the gardens in front of Zappeion Hall in central Athens and the woods on the nearby hills of Ardittos and Agras have begun incorporating organic methods into cultivating the historic grounds. For several months now, no chemical fertilizers or pesticides have been used on the gardens in front of the Zappeion conference and exhibition center, which are laid out in a variety of styles, formal and informal. DIO, one of the approved organic certification organizations in Greece, is advising the groundskeepers on approach and methods, according to Nikos Rousseas, an architect who is vice president of the Olympia and Bequests Committee’s board, which administers the site. DIO’s Marios Desyllas says it will take a few more months for the changeover to be fully operational. Historic site In the 19th century, Evangelos Zappas envisioned a revival of the Olympic Games in conjunction with an exhibition of Greek agricultural and industrial products and the arts. «This was the time of the London Exhibition of 1851 and Zappas was quite aware of what was happening abroad,» Rousseas explained. He built the Zappeion Hall and its landscaped surrounding area bounded by the Acropolis, the still unrestored Panathenaic Stadium, what was then the Royal Palace (now Parliament House) and the Royal (now National) Gardens. The Zappeion Hall opens onto a wide concourse bounded by gardens designed by a number of different landscape architects. The beds in front of the main entrance to the Zappeion are symmetrical, on a central axis with both circular and rectangular shapes. The rest is more informal. «One of the current board’s aims was to restore the gardens plus introduce some new ideas of what the Zappeion stands for,» Rousseas said. «We want the garden to reflect Zappas’s original idea of making the site a showpiece, to set an example not only as an architectural structure, but aesthetically speaking. Apart from having a beautiful garden, we also want to introduce the public to ecological ideas, such as to stop spraying with chemicals. It’s an urban park, people take their kids there; old people, tourists and ordinary Athenians use it. We should not be exposing them to toxic, chemical pesticides.» «We asked the organic certification agency DIO to show us the way and monitor our methods. We are also working with the School of Agriculture’s organic horticulture and landscape gardening departments and have suggested that the gardens be incorporated into the curriculum to the benefit of both sides,» he said. Plant waste is being collected in a variety of compost bins as a way of showing the public the various kinds available on the market. Signs in Greek and English are being designed and a recycling system has been agreed in cooperation with the adjoining Aigli café. «We have everything tied in together,» Rousseas said. «It is not good enough just to tackle the garden in isolation from the general environment.» Renewable energy sources are also being researched, including connecting the Zappeion to the natural gas network. «We are in contact with other organizations for ideas on ways of producing electricity such as solar panels, although these need to take the location into account,» Rousseas said. Due to a shortage of funds, the garden is understaffed – there are only five full-time gardeners and two horticulturalists at the moment, according to Desyllas. Rousseas says the gardeners are generally enthusiastic about the transition to organic techniques. «I think they believe in what we are doing. They have also been encouraged by press reports,» he added. The committee is also trying to get funds to buy plant waste shredders to help make compost and mulch. Due to the size of the garden, the total cost of these would amount to some 25,000 euros. The garden consists of 8.3 hectares of flower beds and parkland and 240 square meters of inner courtyards. There are 1.4 hectares of lawn and a variety of trees including pines, bitter orange, palms, cypresses, olive trees, laurels, and eucalyptus. The Zappeion’s jurisdiction also includes another 7 hectares of forest on the Ardittos and Agras hills on the other side of Vas. Constantinou Avenue. «So far, any trees which have either died off or been felled by the wind or other causes are being replaced. We have asked the School of Horticulture to survey existing plants and find out which were originally used,» Rousseas said. Water supply «In formal gardens like these there is usually a lawn, which needs a lot of water. The grass was there and we can’t do without it altogether, but we try to use excess water from the National Gardens, where the supply from the Peisitratos aqueduct has been restored. Wells have been drilled by the Institute for Geological and Mining Exploration. These are better managed now that a cistern has been built to feed the automatic watering systems, with the help of the Environment and Public Works Ministry,» explained Rousseas, who said that although the changes are coming gradually, they are already becoming visible. One of these is the new playground, to open within the next few weeks with access and installations for people with disabilities. «The most important thing is that the decision has been made,» Desyllas concluded. First Ecolife exhibition The Olympic «Agora» – the concourse by the Olympic Stadium covered by a long row of arches made famous in last year’s Athens Olympics – is to be the site of the first «Ecolife» fair of environmentally friendly household products and services, open June 3-6. Billed by the organizers as the first integrated exhibition of environment-friendly products and services held in Greece, it will include building materials, renewable energy sources, organic food products, health and beauty products and a range of other services from some 80 exhibitors. Ecolife has the support of Greenpeace, the Mediterranean SOS Network, the Ecological Recycling Society, the Greek Solar Industry Association (EBHE), the Hellenic Association of Photovoltaic Companies (HELAPCO) among many other groups. From 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Friday, June 3 and Monday, June 6, and from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on the Saturday and Sunday, June 4 and 5.