Trend toward look-alike gardens

Athens’s traditional courtyards and small gardens have long since been bulldozed away to make room for the apartment blocks built to cope with postwar migration from the countryside. At first there was no room for luxuries such as green spaces, although many balconies were, and are, a delight to the eye. Of the original individual houses, few have managed to retain what is usually thought of as a garden, with trees, shrubs and flowers growing in varying degrees of natural profusion, evolving with the house’s occupants and their equally varying degree of expertise, free time and enthusiasm. As suburbia spread, apartments were built on larger plots of land, raising the question of what to do with the surrounding space. It was not long before the plant nurseries stepped into the breach, along with a relatively new profession in Greece, that of the garden designer. These are often very well-qualified horticulturists or landscape architects who take into account factors such as the building’s orientation, the amount of light and shade received in each season, the style of the building, and other important factors such as whether the garden is to be used or simply provide decoration. However, looking at gardens around some of the newer apartment blocks, one has the impression that they have been designed by the same person, someone with a mania for imported conifers such as Cupressocyparis leylandii (Leyland cypresses) or varieties of the shorter Thuja. According to garden designer Sofia Pilavaki, the Leyland is one of the most unsuitable trees for a small apartment garden as it grows to heights of up to 15-20 meters, has a wide branch span and a relatively superficial root system which makes it sensitive to strong winds and dry soil. «In countries such as England these trees are used as hedges, but they are clipped to keep them compact,» said Pilavaki at a seminar this week organized by the Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature and Cultural Heritage. Pilavaki is not against using imported plants from among the wide range suited to the Mediterranean climate. «Many of the plants we consider Greek, such as lemon trees and bougainvilleas, were in fact imported at some time in the past. One also needs to use imported varieties to have year-round color. I don’t believe in discriminating against a plant just because it is not a native of this country,» she added. Pilavaki encourages people to look around and do some research before deciding what to plant. Even in an apartment building, where multiple ownership makes it more practical to contract the work out – along with the decision making – it is financially and aesthetically worth it in the long run to discuss the choice of plants with the garden designer. Some designers work in conjunction with a plant nursery, which, of course, is usually keen to sell more expensive imported plants. Pilavaki recommends using deciduous trees to allow light in through the colder winter months. «Bare branches of deciduous trees are often beautiful in themselves and there is the added joy of seeing the tiny leaves appear in spring,» she said. Trees she recommends as suitable for the Greek climate are the Tilia (linden tree, in Greek flamouria), Platanus (plane tree), Olea europea (olive, elia), Cupressus sempervirens (Italian cypress, kiparissi), Cercis siliquastrum (Judas tree, lazaria or koutsoupia) and Ceratonia siliqua, (carob, haroupia). Background shrubs that Pilavaki recommends include Vitex agnus-casta (chaste tree, ligaria), Frangula rupestris or Rhamnus rupestris (field buckthorn, ramnos) and Olea europea sp. oleaster (wild olive, agrielia). Regarding the choice of smaller plants, Pilavaki emphasizes the use of annuals for year-round color, depending on individual taste. Focus on trees Garden designer Irene Ramphou also prefers deciduous trees which have a softer, more open shape and which break up the harsh lines of an apartment building. She advises caution before planting a line of Leylands along a dividing wall. «First consider whether you want to hide something; you might not need a hedge of trees if your neighbor has a nice garden. Don’t cut yourself off from the horizon unless you want to block out an unpleasant view,» she suggests. Leylands, which flooded the market in Greece after disease attacked cypress trees, grow quickly but need to be kept in check or they can reach enormous heights. Apartment gardens are not often places where people come to sit, so a focus on trees rather than smaller shrubs creates an effect to be admired from above and helps improve the microclimate around a building. «The idea with trees is to get loose shapes to break up harsh architectural lines, depending on the height and proportions of the building,» said Ramphou, who recommends wide-leaved trees such as Quercus ilex (holm oak, aria), acacias such as Robinia pseudoacacia (black locust) that has a light shape and creamy white spring flowers, growing up to 12-22 meters. Similar to the acacia is the Sophora japonica (Japanese pagoda tree), whose foliage turns a golden yellow in fall. The delicate but heat-tolerant Jacaranda mimosifolia can be a shrub or shaped as a tree, reaching up to 10 meters. Then there are the fruit-bearing trees such as citrus, almond, walnut, quince and the old courtyard favorite, Eriobotrya japonica (loquat, mousmoulia), which has sweet-smelling, cream-colored flowers. Shrubs with a perfume include evergreen or deciduous Viburnum, which should be pruned after flowering to ensure the next year’s growth, Pittosporum tobira (angeliki) and herbs in full sun, camellias in the shade. Ramphou also encourages the use of introduced plants that are suited to the Mediterranean climate. «The traditional Greek courtyard plants were not purely Greek. The basil, for example, comes from India. Gardenias, hydrangeas, and geraniums were also imported,» she said, though she recommends keeping within the style of the Greek landscape, where bright variegated colors, she believes, do not have a place among the gray-green or silvery shaded vegetation. Ramphou also suggests the use of climbing plants to tone down the severe lines of a tall building. Vines, bougainvilleas, wisteria, jasmine and climbing roses such as the evergreen, thornless Rosa banksiae also soften harsh edges.

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