Courtyard gardens of Hydra

Images of the island of Hydra’s beautifully preserved old sea captains’ houses are famous, but not many people get a chance to glimpse what lies tucked away behind the high walls surrounding them. Although the island is «dry» (most water has to be shipped in, supplemented by rain runoff from roofs into cisterns), many inventive residents have done wonders creating gardens that make the most of Mediterranean vegetation. Kathimerini English Edition visited the island recently with the Mediterranean Garden Society ( for a look at a wide-ranging selection, from small paved areas surrounded by a few but well-chosen plants that lend charm, scent or shade, to larger gardens that were once small orchards. As in most Mediterranean gardens, fruit trees and herbs naturally form the foundations of the vegetation, particularly in the older established gardens. Yet there are also unexpected features such as a row of lush potted ferns along the base of a house wall that have thrived as they get no direct sunlight after the morning hours. The small surface area of this particular garden was uncluttered, covered with drought-tolerant succulent Lampranthus roscus. «I planted lots of cuttings and within a year I had a carpet,» said the owner, who found shallow soil and a lone bitter orange tree when he moved in a few years ago. «I also planted a lot of rosemary bushes but for some reason they didn’t flourish.» He has retained one near the house as a focal point, beautifully pruned every year into a rounded shape. There are two jasmines, one inside the entrance to the garden and one on the opposite boundary fence. The simplicity and freshness of this small garden provide a wonderful setting for enjoying its magnificent view over the port. The entrance to the courtyard of one of the larger mansions is overhung by a grapevine; inside, a mass of flourishing rosemary bushes leads around the house to a courtyard at the rear, where a hammock hangs in the shade near a herb garden. Two huge ovens stand in a corner as a reminder of the island’s seafaring past, when sea captains had to provide bread for their crews and their families. Compost ‘baskets’ On a steep rocky slope behind another old house, the owner has over the past three decades fashioned a terraced garden from scratch. First she had 80 centimeters of sawdust and rotted mule manure laid down and the main feature trees planted (cypress, olives and a carob tree) that now shade the smaller shrubs, mostly succulents such as Aloe vera, Aeonium and Euphorbia veneta. Apricot, yellow and red bougainvilleas climb the stone perimeter walls. «I wanted a garden that looked good all year round. I refuse to coddle plants, so it had to be low-maintenance,» the owner explained. «There was no soil; all of what you see here has been composted from garden waste, as well as fruit and vegetable peels broken down in a blender,» she explained. One of the most inventive things about this garden is an original idea for making compost in a small area. Instead of having one corner given over to often unsightly compost pits or bins, here there are several huge old baskets (about a meter across) placed judiciously among the shrubs, almost as natural garden features. Into them go weeds and peels (the latter covered with leaves). These gradually break down and the resulting rich compost is retrieved little by little by lifting the basket and shoveling out rich loam from the bottom (the bases of the baskets have been removed). The main garden is at the back of the house, separated from it by a courtyard that is in shade during the afternoon. Pots of flowers surround the back entrance and sitting area. The front of the house is simply planted, with a lemon tree underplanted with a bed of hardy spider plant, its light green and cream leaves contrasting with the darker foliage of pittosporums on the other side of the gate. On the steps leading up to the front door is a pot of lemon grass from Asia. Hibiscus blooms and pots of basil greet visitors at the front door. Visitors to another, relatively new house built in the traditional Hydriot style are greeted inside the garden walls by an open area either side of the path, on one side carpeted with clover around an ancient gnarled olive tree that is underplanted with rosemary. A row of charming old pots near the front door display pelargoniums of a rich burgundy shade. Just inside the entrance is a group of plants including a pomegranate tree, Fejoia, Westringia, myrtle, pittosporum and marjoram. A small courtyard at the back of the house, where the family enjoys barbecues, is flanked on one side by a small herb garden and on the other by a raised vegetable patch overlooked by a brilliant bougainvillea climbing up the back wall. Two other gardens, traditional orchards in walled areas in front of old mansions that both serve as family homes, are filled with lemon, grapefruit, pear, apple, pomegranate and apricot trees. One even has a couple of banana trees, although these have not yielded any fruit, in contrast to the rest of the trees including lemon, apricot and figs, not to mention the flourishing herbs. «Some of the trees are very old. I have kept all of them apart from a couple of lemon trees that were becoming crowded out,» the owner explained, adding that her aim is to develop the garden naturally. «I don’t use any chemicals, and I think I will be planting more succulents and other drought-tolerant plants. It’s nice to have lots of flowers but they need constant care and deadheading.» It’s not only Hydra’s homes that provide cool oases from the heat. In the grounds of the Bratsera Hotel, a converted sponge factory behind the port, a large natural garden is cooled by an unusual fountain in the form of well water rushing into a large stone basin under a wooden bridge leading into the main reception area. Bougainvillea, wisteria, jacaranda, almond and oleander are among the many hardy plants that provide color all year round.

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