Organically managed Zappeion

One of Athens’s few showpiece parks is successfully being converted into an organic garden, the culmination of efforts begun over a year ago by an enlightened management, an enthusiastic although small staff, as well as cooperation from state and private organizations. The keepers of the gardens surrounding Zappeion Hall in central Athens and the woods on the nearby hills of Ardittos and Agras have been incorporating organic methods with advice from DIO, one of the approved organic certification organizations in Greece. Only organic preparations are used, including natural predators, against pests such as the Agrotis bug that was eating the lawn, which has been defeated by the Bacillus thurigiensis, the garden’s horticulturalist, Dimitris Nikolaou, told Kathimerini English Edition. Help in this area is also provided by the Benaki Phytopathology Institute, said architect Nikos Rousseas, vice president of the board of the Olympia and Bequests Committee, which administers the 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. He built Zappeion Hall and its landscaped surrounding area, bounded by the Acropolis, the then unrestored Panathenaic Stadium, what was then the Royal Palace (now Parliament House) and the Royal (now National) Gardens. Zappeion Hall faces a broad sloping concourse bounded by gardens designed by a number of different landscape architects. The beds in front of the main entrance to Zappeion are symmetrical, on a central axis with both circular and rectangular shapes. The surrounding areas are more informal with trees and lawns. 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. Zappeion’s jurisdiction also includes another 7 hectares of forest on the Ardittos and Agras hills on the other side of Vas. Constantinou Avenue. «The trend everywhere in historic gardens is to restore the original vegetation as much as possible. That is what we are doing here, and then adding native plants,» said Nikolaou. «We have suggested to the Agricultural University that students could study the gardens, make an inventory of the plants and look into what species were used here in the original design,» said Rousseas. «We have a lot to offer and a lot to gain from their presence.» The current effort was made possible by funds made available as part of the state’s drive to clean up Athens for the Olympic Games. In fact, the work completed comprises just one-third of the original design commissioned by the Environment and Public Works Ministry. Nikolaou said that more trees are to be planted, including poplars, jacarandas, acacias, Robinia, bitter orange and Judas trees. Many other damaged trees are to be replaced. The management has obtained financial backing from the private sector for its tree-planting campaign, as the cost of replacing old, damaged or dying trees with new mature ones was prohibitive. Shrubs include lantanas, Nandia, Teucrium, Photinia and rosemaries. Larger trees include cedars, plane trees, pine, olive and other fruit trees. In at least half of the flower beds, annuals are to replaced by perennials, such as geraniums, pelargoniums, Gazania, Verbena and bulbs. Meanwhile, plant waste is being collected in compost bins. Signs in Greek and English explaining the composting process are currently being installed. The committee is also trying to get funds to buy plant waste shredders to help make compost and mulch. Also needed is equipment to stir the larger compost pits, placed out of the way at the side of the gardens, that can take up to 20 cubic meters. Such large amounts of compost are difficult to stir, which is necessary for faster results. With the help of the Environment and Public Works Ministry, an underground reservoir has been built to feed the automatic systems that water the lawns and flower beds. Environmentally friendly methods are not restricted to the gardens. Renewable energy sources are also being researched for Zappeion Hall itself. Initial bureaucratic obstacles have been overcome and the hall is being incorporated into a plan to install photovoltaic cells on the roofs of major public buildings in the area, including Parliament, the Maximos Mansion (the prime minister’s office) and the Presidential Palace. The old playground is unrecognizable to anyone who has not visited the gardens for some time. Gone are the wire netting fences, old equipment and bare ground, now replaced by grassy areas, brand-new equipment, a new perimeter fence and facilities for people with disabilities. Due to a shortage of funds, the garden is understaffed; there is just the one horticulturalist and one full-time gardener, with extra workers brought in by a contracting firm, although plans are under way to employ five full-time gardeners. That’s a far cry from the 45 people employed on the grounds before 1980. «I would like 15, of course. That’s how many are provided for in the charter,» said Nikolaou. As the gardens are not fenced in, like the National Gardens alongside, security is an issue at night. The original ground level lights, most of which were broken, are to be replaced with lampposts. The best solution, said Nikolaou, would be security guards, a solution that, however, is beyond the committee’s budget. For the Games, the Culture Ministry undertook to renovate Zappeion Hall and the Environment and Public Works Ministry the grounds, even if only a third of the entire plan was carried out. «That has to happen before anymore state funds are made available for a site which the state itself uses for summits and conferences.» he commented. «Whenever the state wants to promote something in Greece, it uses Zappeion.» «Results always correspond to the outlay in effort and expense,» said Nikolaou, «Fortunately, here we don’t have a civil service mentality. We know that if the grounds look good, we will keep getting paid. We can’t do everything at once, it will take a few more years before everything is the way we want it, but we’ll keep trying.» If their good beginning is anything to go by, it shouldn’t take that long.