Gardening advice for the Med

Trying to keep gardens looking good in what are increasingly arid conditions calls for expert advice, and next month there will be an opportunity to hear three people who among the most knowledgeable on this subject, as the Mediterranean Garden Society holds three public lectures as part of its annual general meeting in Athens. Heidi Gildemeister, author of «Mediterranean Gardening: A Waterwise Approach» (University of California Press, 2002) and «Gardening the Mediterranean Way: Practical Solutions for Summer-dry Climates» (Thames & Hudson, 2004), has had long experience in gardening on a Balearic island. Gildemeister has traveled and lectured extensively. (Her second book has been published in Greek by Potamos as «Kipi sto fos tis mesogheiou [2004].) Louisa Jones, who has written some 25 books on the gardens of the South of France, will be summarizing her finds about the hundreds of gardens she has seen in the last 30 years. Olivier Filippi, who has a large plant nursery in the south of France, will speak on dry gardens as an opportunity, rather than a handicap. Jones and Filippi talked to Kathimerini English Edition in advance of their visit. Louisa Jones, who grew up on Canada’s east coast, discovered farming first when as a student in Europe she stayed with a family that «enjoyed all the rituals of seasonal ripening.» After she and her French husband bought a house with land on the northern edge of Provence, they decided to move there. «Since 1975, we have been based in this same farmhouse. At first we just tried to save the fruit trees, then grow vegetables and then, finally, flowers,» she said. «I began trying to see southern French gardens, but everyone kept telling me there were none. The French magazines in the 1970s were promoting English gardening, just discovered, and I finally realized there were few English-style flower gardens here. People said this was because the southern version, however beautiful, was also intended to produce food, cut the wind, provide shade, whatever – with use and beauty together. This didn’t count as a garden in the north. I also finally realized that for gardens here, summer is perhaps the least interesting season, and this too was against current fashion.» Jones says her own garden is as much landscape as garden. «The heart of it is a big vegetable garden. We have a series of springs on this hillside and I have mainly planted near them, while my husband has set up a serious watering network with a reservoir at the top of our hill which he fills in winter, and we water by gravity in summer. Vegetables need water, but the rest of the hillside is managed without water except for the year of planting. Successful planting has meant making the most of microclimates and soil variations, and also using existing vegetation.» As for changing trends in gardening, which will be the focus of her lecture in Athens, Jones emphasized the need to keep firmly in mind the effects of local conditions. «Things are changing very fast in French gardening. In general I believe, as we all do, in adapting plantings and overall style to local conditions without being limited to the past. The book I am writing now is about how people have successfully built on tradition to create contemporary styles.» Drought-resistant Olivier Filippi believes it is possible to have a completely dry garden. «Our own 5,000-square-meter garden is never watered, except for young plants during the first year. Of course, each garden is different, as drought depends not only on temperatures and rainfall pattern but also on type of soil, exposure to sun/wind/salt, and competition from the roots of old trees,» he said. «What is suited to our garden is therefore not necessarily suited to a garden in Morocco or in Greece. But the idea is the same: Whatever the local conditions of climate and soil, it is possible to create a completely dry garden, except in true deserts. As Greece is not a desert, it is very easy to create a dry garden in Greece, simply by planting native plants. There are several thousand native plants in Greece, most of which are probably unknown to local gardeners.» The scarcity of commercially available native species needn’t be a problem, he added, as one can choose from among 75,000 plants from other parts of the world with dry climates. «The problem in gardens is not drought, but simply the lack of knowledge on drought-resistant plants and on the proper gardening techniques suited to dry gardens,» he advised. «Ironically, it is also interesting to point out that most drought-tolerant plants can’t be grown in irrigated gardens, as they are not adapted to the double effect of water and heat in summer (for example, some Greek plants will quickly die in an irrigated garden, as if they had been sprayed by a weed killer).» «Dry gardening should not be considered as a handicap, but as an opportunity to express the diversity, the beauty and the true spirit of Mediterranean gardens,» said Filippi, referring to the subject of his talk in Athens. Filippi has traveled extensively throughout the Mediterranean region in his search for genetic material of local species of plants, which he propagates and sells from his plant nursery near Montpellier. «We are in a network of botanists in different parts of the Mediterranean trying to develop a new way of gardening which has few negative effects on the local environment: no water, no fertilizer, no chemicals, and we exchange information and seeds. For instance, I exchange information and seeds with the Jerusalem Botanical Garden, Barcelona Botanical Garden and many others. In Greece, we have previously exchanged seeds and information with the Kaisariani Botanical Garden (indeed we have supplied native Greek plants to Kaisariani that they did not have) and with the Sparoza garden. I also collect seeds (of non-protected plants) during our botanical trips, during which we study native plants in their habitat. Seeds are collected and exchanged in very small numbers, 10 or 20 seeds per species. When we obtain a new plant from another part of the Mediterranean, we plant it in our own garden and use it as the stock plant from which all the young plants of the nursery will be propagated in the future, by seeds or cuttings.» These lectures will be a rare opportunity to get advice on how to manage gardens in what are increasingly hot and dry conditions. Lecture program: November 10, Heidi Gildemeister: «My Mediterranean Garden, 25 Years On – Evaluating the Past, Planning for the Future.» November 11, Louisa Jones: «Mediterranean Garden Style: How Traditions Evolve to Meet New Needs.» November 12, Olivier Filippi: «No Watering – The Pleasures of a Low-maintenance Garden in the Mediterranean.» Venues: Sat & Sun at the National Bank’s Karatzas Auditorium, Kotzia Sq, Monday at the Goulandris Museum’s Gaia Center (100 Othonos, Kifissa). All lectures begin at 7 p.m. Further information: [email protected]