Plants from the ‘laiki’ to brighten your garden

Local street markets are brimming with plants these days, usually at the far end of the stalls, at the part where customers on their way home are likely to be tempted by a pot of basil to perch on top of the spring strawberries and salads in their handcarts, which are also useful for lugging home a larger plant such as Ficus benjamina (weeping fig). Your local street market (laiki agora) is actually a good place to stock up on annuals to brighten up the balcony or a garden corner. At the moment the plant stalls are a riot of color. At the Nea Smyrni market on Wednesday, there were masses of bright yellow Euryops, and good old standbys such as calendula, petunias, begonias, carnations and dahlias in a variety of colors. These might be dismissed by some people as «ordinary,» but massed in a tub or flower bed they add much needed color at this time of year as spring flowers fade. The vendor there says he has his own nursery; many of them do, but not many stall owners are knowledgeable about the plants’ names or requirements, so check before you buy something that might be unsuitable for your balcony. Look for a good growth of foliage without yellow spots or edges. Avoid plants that are spindly or ones look like they are losing their leaves. Buy smaller plants whose flowers have not all bloomed. Talk to your neighbors about which stalls they have shopped at and which plants have been most successful. If you are fairly new to gardening, start with just a few and see which ones do best for you. The quality varies from one stall to another but with some care, a good choice of decent plants is usually available, particularly at this time. Saturday morning markets are particularly lively of course, so it’s a good idea to get there early to snap up the choicest plants. Popular plants Basil. There are two or three popular varieties available, the ordinary annual with small, light green leaves that release a wonderful aroma when touched, the «winter basil» (heimoniatiko) with slightly darker leaves that lasts all year, and the broad-leaved (platyfyllo) with, as the name implies, larger, broader leaves. They are good for windowsills and balconies this time of year, as they are said to repel mosquitoes. An essential ingredient in Italian pesto sauce, basil is also used in salads and other sauces. Salvia. There is a variety known in Greek as fotia (fire), after the bright coral color of the flower. Salvias come in a wide range, but not many are found in the laiki. This particular one is everywhere at the moment. Dahlia. These are very popular with the gardening public as they make very good bedding plants, flowering right through to fall, and germinating quickly from seed. Smaller varieties are appearing in the street markets at the moment, in colors ranging from deep purple to yellow. Dahlias need nourishment, frequent watering – so you won’t want too many of them – and support when they get taller. Calendula. Pot marigolds (the common name for Calendula officinalis) are easy to propagate and will often spring up from seeds dropped the previous year. They range in color from bright yellow through orange and cream. Don’t plant them in the same pot or in the ground right next to a dahlia, as they don’t need as much watering. Begonia. There are about 1,000 species but they need a temperate to sub-tropical climate (i.e. more water than we get here in Athens). Although perennial, they will not withstand the extreme cold or frost so need to be taken indoors in winter. They do well in shade. Pelargonium (or geraniums). The hardiest, most common and most colorful perennial that flourish all by themselves in the ground but need to be watered if in pots. In an endless range of colors, they are the «common» but hardy standbys for every Mediterranean gardener who wants summer-long color. They look great if different colors are planted in a variety of pots grouped together. Prune off flowers as they start to fade to encourage more blooms. Jasmine. The quintessentially Greek summer plant, whose perfume wafts up from garden walls and trellises. They don’t need much more than regular watering in decent soil and a sunny or even partly shaded spot. They can be propagated from cuttings in summer or by layering (bending a lower branch, «wounding» part of the stem and burying it, supporting the end of the branch with a stake and, when roots form, replanting it). Euryops. We are seeing more of these fortunately, as they can do without too much water except in really dry weather. Colorful, with good dark green foliage, they spread out in a low bush if planted in the ground. If you prune them after they bloom it will keep the shape compact. There are street markets in every neighborhood (sometimes more than one) at least one day a week. Here are just some of them. A complete list is in the back pages of some afternoon newspapers. Fridays – Palaio Faliron, Aghia Paraskevi; Saturdays – Kato Halandri, Maroussi; Mondays – Holargos; Tuesdays – Kypseli, Galatsi, Halandri, Alimos; Wednesdays – Nea Smyrni; Thursdays – Papagos.