‘Artful wildness’ in northern Attica

An established garden in Varnava, northern Attica, lying in a fold between hills facing northeast to the sea, is a perfect example of what can be achieved with a careful choice of plants, hard work, judicious watering and good taste. The owner began planting about 20 years ago, before her house was built, with occasional advice from a knowledgeable friend. As with most successful Mediterranean gardens surrounded by natural vegetation, respect was shown for the species already existing on and around the site, which lies about 550 meters above sea level and experiences extremes of temperature. «The hardest thing of all is to start,» said the owner. «It is important to think first of what will be the main features by looking around at the landscape so that the color and shape of what you plant will not clash with the surroundings. For example, here a red or mauve bougainvillea would be inappropriate, better suited to a white house by the sea, or perhaps in a pot, but not covering a whole wall.» «Everything changes in a landscape once the bulldozers move in; you lose all idea of the original space. Then there is the problem with topsoil during construction. In England they remove the topsoil from an excavation site, and then replace it once construction is over so you don’t lose organic matter. Here they use the topsoil to create levels,» she said. The owner kept the existing plants at the perimeter of the site, which is surrounded by stands of pine trees, with plane trees near a stream bed at the lower part of the site, where wild roses climb up into the surrounding foliage. In other parts of the garden, a few old-fashioned rose bushes – of the kind traditionally found in old gardens in Kifissia – have also been planted. The native flora, which also included Kerm oaks (pournaria in Greek) and mastic trees (schinos), were kept inside the perimeter as well, and in groups within the site in order to keep the natural contours of the landscape as much as possible. Rocks from the site were used to create the levels and hold the soil, and in the early days of the garden were used for mulching around trees in summer to prevent evaporation from the soil. «You have to consider the water available and how much of it you are prepared to let your plants expect. In the early stages, until plants are established, you need more water,» she said. Her approach was to choose plants that can survive with very little water in summer if they have received a lot of water in winter. «Plants with very deep roots don’t need much water in summer. The worst thing for a garden is to water just a little every day, because it makes the roots grow upward to the source of moisture. It is a mistake to give plants too much water; they also flower less if the soil is always wet,» she added. Rainfall is supplemented with an automatic watering system and hand watering where necessary. Seeing where water flows when it rains and channeling it to where it would be most useful, instead of washing away topsoil, has also been an important part of water planning in this garden. The owner also believes one should not skimp on soil enrichment; she adds Geohumus, a worm compost bought from a nursery in northern Athens and which makes a world of difference to the soil. Another consideration is the amount of time available to spend out in the garden. «You have to be prepared to do the work, even if you have help. You can’t just leave a ‘gardener’ to get on with it. You have to take a personal interest if the result is to be interesting.» That personal touch is very evident in this garden, which surrounds the house on all sides. A pathway leads from the main entrance, bordered on each side by dense foliage where gray and silver-leaved plants such as Stachys (lamb’s ears) provide contrast to green-leaved shrubs and trees including holly and Hypericum, which produces abundant bright yellow flowers. At the front door, visitors are greeted at this time of year by the delicate perfume of the Elaeagnus shrub, underplanted with tiny flowers of the Erigeron. A variety of geraniums in pots provide color in summer. The living area at the back of the house faces south toward a hilly wooded slope across a courtyard bordered by low stone walls, against which the owner has also placed pots for plants in flower – azaleas in spring and at this time of year, chrysanthemums in rusty fall colors such as copper, yellow and white, blending well with a large pomegranate tree in full fruit. The owner believes that as in Greece there are so many wildflowers in springtime, it is a good idea to plant species that flower in summer, such as the tiny mauve flowers on clumps of Tulbaghia bordering the paved area, along with Agapanthus, Abelia and the flat carpet of the Verbena. Secret gardens As for trees, the owner believes that not all should be at the back, but can be used to create «secret gardens» so that one doesn’t see everything at once, even in a small area. «Larger plants and trees can create a sense of mystery so you want to know what’s behind them. Don’t be afraid of blocking a view. Sometimes trees can frame a view to best advantage, giving a sense of space,» she said. The owner has not bought many of her plants, preferring the satisfaction of propagating from cuttings taken from plants that have proved successful, as most gardeners used to do before the advent of plant nurseries. She finds it unnecessary to use rooting hormone, but simply propagates from cuttings taken during regular pruning. Nor does she buy annuals; those in the gardens are ones that are self-seeding, such as snapdragons. The owner has not done what many are tempted to do with a large site and plant too many different species, and in trying to achieve a «natural» look only end up with a mess. Large groups of the same plant are used to striking effect, particularly along the driveway where huge rosemary and santolina bushes soften the edge of the paving. These and other aromatic plants that do not require much watering, including lavender, salvias and creeping rosemary for ground cover, were planted before the house was built. They extend down a slope leading to the stream bed, among cypress, walnut, olive and other fruit-bearing trees, among which the owner grows her vegetables, rather than having a separate section for them, in keeping with her desire to keep the site as natural as possible.