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The garden at Sparoza and its development since 1983 (abridged version)

by Sally Razelou

Nearly three decades have passed since Mary Jaqueline Tyrwhitt’s sudden death on 21 February 1983.

In her will Jacky left her estate, the land and the garden to the Goulandris Natural History Museum in Athens, with the stipulation that her nephew and his descendants should be allowed to stay at the house each year for their holidays.

Stephen Grigg, Jacky’s last resident gardener, stayed on at Sparoza for another year after her death. However, a more permanent solution had to be found if the house and garden were not rapidly to become unkempt.

Diana Dopheide, a close friend of Mrs Niki Goulandris, solved the problem. She proposed that the house should have permanent tenants and suggested John and Jay Rendall. John did much voluntary work for the museum and a friendly relationship developed between the museum and their first tenants. They tended the garden assiduously. One of their wise introductions was the planting of a Wisteria sinensis at the base of the south verandah wall. Now it is a splendid plant, veiling the concrete structure of the brise-soleil in summer with its skirt of green leaves; it is one of the glories of the garden when in flower but its green shade in summer is, to me, its most valuable property.

During the Rendalls' tenancy of Sparoza, Professor William Stearn, perhaps the most famous botanist of the last century, was a frequent visitor to the garden, with his wife Ruth.

In 1992 the house the Rendalls were restoring in the Byzantine walled city of Monemvasia, in the Peloponnese, was ready for occupation. I had learned from a mutual friend that a new tenant would be needed for Sparoza, met the Rendalls and went to see the house and the garden, and decided to offer myself as the next tenant. I moved in in the first days of June 1992.
The first year of my tenancy of Sparoza was dedicated to the maintenance of the garden and to the observation of the plants that existed, especially the bulbous flora in their seasons. My understanding of the climatic conditions, the water needs of the plants, the local landscape and the microclimates contained in it came gradually, and indeed can never be said to be complete. Each week some new species would come into flower. Great care was taken not to dig any piece of ground in case it contained a hidden treasure.

In January 1994 the writer and translator Caroline Harbouri, who had first visited Sparoza shortly after Jacky Tyrwhitt’s death, brought the artist and craftsman Derek Toms to see the garden. Derek, who had been living in Greece for a number of years, had published an article entitled ‘Letter from Attica’ in the British journal Hortus in 1992. This article prompted a letter from the Australian horticulturist Trevor Nottle, who pointed out that the problems faced by Mediterranean gardeners tended to be shared by others in similar climate zones elsewhere in the world. He asked Derek if he could send him a questionnaire on various aspects of gardening in such a climate, and subsequently, on Derek's instigation, the questionnaire was also sent out to some thirty other people, one of those people being Caroline Harbouri. It was this small thread of first a written then later a personal contact that led to the creation of the Mediterranean Garden Society.

The responses to this questionnaire suggested to Derek that some kind of regional network to share information and experience of gardening in a Mediterranean climate would be welcome. So in April, following encouragement from several quarters, Derek wrote to Mrs Niki Goulandris outlining a proposal for the establishment of a such a society and requesting her approval for the use of Sparoza as its headquarters. She found it 'an exciting idea' and expressed no objections to it.

A bulletin was prepared by Derek setting out the aims of the proposed society in general terms. Later that summer, Professor William Stearn and his wife came to supper at Sparoza and were enthusiastic and encouraging. On his return to the UK he told Hugh Johnson about the project, who duly wrote about the ‘birth’ of the Mediterranean Garden Society in his ‘Tradescant’s Diary’, in the Royal Horticultural Society’s journal The Garden. George Walters, then editor of Pacific Horticulture, gave us coverage, and Penelope Hobhouse, the famous English landscape gardener, wrote a long article with photographs for Gardens Illustrated. The American horticulturist Francis Cabot, founder of the non-profit foundation Garden Conservancy whose purpose is to rescue and restore gardens of note, and who had visited Sparoza with Penny Hobhouse in 1994, was also very helpful and subsequently an article appeared in The American Gardener journal.

Twenty founder members were found to put up the money required to register the Society and to sign its charter and in January 1995 subscriptions for membership began to be received.

In the summer of 1995 the first issue of our journal, The Mediterranean Garden, was published. The journal is the ‘heart’ of the Mediterranean Garden Society and from the outset ensured its success; its ‘home’ is the garden at Sparoza. Active regional branches of the Society which have been formed over the years all over the world enable members to meet personally. The Society's website also facilitates the communication of news, events and gardening information. On the Internet the MGS Forum hosts lively discussions of Mediterranean plants and gardening between experts and enthusiasts all over the world.

To quote Derek Toms, 'Starting life without the financial backing of grant or sponsorship, the Mediterranean Garden Society was very much a case of creating something out of nothing.'

In was in a like manner that Jacky Tyrwhitt created her garden on an overgrazed, bare, Attic hillside which, nearly half a century later, has become an oasis of beauty, simplicity and horticultural interest and a haven for the annual and perennial flora of Attica.

With Derek's help important developments in the garden became possible. A 'shade house', created out a framework of wood and a bamboo roof, was built for the propagation of plants. The wire fencing around the area was clothed with palm fronds which acted as a windbreak and gave shade — a pleasing and effective device.

In the area between the two pools and the cypress trees, which was then simply a weedy slope with a lovely Cupressus arizonica with sweetly scented foliage at its base, Derek created a garden of small terraces. A stepped path takes one down through these, around the C. arizonica and up again to the hard landscaped path which leads to the pools.

Over the years since then many native species as well as bulbous plants have been planted in this area, now called 'Derek’s Garden'. It is not irrigated and initially numerous plants failed to prosper there, but now it has become quite well furnished with cistus, teucriums, helichrysums, convolvuluses and rosemary, as well as spring- and autumn-flowering bulbs. Annuals provide colour in April and May before the whole garden goes into aestivation, the summer dormancy which enables the plants to survive. Inevitably the topsoil is constantly eroded by weeding the plethora of early wild flowers — Calendula arvensis, Erodium cicutarium, Lamium moschatum, Geranium molle and many Compositae species — which grow there. (Annual mulching somewhat counteracts this.)

The garden and I have been most fortunate in having had a succession of exceptional human beings as gardeners. David Priestly was the first of these: whatever the task, he knew exactly what to do and how to do it, and for my part I knew it would be done to perfection. He began to work one day each week in the garden in 1998. We embarked on an extension of the garden to the south where many aloes were used as pioneer plantings together with shrubs such as Artemisia arborescens, Rhamnus alaternus, Ptilostemon chamaepeuce, Lantana camara and seedlings of Cercis siliquastrum, Ulmus parvifolia, Bauhinia variegata var. candida and Yucca aloifolia. A path was made on this eastern side of the phrygana and large clumps of Iris x germanica and aloes were introduced on either side of the pathway. It is a particularly difficult terrain with little soil, a great many rocks and islands of bedrock here and there. Hundreds of asphodels were dug out, into whose cavities, well worked by their tubers, we planted the irises and the aloes. In many parts of Greece, where the phrygana has been grazed for centuries and the land has not been ploughed, the asphodel has established itself. In such areas, often stony hillsides, it is a bulwark against erosion, keeping the precious meagre soil in place. Sheep and goats find its leaves unpalatable and our hillside is a typical example of a site where this plant has proliferated.

The old swimming pool had become an empty eyesore, often used to incinerate prunings from the garden. With the help of David Priestly and his friends we managed to repair it and it was filled with water and furnished with water lilies taken from the lily pond next to it as well as plants of Aponogeton distachyos and Typha minima. Both pools are now a haven for birds in the summer, dragonflies provide food for the swooping house martins, the tiny red carp, Gambusia affinis, feed on mosquito larvae and tortoises wander down the ramp for a drink. I treat the pools as ‘wetlands’, never supplementing the water as its level gradually sinks in summer. Even in the driest years, plants and fauna survive.

Jennifer Gay

The twentieth century ended with the arrival of Jennifer Gay from Israel, where she had been working in the Jerusalem Botanical Garden. She had been granted a bursary from the Coke Trust in order to gain practical working experience of gardening in a Mediterranean climate. In her report for the Royal Horticultural Society’s Bursaries Committee Jennifer wrote: 'What can be seen at Sparoza is the establishment of a garden created in perhaps the most extreme experience of Mediterranean climate (i.e. the highest summer temperatures and lowest winter rainfall) and with a minimal budget.' Indeed, the winter rainfall in 1999–2000 amounted to only 150 mm, the lowest I have experienced in twenty years caring for the garden.

Major development of the garden became possible with Jennifer working five days a week and David continuing to come one day a week.

During that dry winter the soil in the terraces was enriched with horse manure and cocoa shells. The plants were lifted and the soil dug deeply, incorporating the enriching organic matter which was left to settle for a few weeks before the borders were replanted.

A new circular border was dug around the 'threshing floor' between the lawn and its low retaining wall. The soil was very poor and masses of cocoa shells and horse manure were dug in. This border was planted with very drought-tolerant shrubs and succulents. The main ones were Rosmarinus officinalis, Ptilostemon chamaepeuce, Cotyledon orbiculata, Crassula ovata, Lavandula dentata, Cneorum tricoccon and Convolvulus cneorum, as well as Artemisia aborescens.

The narrow border to the left of the front door in which the Tecoma capensis had been planted by Jacky was widened, compost was dug in and a variety of salvias and geraniums were planted.

In the spring we decided to make a pathway through the hillside above the pools. Jennifer and David cut an earth path, removing stones and levelling the surface. It looks entirely natural and as if made by the passage of goats and sheep. In the early winter of 2000–01, we bought trees: seventy-five Cupressus sempervirens, three Acacia saligna and three Abies for a total of 5,750 drachmas — 16.88 euros! The cypresses were about half a metre tall. Jennifer planted them with great care and vision, most of them sited on the hillside, but a group was also planted on the west side of the phrygana and some on the east below the access road. Three hundred millimetres of rain had fallen in October and November which made this planting possible.

The hillside has become an integral part of the garden, along with the phrygana south of the house and the terraced garden. Planting continues, with some triumphs such as Globularia alypum grown from seed and Hypericum empetrifolium, both plants that are difficult to propagate and establish. I hope they will eventually form colonies by self-seeding. Alongside all these developments a new irrigation system was installed in the garden. We decided against an automatic computerised system as the climatic conditions in the long summer dry season are extremely variable and the water requirements of the plants vary from day to day. The new system was timely for much new planting had been done during the extreme winter drought that ushered in the millennium.

Jennifer Gay left Sparoza in the spring of 2001. As my first full-time assistant she left behind a permanent legacy.

Kathy Norton, daughter of the distinguished botanical artist and garden writer Freda Cox, familiar to members from her contributions to TMG, came out to help me for two months in February and March 2002 with her friend, Dominic. Kathy planted some roses on the hillside in the ‘craters’ that had been made for some of the pine trees when Jacky bought the property; Dominic undertook to fell the ones that had died.

Silvia Vallegas

In 2002–03 Silvia Villegas was with me; together we propagated many new plants from seed and cuttings in the nursery. It was also the wettest winter I have recorded, with 914 mm of rain. Silvia is now well-known to many of our members as the head of a branch of the Mediterranean Garden Society in Spain, where she is a curator of the Madrid Botanic Garden. She made great use of the library during that wet winter. She also embarked on a project of identification ‘labels’. We scavenged suitable pieces of marble from the dumps behind the marble works near Peania and with a fine brush, using black paint for metal, Silvia painstakingly inscribed the name of the species, its family and its provenance. Some of these tablets have survived where the plant was in shade, some are propped up on shelves outside the tool shed, witness to the demise of the plants they identified.

François Travert and Blois students

The first and most exceptional student from the school of landscape architecture in Blois, L'École Nationale Supérieure de la Nature et du Paysage, François Travert, came in April and May of 2003 en placement. A major project he undertook was to gravel the pathways dividing the terraces in the garden. At the end of the terraces, on the south-eastern side where the path into the phrygana begins, he laid flat stones, interspersed with sand and gravel — a pleasing organic approach towards a harder landscaping. The same type of stone was also laid on the north side of the lowest terrace where a large Pinus pinea gives deep shade under which large bushes of Ruscus hypophyllum and R. hypoglossum with their rich dark-green foliage flourish in all seasons.

I was without an assistant in the gardening year of 2003–04. To help fill the gap Davina Michaelides gathered a group of MGS members as volunteers to work in the garden once a week. This was a tremendous help and has continued to be so. It was also a hard winter with a pan-Hellenic freeze in February. Seventy centimetres of snow fell at Sparoza and temperatures dropped to –8°C and remained there for nearly a week. I was away at the time and the garden was a tragic sight when I returned — the plants seemed to have melted into ugly black heaps. Many species of succulents were permanent losses. Large branches from the pine trees had crashed down, and the olives were affected as well as the brachychiton trees. The mature jacaranda appeared to have died. Every plant on the roofed south verandah was killed. What I can’t remember clearly is the garden's gradual recovery, or how the native flora behaved in the spring when two young second-year students from the school in Blois came for two months in April and May. They were a splendid help in that difficult year.

Piers Goldson

Piers Goldson, a really knowledgeable plantsman and skilled gardener, was my next assistant in the year 2004–05. He had gathered a range of skills and understood the soil requirements of plants as well as how to produce that soil from working in nurseries in England, and at the Welsh Botanic Garden, the Du Pont garden at Longwood and The National Botanic Garden in Hawaii. Piers is also an arborist; he knows just how to fell a tree and possesses the right kit to do so safely. Piers produced great quantities of compost for use in the nursery and to mulch the terraces. He replanted the area to the north of the annexe with Teucrium fruticans, Pistacia lentiscus and Rhamnus alaternus, underplanted with white-flowering iris. Replanting and re-positioning of plants due to losses in the February freeze in 2004 also took place.

Piers continued to come after Lina Stenemo, a Swedish landscape designer trained at Greenwich, arrived in October. Lina wrote an account of her time in the garden in TMG 45.

In April and May we welcomed two more students from Blois. A project re-organizing the so-called woodland garden, south of the walled garden, was undertaken. A paved area projecting from the wall was made. A pathway bisects the site surrounding a triangular island planted with Cotyledon orbiculata. The lovely straight grey trunks of Ailanthus altissima which Jacky planted for quick shade were exposed, standing on either side of the path. They are beautiful trees in the winter, with their branches curving up to view the ‘heavens’, well worth the great nuisance of endless suckers which have to be dug out each year.

Christopher Wassenberg

From California, and the Leaning Pine Arboretum at San Luis Obispo, Christopher Wassenberg arrived in October 2006 with his wife Katherine. They stayed until February.

That autumn, Christopher, helped by the team of volunteers, dug out hundreds of asphodels beside the rough road that leads up to our reservoir. In their place were planted Iris x germanica. They hold the soil on this sloping ground and their dark purple flowers and pale green spikes of leaves suit the landscape perfectly.

Christopher was nearing the end of a big project in the phrygana where he had cut a winding path along its centre when he left. It starts from the northern end between the cactus terrace and the ‘island’ of cotyledons, and winds in two great curves down to the low wall which surrounds the phrygana. This path has proved a fine feature of the garden, linking the cactus gardens and the woodland shrubbery with the sloping phrygana to the south.

Two excellent female students from Blois were with me in April and May. They were highly-motivated and enthusiastic about the garden; their help was much needed and appreciated. The path was completed, weeded and gravel was spread. The gravel we use at Sparoza is of marble and well graded. It lights up in moonlight.

Jane Shaw

Jane Shaw was my assistant in 2007–08. She worked very hard each day at whatever we were doing. The irises were tattered and all over the place but she tirelessly cleaned and spruced them up. This had never been achieved before. We decided to make a narrow pathway through the herb terrace. Larger stones were laid into the earth and smaller ones set on edge on the sides of the path. Cyclamen graecum seedlings were planted in the spaces between the stones. It is a pretty, intimate little walkway and makes me think of Jane.

I had no assistant in the year 2008–09 except my team of volunteers without whose help the maintenance of the garden would have proved difficult. The total rainfall that year was 450 mm, but no rain fell from the beginning of April until mid-November.

François Travert, now a landscape architect, came to stay with me that autumn. The water level in the pools had dropped down to their sumps following the exceptionally long summer period. The lily pond had become a nightmare, choked with Typha latifolia and Pontederia cordata. With a short hand saw François heroically cut heavy blocks of roots and silt, removing them from the bottom of the pool and distributing them along the lowest terrace and elsewhere. He recorded this experience in TMG 55. The long dry months which made this feat possible were a blessing.

Peter Dinning

In September 2009 Peter Dinning came with his little dog, Peapod, to Sparoza. A professional gardener of his calibre working in the garden was a special boon, his legacy permanent. He re-organised the nursery and propagated an enormous number of new species from seed, increasing our usual range of plants from cuttings. With a chain saw he tackled the olive trees on the top of the hill which, through neglect, had become bushy thickets. Bamboo trellis was expertly attached to walls; one of these walls, on the north side of the house, is now clothed in evergreen climbers growing in pots.

Miyon Yoo, another bright star in Sparoza’s firmament of gardeners, came in October 2010, the first to spend two gardening years with me. The main project undertaken with Miyon was the creation of a third path in the phrygana. It starts rather secretly at the side of the small raised cactus terrace, proceeds to the south of the Pistacia vera grove Jacky planted, and continues in a wide curve under the olive trees where it joins the middle pathway made by Chris Wassenberg. During the two winters Miyon was with me we planted hundreds of Iris x germanica rhizomes on either side of the path, as well as some groups of shrubs and a few trees.

Miyon Yoo

The phrygana is a lovely place to walk in at all seasons of the year, even in the summer months after it has been strimmed when the geophytes are dormant. In the autumn, Sternbergia, Cyclamen graecum, Drimia maritima, Prospero autumnale and Amaryllis belladonna delight the eye. Gradually the sward becomes green as seeds germinate and the tap-rooted perennials start to grow. The earth is alive again. This regeneration after the rains come in our Mediterranean climate seems to be a more dynamic happening than the spring that follows winter.

The possibilities for the garden are endless. We are constantly testing Mediterranean plants for their drought tolerance and their ability to grow in poor soil and high temperatures. Conditions in the phrygana and on the hillside are becoming less harsh as the trees mature, giving shade and shelter to young plants which otherwise could not survive there.

Nearly half a century has passed since Jacky Tyrwhitt began to create this oasis on a dry, rocky, treeless hillside both as a place of beauty and for the conservation of hundreds of Mediterranean species which are disappearing in Attica. The development of the garden since her death has continued in the same spirit and ethos as that in which it was begun. Her spirit presides, giving inspiration to those who tend the garden.
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