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Melitense The Maltese Quarry Garden for M&G Chelsea Flower Show 2017

by James and Helen Basson
photographs by James Basson

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No. 91, January 2018

Malta is a fascinating island, the most densely populated country in the EU with a rich historical and cultural background. It has had to react quickly to problems the rest of the planet has to consider, due to its extreme climate, high level of tourism and population issues – which are heightened by its geographical location and the recent influx of migrants using this route into Europe.

Malta has very little natural water and in times of heavy rain suffers from run-off straight into the sea, this problem being exacerbated by the volume of hard spaces and quarrying.

With a surface area of only 316 square kilometres it was amazing to discover how many different ecologies exist on such a relatively small land mass; we experienced coastal cliff tops, maquis, garrigue, aquatic fresh water ecosystems through to low-lying forests. Malta has an immense diversity of flora and fauna with 78 endemic species, of which 23 are plants.

All of the above reasons attracted us to Malta and along with its overwhelming natural beauty we thought it would make a spectacular statement at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Our aim in creating this garden was to take an extreme mineral space – a quarry – and to demonstrate this incredible diversity. We wanted to showcase native Maltese flora while putting forward a suggestion for softening these hard landscapes that exist everywhere in urban environments, by working with the existing natural world, encouraging and nurturing it into a garden space that can be enjoyed by all.

By taking the example of the quarry we were able to translate into a 20m × 10m show garden the different ecologies of Malta. The pillar tops represented the cliffs, the front of the garden was maritime, moving through the garrigue planting among the standing blocks (typical of Maltese quarries and reminiscent of its military history as they stand in formation) up to maquis and finally the larger trees at the back of the garden. We had a small aquatic area behind the largest pillar where we imagined most of the water would have gathered. The presence of trees bearing edible fruits was something we saw in most of the quarries we visited, whether the result of left-over remains from the quarry workers’ lunches that grew or whether planted for future generations to enjoy. We were keen to use such plants as it was a nice tie-in to the garden’s sponsor M&G with regard to investing in the future.

Maltese limestone is incredibly beautiful, especially when lit by the warm Mediterranean sun. In the quarries there are different textures and qualities of stone. Where the stone has been exposed to the elements over a long period of time it is worn into a mottled texture, while where the cuts are more recent the lines are more apparent, giving juxtaposed patterns of varying intensity. The harder, more impermeable seams of stone gather pools of water and this was our inspiration for the swimming pool area. The human use of the space in terms of the pool, the lighting and the dining area are what transformed the space from simple ‘managed landscape’ to ‘garden’.

The construction of the garden was only possible due to the joint expertise of Crocus, who have perfected the art of building to Chelsea Gold standard, and the extreme engineering capabilities of Halmann Vella, a working quarry in Malta. Each cut was carefully calculated and each slab was numbered so that once on site they could fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Then the most exciting part – the plants… We were extremely lucky to have been authorised by the Maltese Government to export some endemic species which have since been gifted to Kew and the Chelsea Physic Garden. They included Limonium melitense, Matthiola incana subsp. melitensis, Euphorbia melitensis, Salsola melitensis (syn. Darniella melitensis), Hyoseris melitensis and Helichrysum melitense.

Limonium melitense

Euphorbia melitensis

We worked very closely with two incredible botanists in Malta. Steve Mifsud is responsible for the wonderful website; he also does botanical tours and has an endless knowledge of the local flora. He knew exactly where to find special species, when to collect seed and how best to grow it on. We divided the seed collections between Vivai Ciancavare in Imperia, Italy and Pepinière Filippi in southern France to ensure that we maximised the likelihood of having sufficient success rates in our seedlings. Carmen Chetcuti, who used to run the Gaia Foundation near Valetta, has spent the last 40 years clearing out invasive species and taking cuttings of native plants to grow them on and replant in the wild in order to try to maintain Malta’s delicate ecosystems. She is featured in the Friends of the Earth ‘Keepers’ project and is an unassuming, modest lady who is quietly doing her part in saving her native land. She was kind enough to let us buy some of her nursery stock – the more knarled and rugged, the better, so we could really get across what plants experience in the Maltese climate.

Wall scored to resemble the quarry walls

Over the two-year period of growing we kept the plants as far south as possible, gradually moving them up from Malta to Sicily to Italy, France and finally to the UK in time for the show. We had two specimen trees, a carob (Ceratonia siliqua) and a mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus) that were found hiding in the back of two nurseries, one in Rome and one in Sicily. We moved them to a nursery near our home in southern France but after a cold spell the Pistacia lost most of its leaves. After several weeks of sleepless nights on our part the leaves started to bud, coming back strongly on one side. However, the other side was still rather bare. We made the decision to use it anyway and were able to place it as if it was growing partly in the shade of the pillar so that the leaves being stronger on one side made sense ecologically.

The rules and regulations of the RHS with regards to Health & Safety at the Show meant that we had to have micropiles to ensure the stability of the pillars, which were in fact hollow. A metal pylon was constructed and clad in stone that had been cut to join perfectly to create the effect of the monoliths. The 21-day build went well with minimal rain and we were of course delighted with the end result that was the ultimate reward for a wonderful team from all over Europe.

The garden received mixed reviews in the press, something that is always interesting, giving rise to questions such as ‘What is a garden?’, ‘Should the Chelsea Flower Show just be about pretty, forced-on plants?’ and ‘Where is the line between art and gardening?’ Our feeling is that it is an honour to be able to showcase something you feel passionate about and hopefully to get people thinking about sustainability and wild plants in these times of changing climate. We knew we couldn’t please all the people, all of the time – but anything that starts a discussion has to be positive, does it not?
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