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A Short History of the MGS

The beginning
In 1992 the British journal Hortus published 'Letter from Attica' by Derek Toms, in which he cited the problems of gardening in the Mediterranean. This prompted a letter from Trevor Nottle, the Australian garden consultant and writer, 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 had just begun to write a book on the subject and asked whether he could send Derek a questionnaire. Derek subsequently placed a letter in The European newspaper inviting other mediterranean gardeners to participate, and copies of the questionnaire were sent out some 30 people.

From their responses and ensuing correspondence it became clear that gardeners throughout the region faced broadly similar problems, namely:

  • Climate: summer drought, high temperatures, high winds, salt-laden winds on the coasts, frost risk at higher altitudes.
  • Soils: often poor in nutrients, stony, alkaline, frequently only a thin covering over rock.
  • Plants: a limited selection of plants suitable for local conditions available from nurseries, plants often imported and suitable o0nly for temperate climates, inadequately labelled, many plants of Mediterranean origin not commercially available.
  • Labour: a lack of horticultural training at all levels and hence a shortage of qualified labour.
  • Information: very few books written specifically on Mediterranean gardening, the information in books written for temperate Europe and America being rarely applicable. (Note: in the years since 1994 this gap has been filled by the publication of quite a few books on Mediterranean or dry-climate gardening.)
  • Design: the conventions of temperate landscape design are not always appropriate to the Mediterranean and new approaches to an indigenous garden style need to be explored.
  • Contact: many gardeners struggle by trial and error in isolation.

All this suggested that some kind of regional network to share information and experience would be welcome. The idea was tentatively proposed to one or two people and evoked a favourable response. Then, early in 1994, Caroline Harbouri (one of the respondents to Trevor's questionnaire) took Derek to see the garden at Sparoza. This garden, created by Jaqueline Tyrwhitt nearly 30 years earlier and now the property of the Goulandris Natural History Museum, had been very much a pioneering effort; moreover Jaqueline Tyrwhitt had kept a record of her experiences with a view to publishing them. Sally Razelou, custodian at Sparoza and herself a keen gardener, supported Derek's idea enthusiastically. Sparoza seemed a natural home for a ‘mediterranean’ gardening society.

The infant society was christened and a bulletin prepared setting out its aims. The next task was to publicise the project. This was a slow process but it was accelerated by the visit of Professor William Stearn to Sparoza that summer. Professor Stearn took back news of the nascent society to Hugh Johnson, editor of the RHS’s The Garden and its publication in that journal brought in a wave of enquiries. No money was available for advertising but the newly founded MGS was generously given mentions in a number of publications, including Hortus, Pacific Horticulture, Gardens Illustrated, The American Garden Journal, Giardini and The European.

In the meantime, we had embarked on the lengthy process of registering the society in Greece as a non-profit-making association. Twenty founder members were co-opted to sign the application (and subsequently the charter) and to put up the funds for the legal registration of the Society. Others who provided great support included Heidi Gildemeister, Trevor Nottle and Marina Adams, the UK-based landscape architect whose first commission on qualifying in 1963 had been the design of the garden at Sparoza. A charter was drawn up in June 1994. The society finally received official notice of registration in December 1994. On the 1st of January, 1995, the MGS opened its subscription membership.

The Journal
Starting life without financial backing or sponsorship, the MGS was very much a case of creating something from nothing. After issuing two 8-page newsletters, it was felt that the time had come to publish a quarterly journal and in the summer of 1995 the first issue of The Mediterranean Garden appeared, despite the society's precarious finances. The bank account was emptied to print and dispatch the first two journals - it was only in the second year that membership grew sufficiently to ensure a running surplus of cash over expenses. The first three issues were edited jointly by Derek Toms and Caroline Harbouri; thereafter Caroline was persuaded to take over as sole editor with Derek as the main illustrator. From an initial sixty-four pages the journal expanded in 1999 to eighty pages with a longer issue in January when the index for the previous year is included. The journal is now illustrated by the work of many talented members and Caroline Harbouri continues as Editor with the assistance as proof-reader of Sue Vlassis.

By the end of 1995 there were 241 MGS members in 18 countries around the world. A year later membership stood at just over 500, and passed the 1500 mark in the year 2005 with members in 40 countries. Since then membership has fluctuated depending on the exchange rate of the Euro and the state of the world economy. Membership has not been confined to individuals: botanic gardens as far apart as Adelaide and Santa Barbara in California, universities and other societies have all joined the MGS. It was the aim of the fourth President, Cali Doxiadis, to encourage membership of the MGS beyond the conclaves of expatriates from northern climes to include gardeners native to the Mediterranean. Despite the potential language barrier, 'native Mediterraneans' now form a significant proportion of members.

Administrative Committee
Presidents - During the first months of the society's existence the various administrative roles were undertaken by Derek Toms and Sally Razelou but in December 1995, in accordance with our legal obligations, a five-member Administrative Committee was elected and Sally became the society's first President. Heidi Gildemeister (Spain) took over as President in October 1997, Katherine Greenberg (USA) in January 2001, Cali Doxiadis (Greece) in October 2004, Caroline Harbouri (Greece) in 2007, Jean Vaché (France) in 2010 and Alisdair Aird (UK) in 2013.

Vice Presidents and Councillors - John Rendall, who had himself lived at Sparoza for the ten years after Jacky Tyrwhitt’s death and kept her garden going, acted as Vice-President for nearly eleven years up to 2007. As a friend and adviser of Mrs Niki Goulandri of the Goulandris Natural History Museum, the owner of the Sparoza estate, he was instrumental in the negotiations to make Sparoza the legal seat of the MGS in 1995 and in getting a long-term lease for the MGS when it took over as tenant in 1999. John was followed as Vice-President by George Brumder in 2007, who was followed in turn by John Joynes in 2013. Councillors since 1998 have included Don Matthews, Irini Ramphou,  Jean Vaché, Caroline Harbouri and Sally Beale.

Secretary and Treasurer - The routine graft of running the society in Greece is carried out by the Secretary and Treasurer. Barbara Diamantides was elected as Secretary in 1996 and worked initially with Dana Zangas as Treasurer and then from 1998 with Vivien Psaropoulou. Barbara and Vivien worked together during those important early years getting the MGS administration established. Barbara created a computerised database containing all the information about members and their payments - a system which was so adaptable and robust as to be still in use in 2014. Vivien set up a separate system so that there was double recording to limit errors. Fleur Pavlidis became Secretary in 2004 but Vivien stayed on heroically for a further three years during which time she set up a credit card payment system. When Fleur retired in 2010, Jane Taniskidou was elected Secretary and Jill Yakas Treasurer. Jill has worked to modernise the keeping of the MGS accounts and production of financial statements using the Accrual method of accounting. In 2013 Jill was joined by Vivien Psaropoulou as Secretary.

By 2001 the work of the Administrative Committee had become such that it was decided to get the three Reserve Members involved and they were subsequently invited to the AC Meetings and when necessary took on set tasks. As Reserves, Fleur Pavlidis, Davina Michaelides, Fulla Chapple and Heather Martin for example, have been concerned in the organisation of the Annual General Meetings. Email messaging is used heavily between AC members, but those outside Greece are unable to participate actively in meetings unless they visit Athens. Fortunately, with the use of Skype, all AC members have been able to participate in meetings since 2008.

Faced with a widely scattered membership, the development of local branches was a logical step which Heidi Gildemeister took in 1997 and Katherine Greenberg continued throughout her presidency. At present the MGS has branches in the mediterranean-climate areas of Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Spain, Australia and the USA. Some members live outside the mediterranean climate areas but have their own local branches: in the German-speaking countries (Germany, Austria and Switzerland) and Scandinavia. Each branch and group has its own programme of meetings, garden visits etc., and some have their own newsletters. Details of the branches and their activities are to be found here.

Internet presence

Another of Heidi Gildemeister's innovations was to get the MGS on to the internet. Seán O'Hara, at that time the Northern California Branch Head, had already set up a website for mediterranean plants. He agreed to add pages to his site for the MGS and made the original design. Subsequently, as the site expanded under the editorship of Fleur Pavlidis, it became necessary to employ a professional manager and since 2005 Jon Watts of  Hereford Web Design (formerly Truetype Web Solutions) has managed the site which has become the 'shop window' for the MGS. Jean Vaché succeeded as Web Editor in 2009 and instigated the setting up of two mini websites: first the official MGS website in Greek and second the official MGS website in French. It is hoped that during 2015 a MGS website in Italian will come online. Since the beginning of 2014 Fleur Pavlidis has again taken over as editor of the website.

The possibility of creating an internet discussion forum for members and non-members was mooted in 2009 and was quickly set up under the professional guidance of Fred Carrie. The MGS Forum is informative, friendly and the home of inspiring photographs and is much loved by its regulars. It is moderated by Alisdair Aird, Fleur Pavlidis and Oron Peri.

Meanwhile the MGS Facebook page was also established by Alisdair Aird and gives another entrance to the world of the MGS.

Promotion of Principles
MGS members are introduced to the society's principles via the journal and the website and many of the events organised by the branches. In addition the Annual General Meeting has become an opportunity for an educational as well as an administrative and social and gathering. Right from the beginning the first president, Sally Razelou, realised that for members to be persuaded to attend the General Assembly in Greece she would have to offer some kind of additional events. As the presidency passed outside Greece so the range of venues expanded - to Spain, France, Italy and Cyprus, across the Atlantic and the American continent to California and down to the southern hemisphere to Melbourne and Adelaide. From small beginnings, up to 120 members now participate in each AGM, learning how gardeners in countries other than their own handle the challenges of the climate and conditions. Also in 2007 the AGM in Athens was organised as a Symposium with workshops, panel discussions and evening lectures, the latter being open to the public and very well attended.

The promotion to the general public of the MGS principles of environment- and climate–compatible gardening is very important. Given the geographically scattered nature of the MGS membership it has been in the hands of the branches to take part in various local garden fairs and symposia, to arrange lectures open to the public and to promote the MGS way of waterwise gardening in general. So that information can be available for distribution at these events, a series of informative leaflets on various practical aspects of Mediterranean gardening was initiated during the presidency of Caroline Harbouri. Each one is translated into the other Mediterranean languages and offered freely at public events.

In 2005 it was suggested by the South Australia Branch that the MGS should make a token donation to the Adelaide Botanic Garden as a sign of support for the work being undertaken. Subsequently the idea of an annual donation was adopted and it has been awarded every year to an institution chosen by the hosts of the Annual General Meeting.

For a history of the MGS garden see History of the garden at Sparoza.
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