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An interview with Cali Doxiadis, President of the MGS
By Christina Papadaki
Published in Gynaika, d.mag #24, May 2005. Translated from the original Greek.
Despite the fact that we live in a country that offers enviable gardening conditions, such as plentiful sunlight and mild winter temperatures, we tend to covet the conditions we lack, and attribute greater importance to the stereotypical elements that are considered universally desirable.
Under the influence of foreign films that have accustomed us to seeing rolling emerald lawns and multicoloured mixed borders, we strive in the heat of summer to maintain similar gardens and are most often disappointed, since despite great expenditure in water, effort and chemicals, ours end up being merely pale imitations - the grass thin and yellowing, the flowers limited to a few kinds that are always the same. We ourselves, moreover, are slaves to daily watering.
More and more, lately, we hear talk of "Mediterranean" gardens. Some think that by this expression we mean second-class gardens - "poor relations". What they forget is that during the autumn and winter months, when the envied northern gardens are brown and desolate, our landscape is green and vibrant, and our gardens can be in constant bloom. As for spring... then we have every opportunity to enjoy gardens unmatched in variety and beauty. Our climate, which deprives us of summer moisture, provides ideal conditions for innumerable plants during the remaining seasons.
We're not saying that we should give up on trying to garden during the summer months and put up with dry, sorry-looking plants, only that we should learn to work with those plants which stay green and attractive during the dry months using very little water, drawing life from the moisture they stored up during the wet winter. At the same time we should practise cultivation methods and techniques that reduce water needs and improve the soil.
The love of gardening under our own special conditions and interest in the plants and gardening methods of the Mediterranean region are the elements that led to the creation of the Mediterranean Garden Society ten years ago, here in Greece. Its official language is English, because from the beginning the intention was that the Society should facilitate communication and the exchange of information among the inhabitants of all areas with a Mediterranean climate the world over. Today there are about 20 local branches with just under 2,000 members in 37 countries. Included are not only the countries of the Mediterranean basin, but other often very distant areas with a climate similar to ours. There are active branches in California, for example, and in South-West Australia. There are also branches in northern countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany and Switzerland. There the members are interested either because they spend part of the year in the South, or because they rightly believe that by using plants and procedures of the Mediterranean they can add a different dimension to their own gardens and save water for the sake of the environment.
Since last October, the president of the MGS is a Greek, Cali Doxiadis. She spoke to us of her love for the plants of our country, of her garden in Corfu, and of the Society.
"The headquarters and the heart of the MGS is Sparoza, a hillside garden in Peania, outside Athens. The original creator was Jaqueline Tyrwhitt, an internationally known city planner and Harvard professor. In 1962, she chose this plot of Greek earth to spend the years of her retirement, creating a house according to environmental principles and a garden that would thrive in local conditions. She kept a record of her efforts, and this chronicle was published many years later under the title Making a Garden on a Greek Hillside; it is perhaps the first "guide" to Mediterranean gardening.
"The property was bequeathed after her death to the Goulandris Museum of Natural History, but for lack of maintenance funds was left more or less undeveloped for quite a while. Then, in October 1994, a group of friends of various nationalities, all of whom loved this site and believed in the principles it stood for, founded the Mediterranean Garden Society with Sparoza as its headquarters. With the support of the Goulandris Museum, which leased out the property on extremely favourable terms, the MGS began the systematic cultivation and development of the garden and the surrounding hillside, through the hard work and under the wise guidance of its first president, Sally Razelou.
After ten years of unceasing labour the site is not only unrecognizable, it has also served as a laboratory for experimentation and instruction. Each year new graduates of horticultural schools from various countries come to serve as interns, to work with Sally and become acquainted with Mediterranean plants, methods and conditions. Also, MGS members from the greater Athens area come on particular days to volunteer their help and acquire experience they can put to use in their own gardens."
Cali Doxiadis, though she had been familiar with Sparoza since her youth, due to the close friendship between Tyrwhitt and her father, the city planner Constantinos Doxiadis, heard about the Society and became a member a year after it was founded.
"I already had behind me quite a few years of horticultural difficulties and failure in my garden on Corfu where I'd repeatedly made all the classic mistakes of beginners, striving at all costs to maintain unsuitable plants, doomed to disappointment no matter how much precious water I wasted on them. Gradually experience, as well as research and study, led me in the right direction, and I began to see results, using the natural shrubs of the Mediterranean - the wild ones: Pistacia lentiscus, Myrtus communis, Arbutus, Broom, Tamarisk, Vitex agnus-castus and Holly Oak, as well as the common easygoing cultivated ones: Rosemary, Pittosporum, Bay Laurel, Oleander and Viburnum tinus. With these plants I formed a frame, a green canvas without water needs, within which I was able to place eclectically the more sensitive and demanding plants that required extra care."
The Greek Branch of the MGS, with about 350 members, continues to be the largest, but the US with three different branches in California is the country with most members, a total of 460.
The branches are relatively independent. They organize local activities, both educational and recreational, sponsor exhibitions and publications, organize field trips and garden visits, and develop links with local gardening and environmental organizations.
The Greek branch often holds its meetings at Sparoza; sometimes they coincide with plant sales of specimens propagated by Sally and her assistants, plants that aren't easily available through commercial garden centres. In the spring and in the autumn longer excursions are organized. A very interesting one to Rhodes is being planned for next spring, led by Greek botanist George Sfikas and British cyclamen expert Alisdair Aird. The focus will be on the spring-flowering cyclamen special to the island.
An activity that gathers together members from all over the world is the Annual General Meeting, held every October in different parts of the world each time. An average of 100 members participates and follows a programme of garden visits, discussions and demonstrations. Last year's meeting was held with great success in Corfu, and this year's will be in Andalusia, Spain.
Another important unifying element of the Society, supported exclusively through members' subscriptions, is our quarterly journal The Mediterranean Garden, which contains articles ranging from practical gardening instructions to personal gardening chronicles, to historical, theoretical, and environmental essays. Contributions come from different parts of the world, but the journal is edited and printed in Athens, home of the Editor, the novelist Petrie Caroline Harbouri.
Finally, there is the website, with information, photographs, announcements and discussions of current issues.
"As our Society grows and spreads, the website will grow in importance," says Mrs. Doxiadis. "We hope in the next few years to broaden its scope, improve the rate of renewal and increase the services provided."
"We are a large circle of friends with common interests," she continues. "We exchange thoughts and experiences and help spread ideas and methods. Among us are professional botanists and horticulturalists as well as designers, but also many amateurs, like myself, who love gardening in the mediterranean climate and need to learn more about it."
To the question of which is her favourite plant, she answers: "I'm very fickle... I keep switching favourites depending on the moment and the season. Last week in Corfu I was observing the impressive leaves of the Acanthus - the ones used to ornament Corinthian columns -and thinking that it is definitely one of my very favourites; it also happens to be the symbol of our society."
Her garden in Corfu is becoming well known in Greece and overseas for its clearly mediterranean characteristics. She devotes a great deal of time, thought and effort to its care.
"In the Mediterranean countries we don't have an 'intellectual' tradition of gardening, with theoretical schools, and books that trace and teach trends and methods. Traditional knowledge and practice are being lost as the old people die. That's why our society is so important... even the least experienced of us have some experience to offer. Recently some very useful books have been making an appearance. Just last year, a beautiful edition of a very useful new book by our former president, Heidi Gildemeister, was published in Greece, under the title Κηποι στο Φως της Μεσογείου (Gardens Under Mediterranean Sunlight)."
As for whether she envies the gardens of others: "All the time! Recently I was admiring the gravel garden of Beth Chatto, and thinking of ways to adapt her experience to our conditions. Mulching is a necessary technique in our climate since it keeps the earth moist longer. In Greece gravel is an ideal mulch because it is readily available and aesthetically suited to our landscape. I have been using it more and more. Recently I've also been experimenting with seaweed, which we also have in abundance; it has the further advantage that it breaks down and enriches the soil...." A Few Words About Cali Doxiadis:
Cali Doxiadis was born in Athens. She attended College and Graduate School in the US and earned degrees in English Literature. During the Greek Dictatorship (1967-1974) she worked in New York as an editor for the International Edition of Encyclopedia Britannica.
After the return to democracy she was on the staff of the first two Greek Presidents. Since then she has worked as a journalist, in Greece and the US. She has published a collection of poetry in English and, most recently, a children's book in Greek. She is now writing a novel set on the island of Corfu.
Iris unguicularis cretensis.
Tulipa saxatilis, Tulipa boeotica, Allium neopolitanum, Phagnalon rupestre.
Approach to MGS garden at Sparoza. Euphorbia dendroides, Euphorbia
characias ssp. wulfenii,
Pistacia lentiscus, Pinus halepensis, Cerinthe retorta.
Euryops pectinatus, Lavandula allardii, Narcissus papyraceus,
Hillside above pools. Pistacia lentiscus, Cupressus, Eucalyptus.
Yucca elephantipes, Rosmarinus officinalis, Tulipa undulatifolia,
Cotyledon orbiculata, Artemisia arborescens.
Fritillaria graeca, Muscari commutatum.
Photographs by Davina Michaelides (1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 9)
Barbara Diamantides (3) and Anthony Rees (6, 7)