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Making a Garden on a Greek Hillside

by Mary Jaqueline Tyrwhitt

Review from The Mediterranean Garden No 16 Spring, 1999

Making a Garden on a Greek Hillside by Mary Jaqueline Tyrwhitt.
Denise Harvey (Publisher), 1998.
ISBN 960-7120-14-0, paperback, pp. 266 with 82 line drawings by Derek Toms

Making a Garden on a Greek Hillside is written in the form of a diary by a remarkable woman, Mary Jaqueline Tyrwhitt, or Jacky as she liked to be called by her friends. Her ‘love affair’ with Greece began when, during her long and brilliant career, a Ford Foundation Grant took her on a research project to that country; she was subsequently to spend her summers there, not only editing Ekistics, the journal of the Athens Centre of Ekistics, but also building a house and creating a garden at Sparoza, east of Athens. On her retirement she settled at Sparoza, which she bequeathed to the Goulandris Museum of Natural History.

Jacky was born in South Africa while her father was working there and was brought back to London by her mother where she attended St. Paul’s Girls’ School, Hammersmith; after leaving school she took the General Horticultural Diploma and commenced training as an architect. But this was only the beginning: she went as a student gardener to train under Ellen Willmott at Warley Place, then worked for garden architects in London. She went on to become Assistant Organizer for the League of Industry, where she learnt to speak in public and to deal with employers and employees and, among other assignments, was sent to China and Russia to study the functioning and running of their factories. She continued to study town planning and reconstruction, not so much with an eye to ‘bricks and mortar’ but with the view that all planning should be aware of the needs of society as a whole and respond to its special demands. During the Second World War she became Director of Research at the School of Planning and Regional Reconstruction in London, a post she held for the next seven years; however, it was as Assistant then Associate Professor of Urban Design at Harvard University that she perhaps made her most notable contribution to humanity.

All this and more is recounted in the clear and sympathetic preface by Sally Razelou – a plantswoman of no little consequence herself – who has tried to convey to us something of the brilliance of Jaqueline Tyrwhitt’s life. It seems curious to me that a woman of such talent and dedication received no official recognition for her enormous contribution to Town and Country Planning, but it may be that this is something she never sought herself. Although one gets the impression that she had a host of admiring friends who added greatly to her full life, she was obviously a ‘private’ person and perhaps did not look for worldly honours. Her love of animals, nature, the countryside, the Greek people among whom she chose to live and, of course, the garden she created were of very great importance to her and gave her an inner warmth and serenity which shine from the pages of this book.

This is indeed a fascinating and exciting book – so many of us who love Greece but know it only superficially will be enchanted by the month-by-month descriptions of life and events in a Greek garden. These begin in September when, as the editors remind us, the ‘New Year’ in a mediterranean garden commences with the long-awaited rains which reawaken the earth after a parching and punishing summer. In her introduction Jaqueline Tyrwhitt tells of the hardships and difficulties that she encountered in acquiring the land and then making it viable, first for a house and then for a garden, the lack of water being one of her greatest worries. Two photographs, ‘before’ and ‘after’, are included which should give courage to anyone attempting to make a new garden in a similarly daunting landscape. She describes the local festivals, the jobs (agricultural as well as domestic), the fauna and the climate, as well as giving us the most detailed lists of plants flowering each month in her garden, divided into native and imported species. These will be of profound interest to all of us living in a mediterranean climate region; their nomenclature has been carefully brought up to date by Professor William Stearn. In all, over 500 indigenous and exotic plants are carefully and lovingly described, with nearly a whole page being given to the fabled mandrake of which she was justly proud. (This plant was supposed to scream when pulled from the earth, thus giving rise to the superstition that it was much loved by witches and used by them for making their nefarious potions.)

As Jacky herself stated, she wrote this book to assist other people wishing to make gardens in a Mediterranean climate. She realised that anything she managed to grow in the inhospitable conditions of a Greek stony hillside would almost certainly grow much better elsewhere. Although she was never puritanical about planting only native species, Jaqueline Tyrwhitt was a pioneer in the recognition that native plants are best adapted to thrive in mediterranean conditions; in her article on ‘The Use of Greek Plants in the Greek Landscape’, included as an appendix in this book, she writes of her dismay at the increasing use of ‘non-Greek exotic trees, plants and shrubs around tourist and sea-side establishments, and even in archaeological sites and reafforestation areas.’ Her warning that ‘the use of non-native plants can disturb, irrevocably, the delicate traditional balance between flora and fauna’ remains timely. It is thus highly fitting that her house and garden were later to become the headquarters of the Mediterranean Garden Society.

I was really captivated by this book, brought together and edited by Sally Razelou, the present incumbent at Sparoza, and Denise Harvey, its publisher: both of them deserve accolades for so lovingly persevering in bringing about its publication. Their lively notes and appendices add considerably to the reader’s enjoyment, as do the charming drawings by Derek Toms.

Sally Razelou will, of course, be known to all our members as the first President of the Mediterranean Garden Society. Although it is over a year since I visited Sparoza, I remember vividly the exciting garden she has recreated, so full of the plants lovingly collected by Jaqueline herself. I am quite sure that Sally’s and Denise’s work will not go unrewarded and that people from all over the Mediterranean region, and elsewhere, will clamour to own a copy of this immensely readable and instructive book. I.J.M.

It is on the initiative of the Mediterranean Garden Society that Jacky's book has now been published by one of its founder members. The publisher generously offers the royalties of the sales of the book as a donation to the Society.

Jaqueline Tyrwhitt’s house is now the legal headquarters of the Society and the garden is known as the MGS garden at Sparoza.

ISBN 960-7120-14-0, paperback, pp. 266, price €18.00

Making a Garden on a Greek Hillside can be purchased directly from the publisher Denise Harvey, 340 05 Limni, Evia, Greece.
Tel./fax: +30 22279 31154
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