Mediterranean Garden Society

Gardens in Lockdown

By Lesley Dellagana
Photos by Lesley Dellagana

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No. 102, October 2020

The photo at the top of this page shows the brilliant white plum blossom in Sicily in March (Photo Lesley Dellagana)

Lesley Dellagana has been in lockdown in the UK rather than in her Sicilian garden. She writes:

Those of us who have been spending lockdown with a garden are very lucky. It is unimaginable how difficult it must have been for people living with no outside space during these very strange times. We have been spending lockdown focusing on our garden in York, lavishing more attention on it than it has received at this time of year since we bought our tiny house with a large garden near Ragusa in Sicily. The greater attention is reflected in the tidier than usual flower beds - not that our York garden could ever be considered manicured; that has never been our style of choice. We prefer to let the plants, with a little assistance from us, do their own thing.

Lesley Dellagana’s garden in York

We last visited our Sicily house in January; another visit was planned for early March, but Covid-19 intervened to prevent that. In January the scented narcissi and cyclamens were at their best, some salvias were starting to flower, and wild orchids and Iris unguicularis were appearing in the woods behind our house. We managed to carry out some essential maintenance jobs in the garden, including pruning our olive trees, but, despite the compensations of the York garden during lockdown, there are many things we have missed. For example, we missed the blossoming of the almond trees in February/early March, not just in the garden but in the hedgerows of the surrounding area, their pink and white flowers shining through at a time when few other flowers are blooming.

Narcissus tazetta subsp. italicus in Sicily

We missed seeing our rosemary hedge in full flower, the blooming of the winter-flowering jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum); we missed the wild flowers that in the springtime carpet both the olive grove and the slowly emerging orchard. We missed the flowering of the mimosa tree (Acacia dealbata) that we planted at the edge of the orchard; we were sorry too not to see the flowering of the tulips and irises, Rosa banksiae and jasmine that we have introduced into the garden in the last few years.

In May we missed the exquisite scent of the Pittosporum tobira ‘trees’ that were already in the garden when we bought the house.

Pittosporum tobira

We shall miss the delicate flowers of the myrtle tree and the myrtle hedge that we planted a few years ago to provide a screen at the back of the house, as well as the various oleanders that provide colour in the garden when other plants are dormant in the summer.

Myrtle (Myrtus communis)

Most of all in the spring we were sorry not to see the flowering of the various cistuses (Cistus creticus, C. ladanifer, C. parviflorus, C.× pulverulentus ‘Sunset’, C. × purpureus), some of the first plants we planted in the garden after reading Olivier Filippi’s The Dry Gardening Handbook. These have proved invaluable to us, gardening as we do in the harsh conditions of the Sicilian heat in summer and, at our altitude of 550m, the cold of winter.

Cistus ladanifer in Sicily

Encouraged by the success of our cistuses in Sicily, a few years ago we decided to try growing them, together with other Mediterranean plants, in our English garden in York where the climatic conditions could not be more different. Perhaps benefiting from the extremely dry conditions throughout May in England this year, they have been spectacular. We have also succeeded in growing an Artemisia species from seed collected from the hedgerows in Sicily and Acanthus mollis from seed from the MGS Seed Exchange. Is perhaps climate change, with warmer summers and milder winters, enabling us Yorkshire gardeners to be a little more adventurous in our choice of Mediterranean plants in our gardens in the north of England?

Cistus ladanifer (foreground) and Cistus x pulverulentus 'Sunset' in York

We missed the brilliant white plum blossom in our Sicily garden in March this year (see the photo at the top of this page) and we shall miss harvesting the plums towards the end of June.

When we first bought the Sicily house there was a rather scrawny, almost totally overgrown pomegranate bush in what we are slowly developing into the orchard. We have carefully nursed it back to health, so much so that in the last two years it has produced a few pomegranates. The red flowers in June are enchanting, and what excitement when a very small amount of fruit appears in July, going on to mature around September.

Pomegranate (Punica granatum)

Also making an appearance in June are the bright yellow/orange flowers of the prickly pears which, by July, provide a wonderful show. The fruits contain very hard seeds that make them difficult to eat, so we have learned to turn them into a delicious, bright red or orange refreshing drink simply by peeling them (very carefully with a knife and fork – they have barely visible spines that really hurt if they stick in you), liquidising, straining and adding water and lemon juice. Last week my husband made ice-cream with the juice of some prickly pears that we had brought back last autumn and had kept in the freezer in York.

Prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica)

In August sea squills (Drimia maritima) emerge from the ground almost ghost-like in the olive grove, the salvia and Russian sage (Perovskia) are in full flower, and four o’clock plants (Mirabilis jalapa) appear as if by magic, self-seeding in the sunniest parts of the garden. We shall miss seeing these.

Sea squill (Drimia maritima)

Last year, like most olive-growers in our region, our trees produced no olives whatsoever. We are hoping for a harvest this autumn and that we’ll be able to travel to Sicily for it. We have been so lucky to be able to enjoy our York garden during lockdown, but for all that it has fewer weeds and a more orderly feel to it this year, we are a little apprehensive about the disorder that undoubtedly awaits us when we are finally able to return to Sicily. We are impatient to be able to renew our connection with our garden in Sicily.

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