Mediterranean Garden Society

Our Garden in Crete 15 Years On

by Valerie Whittington
photographs by Valerie Whittington

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No. 104, April 2021

The photo at the top of this page shows Echium fastuosum in the courtyard (Photo Valerie Whittington)

In TMG 103 Valerie Whittington wrote of coming back to her garden after an enforced absence of six months when lockdown in the UK prevented her from returning home to Crete. Here she describes the development of the garden over the years.

It is now 15 years old. Plants, although challenged, generally grow well here so that much of the garden has matured having been developed in phases over this time. It is my retirement hobby and I am still passionate about it. But, as I said in an earlier article on my garden (TMG 63, 2010), I am not a ‘purist’ with set ideas and have had no formal training. I enjoy creativity, am unconventional in my approach to gardening and committed to the ideals of the Mediterranean Garden Society.

Our land is situated approximately 300 metres above sea level, covers 4,000 square metres (four stremmata) and is exposed to winds from all directions. It is indeed a wild, windswept landscape here with cold harsh winds and severe hot desiccating ones in the heat of summer.

I took a photograph of the neighbouring field soon after arriving home last August, which is an indication of how our land was before it became a garden. It is a reminder of how far the garden has developed over the years, despite the fact that after our long absence it needed some loving care and attention – which was largely cosmetic and involved tidying after the summer months.

Through the fence - taken soon after arriving home in August after six months away, which is an indication of what my land was like before it became our garden

When we acquired it the land had never been used for cultivation but was over-grazed, as evidenced by the abundance of phlomis and euphorbia. The original soil is generally satisfactory to work with in these areas, though shallow and with many rocks including large areas of bedrock.
We inherited three trees: two olives and a wild pear, as well as a few tatty wild almonds. In addition to a profusion of phlomis and euphorbia there were many thistles and grasses, with lots of lovely wild flowers in the spring. Other areas were made barren by building work and the resulting debris.

A stone bank was created by the excavation for the house and pool and this has been my biggest challenge. Fourteen lorry loads of ‘topsoil’ covered this section but rains came early that year and much was washed away before I was able to plant anything. This is clay soil, which is very poor. Erosion is a continuing problem but I have seized this as a challenge. I have countered it, in the main, by the creation of small planting pockets and by choosing resilient specimens, especially succulents, to settle within holes surrounded by rocks, often making a home for individual plants.

The creation of small ‘planting pockets’ and choosing resilient specimens helps battle with the steep terrace and erosion

What was a very exposed area is now well shaded in places by mature Pinus pinea, Cupressus sempervirens, Ceratonia siliqua (carob) and two eucalyptus trees. At the outset I had an almost blank canvas on which to create something that resembled a garden rather than an over-grazed field and building site. I had researched and thought long and hard before setting out my long-term aims. None of those aims has changed. They continue to be:

When it came to planning and design, I had to remember the big picture: given the lack of trees there was little shade, so tree planting was a priority. The forestry department in Chania at that time had an annual sale of cheap, high-quality small trees and shrubs. Many of our plants came from there, as I believe planting small is best, especially in establishing trees – and we wanted lots of trees. Given their maturity there is no need for summer watering and the Pinus pinea drop pine needles which inhibit the growth of weeds in some areas, which helps with maintenance.

Overtime many trees and plants have matured and a wider variety of underplanting introduced

Trees such as Albizia julibrissin (silk tree), Paraserianthes lophantha (syn. Albizia distachya), Caesalpinia gilliesii (bird of paradise tree), Cercis siliquastrum (Judas tree) and cassia were grown from seed; all are doing well. Ricinus communis, the castor oil bush, was very successful early on and provided attractive colour but became invasive (if there was water close by), dropping its copious prickly, poisonous seeds, so now only a rare stray exists – but not for long…

Early shrubs and pioneer plants were used, such as oleander by the boundary wall and as a successful windbreak. Because they are also drought-tolerant, in recent years oleanders have been added to the lower meadow, making an ‘oleander walk’. They were still flowering when we returned in in mid-August: a very useful and rewarding plant in my particular environment – they have flowers in a range of colours, are evergreen and can be cut back hard or grown into a tree as desired. Myrtus and Pittosporum have proved stalwart plants throughout the garden, with Carpobrotus edulis (Hottentot fig) and Mesembryanthemum cordifolium (syn. Aptenia cordifolia) being very good pioneer plants, useful on the bank to help cover the ground and prevent bare soil from being washed away. Over time, I have used less of the latter two species as a wider variety of plants have been introduced.

Coping with the steep terrace and erosion

My decision to include some deciduous trees and shrubs, for example Cercis siliquastrum (Judas tree), Robinia pseudoacacia, Hibiscus and Acacia to provide a microclimate and support soil improvement has proved beneficial. The acacias are brittle and suffer wind damage most years but I do enjoy their lovely yellow pompom-like flowers. Two lovely Acacia dealbata varieties have died. They are fairly short-lived in our region but must have been at least ten years old; they were beautiful trees and I am sorry to see them go. Three Acacia longifolia have suffered from strong winds and have bent and shed branches but they continue to thrive and produce a lovely show of flowers.

Echium fastuosum also comes into this category. I love its stunning flower spikes, it’s always a show-stopper and the butterflies adore it. The plant is undemanding, liking the hot dry conditions of my garden with its poor, shallow soil. The only problem is that although it is a perennial it is short-lived, sometimes dying after flowering or going very ‘woody’. For this reason, I take cuttings every year so I always have several good-quality specimens as replacements ready when necessary.

Echium fastuosum

Plants are grouped together for impact and cohesion. I make use of plant communities. Areas are zoned, generally by type, with palms, yuccas, agaves and succulents for example fitting well with the wild area of phlomis and euphorbia. It is interesting to see how sea squills (Drimia maritima) have naturalised in this area over the years, also in the meadow. This particular area needs no attention until the end of summer when general tidying takes place, removing died-back plant material from wild flowers and pruning where necessary.

Two palms have suffered attacks by the palm weevil, one discovered on my return last August, the other earlier this week. The agave beetle also visited this summer causing one agave to keel over; others nearby have been treated. I have many fine agave specimens which thrive (apart from occasional infestation by this beetle). I always worry that one of my huge plants will succumb as they make such a feature in the garden. Varieties include Agave attenuata, A. americana var. striata, A. parryi, A. americana ‘Mediopicta’, A. havardiana and A. tequilana.

Agave americana surrounded in March by stunning, vivid blue wild lupins

Underplanting and groundcover in this area is made up of Lantana camara, L. montevidensis and bulbines which work well with other succulents. Lantana is a very tough plant growing in poor ground and needing little care. I use it in several parts of the garden where it provides a rich contrast of colour once the rains start.

All the plants in the dry garden at the top of the bank, including cacti and a variety of succulents such as Aloe arborescens, A. ferox, Echeveria elegans, Aeonium arboreum, A. haworthii, Crassula arborescens, C. ovata, C. tetragona, Cotyledon, Kalanchoe and Euphorbia rigida, have managed very well. Three splendid large Euphorbia ingens do have a few brown branches; however, after our first rainfall on 19th September a few green shoots began to emerge on these dried-up limbs. These groups work well together and have similar needs as regards both soil and water.

Varied under-planting around the trees including Lantana camara

In recent years I have added several Lavandula angustifolia and the toothed lavender, L. dentata, which is very happy in various locations in the garden, salvias such as Salvia leucantha (Mexican sage), S. officinalis, bulbinesanda favourite, Scabiosa minoana.  Most of these additions to provide greater contrast are grown from my own cuttings of plants used successfully elsewhere in the garden.

I have found that zoning in this way is sensible in terms of watering needs and caters for similar soil requirements. Some of the plants have self-seeded and found their way here on the wind and are blending in naturally. These include phlomis, Ruellia simplex (syn. R. brittoniana), Verbena bonariensis and even the odd sunflower.

Plants are grouped together for impact and cohesion. The under planting and ground cover provides a rich contrast of colour once the rains start, as seen in this photograph taken in December

The bank has proved an ongoing challenge to combat erosion caused by the often torrential rain. Simple terracing and stones around individual plants are employed to deal with this. In some places, in the early days, netting was used to hold back the soil.

These methods are proving very effective. Trees now provide shade and allow for underplanting with lantana, teucrium, bulbines, senecio, valerian, aloe and agave varieties. Succulents, mostly propagated from existing plants elsewhere in the garden, have been planted in pockets in the rocks and are thriving. In a sunny spot high on the bank I am delighted to have planted an Ebenus cretica, endemic to Crete, which is thriving. I have just two of them in the garden and prize them greatly – no water at all for these in the summer or they would die. As yet I have not managed to propagate them successfully either by cuttings or from seed.

Ebenus cretica

My commitment to encouraging drought tolerance by using little water is still challenging, judging when a plant is established and ready to cope on its own with just the winter rains, or occasional summer watering only for younger or more vulnerable plants. I have become braver and prepared to lose a few plants as I continue to learn: if they don’t survive the summer, I don’t replace that particular variety or decide to put it in a cooler area. Rainwater from our terraces drains to a water tank in the lower garden where there is no other access to water. This collection system has proved invaluable for new plants during summer months.

So what are the key factors in achieving my aims?

All garden waste is recycled. I continue to make compost from kitchen and garden waste to use as a soil improver or as mulch. I also add seaweed when winter storms deposit it on nearby beaches. My homemade compost is excellent for propagation and I do not have to buy compost for this purpose.

Prunings are shredded and often used as mulch directly on the bank to help combat erosion, although any shredded ‘wood’ generally goes into the compost first. Pine needles suppress weeds very effectively in the wooded section of the garden and on the bank. I leave little soil exposed for otherwise unwanted weed seeds invade.

In spring we have many different wild flowers. These are valued for their natural beauty and they were here before us; I respect them and enjoy them as a major part of the garden. They are not weeded or cleared until after they die back. Some are used as mulch in the ‘managed wild areas’, others set seed and die back naturally. Those that are potentially invasive, such as thistles, I endeavour to remove before they seed.

The meadow in February - a carpet of lupins

The year 2020 had many challenges for us all. Being away from my garden in Crete for six months encouraged me to appraise what I originally set out to achieve, acknowledging a steep learning curve that involved both successes and disappointments on the way. I believe the result does reflect my continuing and overriding aim: to create a garden that has a sense of where we live and is in keeping with the landscape.

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