Mediterranean Garden Society

The Sally gardens – a year at Sparoza

by Lucinda Willan
Photographs by Lucinda Willan

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No. 106, October 2021

The video at the top of this page features Lucinda Willan talking about her first year at Sparoza.

Lucinda Willan is head gardener at Sparoza. She writes: As I began to write this article I realised it was the eve of the anniversary of my first encounter with Sally Razelou. It is a strange and somewhat disconcerting realisation and one that has made me very conscious of the way that time has played tricks on us during the Covid-19 pandemic. In all honesty it feels much longer than a year since I travelled to Athens to meet Sally and yet it was a year ago to the day that I first came to Sparoza and met the extraordinary woman who had been tending the garden for nearly three decades.

A view of Sparoza during Lucinda Willan’s first visit in August 2020

Two hoopoes greeted me on the driveway as I came up the hill. They were arranged under the Aleppo pines and I took them as a very good omen indeed. The house sat down in a dip with the garden rising up around it. The air smelt strongly of pine and I remember thinking that the enormous battleship-grey Century Plants, Agave americana, looked like monsters about to climb out of their encircling wall.

It was midday in late August and the heat was intense. The garden was simultaneously completely still and deafeningly noisy due to the orchestra of cicadas. It was an elegant and harmonious space that unfolded in the dominant horizontals of the terraces and the curves of the ‘threshing floor’ and the meandering paths of the phrygana and hillside. The palette was all dark green and silver complemented by red earth and umber – the colours of eucalyptus bark – and there was nothing flashy or lavish about it but it had excellent bones. This was the garden at its lowest ebb in full summer dormancy and yet I loved it and could feel a sense of excitement and potential.

As I walked around the garden I came upon unexpected drama, the enormous pink trumpets of Naked Ladies, Amaryllis belladonna, with their sultry bruised stems erupting around the garden with an underplanting of Zephyranthes ‘La Bufa Rosa’. In the phrygana and on the hillside the first Cyclamen graecum were raising their heads. It felt completely right and after 36 hours with Sally I told her I would like to come and garden with her for the next eight months.

Amaryllis belladonna in the Woodland border

I finally started working at Sparoza in mid-October 2020 and was amazed to find everything even drier than I’d seen it in August. The temperatures had dropped to the mid to low 20s but the rain hadn’t come. As soon as I arrived we were put into lockdown again and so Sally and I worked away in the garden, pruning roses and clearing iris foliage. We laid out plants on the terraces in anticipation of the rain, waiting for the ground to be sufficiently saturated to plant them. We waited and waited and nothing came. Sadly Sally and I were only able to garden together for these few weeks before she became ill but I shall always be grateful for the months we spent together out of the garden, talking about plants, books, poetry and history.

‘Threshing Floor’ in November 2020

We had to wait until early December for the rain and when it came it was biblical. After nearly six months of waiting, the garden could now spring into action. You could see the plants relaxing and growing in front of your eyes and almost overnight the garden gained a green fuzz. The parched red earth of the ‘threshing floor’ became an emerald-green sward in just a few days. This extraordinary horticultural transformation is one of the most dramatic and theatrical conceits in the garden and also one of Sparoza’s most compelling examples of waterwise gardening. The hillside smelt so strongly of petrichor and thyme it was amazing to experience.

‘Threshing Floor’ in December 2020

The display of autumn-flowering bulbs had been patchy due to the lack of rain but now the later Crocus cartwrightianus began to stud the pathways with its imperial purple petals and triple flame-red stigmas. The winter was proving remarkably mild and sunny and the garden was filled with the extraordinary fragrance of paperwhites, Narcissus papyraceus.

Narcissus papyraceus under the olive trees of the Phrygana in January

Anemone coronaria also started to emerge across the garden, carpeting the phrygana and hillside with a phenomenal display of white and pink stars followed by the deeper purple and intensely saturated red. It was just as the anemones were at their zenith that we had the pleasure of hosting Vogue Greece for their cover photo shoot.

Anemone coronaria on the Hillside in February 2021

It was an extremely warm early February day and the model Rosanna Georgiou was photographing the actress and director Ariane Labed around the garden. The result was a series of very romantic dream-like photos and I particularly loved the one of Labed emerging from underneath the Retama raetam on the terraces. Two weeks later we had the largest dump of snow that Attica had seen for over ten years.

The Terrace with the Retama raetam in full flower in February

The snow arrived on 14th February, a strange sort of Valentine’s present, soft and fluffy which created an insulating layer over the garden. The lush growth from the warm winter was flattened but the plants weren’t frozen and as a result we had very few losses. The biggest problem was the weight of nearly two feet of snow on the trees. Branches sagged and cracked and by the time the snow disappeared two days later the damage to the trees across the garden was rather daunting.

We were just starting to get on top of the fallen limbs when Sally died early in the morning on 2nd March. It was not unexpected and yet it came as an enormous shock. Due to the strict lockdown rules that were in place at the time, the funeral could be attended by only nine people when in normal times the church would have been full to bursting with the many people whose lives Sally had touched. The service was held on the South Veranda at Sparoza with people able to attend and contribute via Zoom. A sprig of Fritillaria obliqua adorned her coffin along with a Marmite jar of Iris tuberosa and beautiful spring posies made up of flowers from the garden by some of Sally’s garden assistants and family.

After the busyness of the past few months the absence of Sally and her family and friends was enormous. The garden felt strange. It was a place of sanctuary still but somehow everything was tinged with sadness. Without Sally it felt as if the garden had lost its stories and sense of purpose. The warmer weather in early March brought the garden on apace and the extraordinary beauty of spring at Sparoza started to unfold.

Since January the hillside had been ornamented with the large glossy leaves of giant orchids, Himantoglossum robertianum. Their tall pink and green spires emerged amongst the wild thyme and cistus giving a startling glamour and sensuality to the still brown phrygana and casting a strong sweet perfume across the hill. I had been watching two especially sandy hillocks near the Bishop of Piraeus’s palace. These steep shelves were studded with hundreds of glossy rosettes of Himantoglossum and Ophrys leaves and every morning I would walk past to inspect them until they became a riot of colour and scent, a carnival of flowers.

A huge colony of Himantoglossum robertianum on the hillside in February

This game of orchid hunting gave me months of pleasure and opened up a world of detail and delight while we were in lockdown: miniature masterpieces that you could easily miss if you weren’t looking for them, often poking their heads up through the spiny skirts of Sarcopoterium spinosum or Anthyllis hermanniae. I had been told that the orchids of Greece were astonishing but I was completely unprepared for the number and diversity of them, in a square metre you could find more than five different species of Ophrys. The ground was littered with Ophrys sphegodes subsp. mammosa, Ophrys ferrum-equinum, Ophrys lutea, Ophrys lutea subsp. galilaea, Ophrys speghodes, Ophrys tenthredinifera, Ophrys fusca subsp. iricolor and their hybrids. The first Himantoglossum robertianum in the garden flowered on 17th January and the last Ophrys umbilicata (syn. O. attica), Ophrys scolopax and Anacamptis coriophora dried up in early May becoming black shadows of their former glory.

A coterie of Ophrys ferrum-equinum, the horse shoe bee-orchid in the Phrygana in late March

Accompanying these extraordinary native geophytes were the equally delicate and ephemeral annual flowers. From March into April the floor of the phrygana in the garden was covered with a carpet of exquisite wildflowers, Silene colorata, Nigella damascena, Papaver rhoeas, Anthemis chia and many vetches, as if Botticelli’s Primavera had come to life. Old World Swallowtails flitted from silene to silene making these slender flowers bow their heads in greeting. Their glory was fleeting due to the lack of rain but somehow that made it all the more precious.

Annuals in the Phrygana at the end of March - Papaver rhoeas, Silene colorata and Anthemis chia

Early May saw the return of the garden volunteers with the lifting of restrictions and it was a real joy to be able to share the garden again. The aloes were ablaze and the echinopsis put on a wonderful display for their return. While the dry spring meant that the unirrigated sections of the garden were already moving into summer dormancy, the display of annuals continued for much longer in the irrigated sections of the garden and I was enormously grateful for their presence towards the end of May when the BBC came to film for an episode of Monty Don’s most recent garden tour. The terraces were awash with poppies and larkspur, salvias and lavender – a veritable Mediterranean cottage garden - and in the golden light of the late afternoon it looked very beautiful. The series is due to be aired in January next year.

Early April under the Dancing Olives

The garden that Sally created has been a complete revelation to me. It is a garden that gets under your skin. I think this is why almost every gardener who has spent time at Sparoza has fallen in love with it and why sometimes a visitor who walks around for half an hour doesn’t get it. It reveals its secrets slowly and rewards close observation. I love its informality and the way that the wildflowers of Attica take centre stage throughout most of the season. The structure of the garden is given by the native and non-native trees and shrubs arranged around the four-acre site in different themes but the magic comes from the succession of native geophytes and annuals that come in successive waves from the first autumn rains until the searing heat dulls the yellow sea of Bupleurum flavum and turns everything quiet.

Aloe maculata in the Phrygana in April

It is now September and I have seen a full cycle of the seasons at Sparoza and it has been a cycle of extremes. A baptism of fire. The 2020-2021 season has been difficult, it has been the hottest people can remember since the heatwave of 1987 with temperatures soaring above 40 degrees in June, July and August. It has also been the second driest year since Sally started keeping records 18 years ago, with only 376mm of rainfall. There is no doubt that there will be losses across the garden as a result. The spaces left by some of the cypresses on the hill or shrubs around the garden should be seen as opportunities to introduce new plants to the garden and to carry on the spirit of experimentation and plant collecting that was started by Jacky Tyrwhitt and developed further under Sally’s custodianship. 

The Aloe bed in early May

Since Sally died a conversation I had with my head gardener at Sissinghurst has kept returning to my mind. He said that all great gardens die to a certain extent when their creator dies. At the time I remember being completely baffled and almost angry at the idea and asked, ‘What are we here for then?’. Now I think I understand and almost agree. Gardens are incredibly personal works of art. They absorb as much time and money and love as you are prepared to give and live or die by the passion and dedication of the gardener. That is why, in my opinion, private gardens often have a soul and sense of purpose that you sometimes struggle to find in public gardens. Sparoza, while supported financially by the Mediterranean Garden Society, was Sally’s private garden and the challenge is to find a new sense of purpose now she has gone.

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