Mediterranean Garden Society
The Pelion & Sporades Branch of the MGS
This MGS branch is for everyone in the Pelion and the Sporades islands (Skiathos, Skopelos, Alonnisos and Skyros) and the surrounding area in Greece. Mt. Pelion, and its verdant peninsula, have been known since antiquity as the Summer Garden of the Gods.
The branch has been set up by local MGS members who share similar growing conditions, climate and vegetation and we welcome everyone from other parts of Magnesia and Thessaly. We all have different gardens: located by or near the sea, on hills or high in the mountains, but we find that through the MGS we can share gardening experiences and challenges.
The home of the MGS is Greece and yet our Branch members include English, French, German, Austrian, Singaporean, Dutch as well as Greek: everyone is welcome.
As a new Branch (2019) our aim is to organise an annual program of visits to gardens and nurseries, workshops, talks and plant exchanges. We will celebrate historic gardens and noteworthy contemporary gardens, but will also visit amateur gardens where there is always something new to discover and learn. We study the natural flora of the country and we seek the best approaches to cope with the local climate and to promote water-wise and sustainable gardening techniques. Our first visit was to Skiathos (see Past Events below).
Pelion is well-known for its historic network of ‘kalderimia’ or stone cobbled paths which link villages and which are being restored and cleaned. As they open up wild flowers flourish. In addition we consider the place of natural grasses as well as edible plants and fruit in the garden and in the wild.
The photograph at the top of this page is of Skiathos and Pelion taken from Skopelos. (Photo by Martin Beckett)
Message from Pelion and Sporades Branch, April 2020
Here in Pelion and the Sporades islands many of the delightful gardens are second homes or have been inherited from previous generations by Greeks. Travel restrictions have been draconian and most of the owners who would have travelled here from other European countries were turned back in the early days of the ‘lockdown’. Greek owners based in Athens and other cities were firstly discouraged from coming and then outrightly forbidden, including over the Orthodox Easter holiday. We can only sympathise as they think of their gardens in Spring, unable to enjoy them or to take care of them.
In fact it has been an unseasonally cold April with high winds which have badly affected the returning swallows. One of the best adapted to these conditions are the Iris germanica - here the apparently frail petals, both white and purple, flutter happily despite the buffeting. The family name/genus dates from 1753, when it was first used by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus. Its name derives from the Greek goddess, Iris, who carried messages from Olympus to earth along a rainbow.
It has also been a special year for native terrestrial orchids - looking for these varied and charming plants is a question of 'getting one's eye in'. It usually takes two or three minutes to spot the first one and then more and more appear as if by magic. Some 50 or more species have been identified in Pelion by the Director of the Orchid Centre which opened here a few years ago. The illustrations are the white Cephalantherea longifolia or Sword-leaved helleborine and one of the many Serapias. Orchids are often found in garden settings but of course are covered by CITES.
As with other branches, events have had to be cancelled or postponed. However our 13th Spring Plant Fair, due to have been held on the last Sunday of April, will now take place at the end of September, prior to autumn planting. This will hopefully give those who will have seen little of their gardens this year an opportunity to get together, share experiences and be a part of the journey back to a normal life, filled with the joy of plants and gardens.
Finally a word regarding all the plants themselves which, over the millenia, have travelled from one corner of the planet to the other. Here we enjoy Grevillea juniperina from Australia, the first feast for the bees from early March, and through until June. The Echium maderense from Madeira is also a spectacular addition to a mediterranean garden.
Post AGM tour of Pelion
Those of us with homes in the Pelion and Sporades love the region for its natural beauty, the rugged splendour of its scenery, its continuing relationship with - and respect for - a more traditional way of life. The MGS post-AGM tour was centred on Lafkos, the South Pelion village in the foothills of Mt. Pelion, home of the Centaurs, where the land spills into the Aegean to form four larger and many smaller islands.
In devising the programme Sue Wake, Branch Head of the MGS Pelion and Sporades Branch and our hostess at Lagou Raxi, had to bear in mind there would be few grand gardens to visit and that, so late in the season, wildflowers were limited to the abundant cyclamen.
For this reason, the programme was expanded to include talks and workshops and, whether walking on the kalderimi, watching the olive harvest progress, or exploring the coast and villages, there was more than enough to interest us. We visited gardens that were intimate and based on individual creative vision and loved the character and charm of private courtyard gardens in Lafkos.
Members also enjoyed a workshop on botanical painting with renowned botanical artist and illustrator Maggie Niagassas and a walk with local herbalist Maria Zafeiriou. We were fascinated by a talk by Julie Carpenter of the Friends of the Kalderimi on finding, opening, maintaining and mapping old pathways and their involvement with new work to re-open networks of paths across Greece.
Very many thanks to Ann Semaan Beisch who, in her article for The Mediterranean Garden Journal No. 99 January 2020, successfully evokes the magic of this lesser known part of Greece.
Inaugural Branch meeting in Skiathos
Our inaugural meeting was held in Skiathos on the first real summer’s day of 2019. It started with a nature walk and was followed by visits to two gardens, one inland and one coastal. In between we had a very pleasant lunch in a beachside tavern.
Our starting point was Koukounaries Beach which is backed by a forest of predominantly Pinus pinea (after which the beach is named) and a lake of 9.5 hectares linked to the sea by a canal, set within an area of managed grassland. Together these make up the Strofilia Biotope. It was evident that tourism presents a constant risk to this important natural habitat for migratory birds and, for the island, achieving a balance between development and conservation must be a real challenge.
Within minutes of starting our walk conversations focused on environmental concerns, from waste and plastic disposal to the detrimental impact of Marchalina hellenica on the pine forests of Skopelos and from the bacterial disease affecting New Zealand’s national tree Cyathea dealbata to the risk to Greece’s olive trees from Xylella fastidiosa and the potential impact of plant import bans on the Greek nursery trade.
After a light lunch in Troulos, where the branch held its first short formal Branch meeting we travelled on to our first garden.
Christine De Jong is of Dutch origin and has lived on the island since 1984, marrying a local man and raising a family on the island which she loves for its gardens, natural or cultivated. Christine’s enthusiasm for gardening is infectious and her own garden is a delight. A great believer in sharing her experiences and in learning from others, Christine welcomed our group warmly.
Christine’s house is set in a 12,000 sq metre plot of land, part of which is olive grove but with 4,000 sq m cultivated with flowers, fruit trees and vegetable plot. Set in a hidden inland valley and nestled between hills on the south side of the island, at first sight the garden seems idyllic but in winter it is open to the cold North winds, is set in a frost pocket and is frequently under water or covered with snow during the winter months. As you wander through Christine’s rose and clematis arches, admire her flower beds and large productive vegetable and fruit plot, it is hard to imagine the challenges she faced when first establishing her garden.
Members from the Branch, as well as visitors from New Zealand and the Peloponnese, were welcomed at Christine’s gates by the Pelion Rose, a fragrant single large flowered creamy yellow climbing rose.
From the gate, the path to the south entrance of the house leads under a pergola covered in heavily perfumed Trachelospermum jasminoides before diverting around either side of the house and under a series of rose arches many of which have been propagated from local varieties. A large flowered glorious blue clematis of which many mediterranean gardeners can only dream, climbs an arch of pink noisette roses next to an outdoor kitchen.
Flower beds are informal, but repeat planting of plates of Achillea millefolium threaded with Verbena bonariensis are a particularly striking and complementary combination.
Christine is not afraid to use the bright colours and daisy forms of the cottage garden with golden gazania and marigolds lining the path while Centranthus ruber and Nigella damascena self-seed across the beds. The beds on this South side are a tapestry of colour and perfume and the atmosphere that of an artist’s garden.
On the North side of the house there is a completely different feel with parts of the house cloaked in Parthenocissus tricuspidata. Foliage has a much bigger role to play and Christine uses a more subdued palette of dark pink and red roses, hydrangea and oleander combined with the evergreen cover of citrus trees, specimens of Magnolia grandiflora and splendid camellias, all with exceptionally healthy foliage.
Across a wide access path is the very large fruit and vegetable plot, as beautiful in its own way as the flower garden and it is truly productive, providing produce for three other properties as well as for Christine’s family. Anything over is given to friends or bottled and preserved.
Tearing ourselves away from the planting to sample Christine’s hospitality, all were agreed that we would like to return again to spend more time in her delightful company and in her lovely garden.
Our second visit took us back to the coast at Kanapitsa and to Zefiros Garden where Uwe and Heidi Matthies have gardened for 25 years. Set on a steep slope on a site of 10,000 sq metres overlooking the sea and with spectacular views, the site includes both natural (including olives) and cultivated areas.
Gardens created on slopes such as this struggle with extreme conditions – poor soil, water run-off, as well as baking sun - and must always compete with the spectacular natural scenery. Uwe and Heidi have handled it brilliantly by creating terraces of planting linked by criss-crossing paths to a series of intimate seating spaces.
Each of these terraces has its own character, some use massed plantings, others are more cottage garden or showcase specialist plants, yet more form a vegetable garden with others making the most of the natural vegetation. Uwe planted hundreds of saplings whilst developing the landscape.
The natural vegetation of the site includes Pinus halapensis, Olea europea, Arbutus unedo, Pistacia lentiscus and Quercus pedunculata. One very private spot for sunbathing is reached on the lower side of a beautifully clipped serpentine hedge of Pistacia lentiscus. The bright green and sharp lines of the hedge contrasting with the darker arbutus and pine trees beyond and the line of the hedge leads the eye towards a pine tree focal point silhouetted against the sea and sky. It forms a very satisfying composition.
Of the massed plantings, Nerium oleander in a deep rose colour is most notable. Oenothera speciosa with its glowing silver-pink flowers is allowed to self-seed thickly on certain terraces but is removed when not wanted. Cascades of bougainvillea tumble over balconies or are trained into trees.
Other terraces, often shaded by Olea europea are treated as raised beds which hold deep enriched soil in which plants such as Lilium candidum, gladioli and Limonium perezii thrive.
Our afternoon concluded with biscuits and homemade lemonade provided by Uwe and Heidi and with our thanks to them for letting us visit their beautiful garden.
Text and photos by Janet Ibbotson
Visit to the Pelion
In October 2018, the Greece Branch of the MGS arranged an enjoyable visit to the Pelion hosted by Sue Wake. A full report on the visit can be found on the Greece Branch page. In the course of this visit we agreed to seek permission to set up the Pelion & Sporades Branch and we proposed a visit to Pelion for the MGS 2019 AGM programme.
Based at Lagou Raxi Country Hotel she runs The Mediterranean Centre for Art, Gardens, Plants and Design offering courses, such as Botanical Illustration and Mosaics in Marble. The Centre also welcomes orchid and wild flower groups to a little-known but beautiful peninsula of mainland Greece.
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