Mediterranean Garden Society
Thoughts on Gardening on the Island of Andros
By Jennifer Gay
Photographs by Jennifer Gay
Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No. 101, July 2020
The photo at the top of this page shows the apiary terraces which are a beautiful natural feature. Various fruit trees have been planted such as quince, almond, fig and apricot, as well as scatterings of phrygana plants – here Helianthemum caput-felis ‘Cap des Trois Fourches’. (Photo Jennifer Gay)
Jennifer Gay tells us about her discovery of the Island of Andros and her approach to designing a garden there. She writes:
Andros, the northernmost island of the Cyclades, was once famous for silk and for citrus fruits. I remember reading this before visiting for the first time and being puzzled how this could be so when it is an island also well known as a windy, rugged place. Therein lies a testament to its tremendous variety of landscape. On the one hand, Andros is an island with groundwater (there are springs with deliciously clear drinking water in almost every village), shaded fertile valleys of plane trees and running rivers, sheltered land where oranges and lemons grow. And on the other hand, parts of the interior and high ground are reminiscent of Scottish moorlands – but think Scottish moorlands with sun. With sun and with a strong north-easterly wind (the meltemi) that periodically drives along the four mountain ranges running across the island in a NE-SW direction, as if they too had been formed by the wind. The result is a dramatic windswept landscape of jagged rocks, rolling heather and arching trees.
I think it must be 15 years since I first wound my way up the steep climb from the western coast road of Andros towards the village of Ano Aprovato (this translates roughly to ‘Upper Sheepless’) where I was going to see a possible garden site about 300 metres above sea level.
Leaving the seaside holiday villas behind, the road zigzagged higher and higher up the lower slopes of Mount Petalo, which at 997 metres is the highest point on the island. As I drove slowly upwards round the hairpin bends, I remember catching the scent of the brilliant yellow blooms of Spanish broom (Spartium junceum) as it drifted through the wound-down windows of the car. Always on the lookout for what was growing on the hillsides around me, I noticed that, as is the case in so much of the Mediterranean, phrygana and maquis species were encroaching on to the abandoned crop terraces, where once grew cereals and fruits for the island population. Though goats still roam free on Andros (and keeping them out of a property is a test for many a gardener), the unpalatable members of the phrygana community give these nibbling beasts a run for their money, surviving by proving to be too thorny or too aromatic for their taste.
I remember being intrigued by the style of the terrace walls (in Greek pezoules), which I discovered to be unique to Andros and its near neighbour Tinos. Their wild craggy beauty bears witness to the harmonious working partnership of humans with nature, transforming as they did the steep rocky slopes into productive land; at the same time, as we now know, the walls had the beneficial effect of creating precious habitat for many and varied animal and plant populations. These walls are built in horizontal layers of stone, but every few metres these layers are interrupted by large vertically-placed plates of stone, supporting the wall like columns; this is what makes the Andriot and Tiniot walls structurally and visually unique. It is a style that probably developed simply because the large pieces were available and saved time, but it proved to be a very durable method of construction. Naturally the builders of these walls used what was close to hand so that the stone, sourced from the local rock, matches its colour, thus creating visual harmony with the landscape around, rock and wall merging almost imperceptibly.
As I continued my ascent, scattered groupings of Montpellier maple, Acer monspessulanum, appeared among the lentisks, Spanish broom and buckthorns. As I climbed higher still, those isolated groups of maples expanded and, windblown into rounded hummocks by the katabatics tumbling down the steep mountainside, started to form the most wonderful cloud-like woodland on those old abandoned terraces.
I later became involved in the creation of a garden in the midst of these maples hunkering down on the mountainside. The site looks out to the west on to a sea view that you can spend hours staring at on a hot summer day from the comfort of the wisteria-shaded pergola. It has a hazy dream-like quality, with the islands of Kea, Kithnos and Syros appearing and disappearing out of the shimmering light, their visibility dependent on the weather. Looking out on this view in the sultry heat of a calm day, it is easy to forget the force with which the north-easterlies come tearing down the mountainside.
On my first visit to the land, the wind was strong enough to knock me off balance so I knew that whatever was planted would need to shoulder the full force of some pretty hefty winds from time to time. The house was still being built; I scrambled over piles of rock and rubble to head up behind the house where the land rose, the clouds of maples beckoning, and found, in sharp contrast to the construction site below, an abandoned paradise. I clambered around the terraces, following the worn trails the goats had made. I discovered with delight aged multi-stemmed maples growing from tremendous slabs of jutting rock, wild pears, lentisks and really characterful olives. And there amidst all these beautiful specimens were ‘apiary terraces’, a wonderful evocation of the beekeeping history of Andros, whereby beehives were built into terrace walls, within which the bees would make their combs (see the photo at the top of this page).
This was a really beautiful place. There was no question that this upper part of the site would provide the inspiration for the garden that would be created around the house below. And it was also very clear that with a gentle touch we should create easier, sympathetic access to these apiary terraces, so that they too could be enjoyed.
I imagined drifts of drought-tolerant perennials and sub-shrubs, the list already forming in my mind – various species of Salvia, Cistus, Ballota, Helichrysum, Lomelosia, Perovskia, Phlomis, Rosmarinus, Bupleurum and Marrubium, interspersed with grasses such as Hyparrhenia hirta and the stipas. All this would be within a framework of clipped (in lieu of being goat-nibbled) domed shrubs holding the whole thing together throughout the year. Arbutus, Rhamnus, Phillyrea, Pistacia and Teucrium are unbeatable for this purpose. The colours and forms of perennials and grasses may change as the seasons do, but the undulations of the shrub content hold the garden in place throughout the year.
The soils of Andros are largely schist – moderately fertile, crystalline rock-based soil which retains heat and is rich in magnesium and potassium, but poor in organic nutrients and nitrogen. Weeding is never quite the problem in Andros that it is in the Ionian Islands.
Rosemaries and cistuses tend to keep their green form while golds and silvers emerge as the summer progresses (Ballota acetabulosa foreground, Phlomis × cytherae centre, Centaurea spinosa (left centre).
The existing and new terraces of this steep sloping site allowed us the planting depth we needed. The soil profile on the original terraces was generally good although towards the back, close to the walls, we tended to hit bedrock. Stones there were aplenty… Over the years I have learnt to see stones not as an enemy but as a friend. They are coolants and help provide that most vital of ingredients for mediterranean species – good drainage. Without them this schisty soil of Andros can actually drain quite poorly.
Smaller stones especially are no obstacle for the developing roots; indeed they help to toughen them up for their downward journey. The main challenge with a very stony soil is to create a big enough planting hole and to make sure you can provide enough material around the rootball for the roots to push through, without air bubbles. I am following with great interest news of a project in France called Capitoul where garden designers James and Helen Basson, alongside Olivier Filippi, have been planting thousands of plants into a metre depth of crushed stone with no soil at all and so far with success. Obviously it’s especially important to choose the right plant for the right place in such a situation, so they are going with a range of plants that naturally like rocky places.
Though we safeguarded excavated topsoil from the construction site for our newly-created planting terraces around the house, we also needed to import quantities of soil to backfill these. We part-filled the terraces with stone not only to ensure good drainage but also to make use of what we had plenty of, and not needlessly fill the entire depth of the pezoules with soil. We ensured that the imported soil was local and as close a match to the site as possible. Until he got to know me, my now very trusted local soil supplier, eager to please, wanted to sieve all the stones out of the soil. He now knows that while the largest ones can be removed, we very much want stones in the soil.
I always strongly recommend to the client that we plant small specimens (root to shoot ratio in the range of 2:1 or better still 3:1), especially in such conditions, because establishing good roots is the key to those little plants finding the moisture they need deep down in the soil. As I grow older, I become increasingly aware of the benefits of plants that look after themselves. I have never lost my commitment to the creation of planting saucers, or rainwater catchment wells – if possible 60 cm wide by 20 cm deep. This allows the plant to receive a really good column of water on planting, soaking not only the rootball but also the soil around it. It is surprising how quickly a rootball will dry out soon after planting as the plant struggles to adapt to its new pot-free environment, especially if the potting substrate contains a lot of peat (which sadly in many Mediterranean countries remains the case). The deeper the water you can give on that first watering, the less chance you have of this happening: on steep terrain those planting saucers can be the difference between life and death.
Going back full circle to where we started and the contradictions of the Andros landscape: on those sheltered apiary terraces we found the right place, both practically and in terms of atmosphere, for more wind-tolerant fruit trees such as apricot, quince, pomegranate, pear and almond. Much-desired citrus trees have been harder to establish but we hope that, as the shelter belt ofmaquis species that we planted grows up, we shall manage to grow those too. It’s another reminder of something that I am reminded of every day of my gardening life in Greece: it’s better not to fight your conditions.
Sometimes the dry stony hillsides of Attica come into plain sight through the hazy heat of the western view, where Sally Razelou at Sparoza is another torch-bearer for this philosophy.
Note: During recent years a wonderful community initiative called Andros Routes has set about clearing and way-marking the island’s 300km network of stone footpaths (monopatia in Greek) for self-guided walking adventures. Once the mainstay of communication and commerce in Andros, these paths have now gained recognition from the European Ramblers’ Association as one of Europe’s Leading Quality Trails. (For more information see androsroutes.gr.)
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