Mediterranean Garden Society

Snowfall and change at Sparoza

by Lucinda Willan
Photographs by Lucinda Willan

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No. 108, April 2022

The photo at the top of this page shows Sparoza under snow in March 2022 (Photo Lucinda Willan)

‘And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be are full of trees and changing leaves.’ Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

March snow - path up the hillside at Sparoza

Lucinda Willan is Head Gardener at Sparoza. She writes: “I am writing this article as the snow is falling for the second time this year. Of course it does snow in Attica but to have snow and below zero temperatures in nearly mid-March is unusual. The locals said last year that the heavy snow we had in February was a once in a decade event and that the summer heat was the worst since 1987. However, in late January this year we had even more snow than last year and people were saying it was once in a lifetime snow. It was incredibly beautiful and destructive and it got me thinking about change: both change in terms of climate and change in terms of that which is necessitated by the huge amount of damage caused by the weight of the snow. It also got me thinking about how reliable collective memory is.

László Máté Tálas carrying out work to the Searsia lancea in the Plateia

The catalogue of damage since January is long and painful but with loss comes opportunity. Action is forced upon one and difficult decisions that might have been put off have to be made. It is also amazing how often when you are at your lowest ebb something happens to turn things around. I am hugely grateful that three weeks after the January snow László Máté Tálas arrived, a skilled gardener and arborist with a great eye. The two of us have been working through the damage and my long list of jobs, and instead of it feeling daunting it has been a pleasure. We have felled nine cypresses, three thujas, a number of Pistacia lentiscus and Yucca gigantea (syn. Y. elephantipes) as well as a large almond. Barely a pine has escaped without some form of loss and many of the olives in the phrygana area have become veterans (i.e. trees with lots of character through features such as missing limbs and wounds). Lessons have been learnt and new vistas opened up. The light has changed across the garden again and it is interesting and exciting.

March snow - the view from the roof of Sparoza

The lessons I have learned are simple but they are important and will be helpful going forward. I am carrying out an appraisal of the pruning of the shrubs and perennials around the garden in order to put in place a plan to protect against further snow damage. After the snow I observed that almost all of the shrubs and perennials that had been cut back or clipped tightly before the snow escaped relatively unscathed. Anything that had been allowed to grow out or that had lush new growth was flattened, often leading to damage to the plant. Many of the Pistacia lentiscus and Quercus coccifera that had been lifted to produce elegant multi-stem screens suffered under the weight of the snow and some bowed their heads so far down that they could not be saved with wooden props. Thinning of the canopies would help the snow to fall through and prevent the weight of the snow from accumulating and then eventually bringing the trunks down and causing them to crack.

January snow - snowy dancing olives

The olive trees have been a particularly interesting case study and one of the things that I have found most instructive. In recent years the olives in the phrygana have been pruned minimally, allowing them to grow up and out to produce beautiful shapes across the area. They were not meant to be productive but aesthetic. Having seen the damage caused by the snow I am convinced that a balance needs to be struck between aesthetics and practicality.

The new view from under the Dancing Olives

The snow sat in the canopy of the olives and the weight caused branches to snap at height and lower down, whereas the olives that had been pruned and tidied at the top of the garden by the water cistern suffered no damage – the snow fell through their branches rather than sitting on top. I think judicious pruning to thin the canopy and aid productivity has to be the way forward. And if productivity is good enough I think an olive festival could be a wonderful way to bring people together to gather the olives and learn about how to manage the trees and prepare delicious olives for eating and pressing.

January snow - the Phrygana

The trees in the phrygana now have a somewhat slimmed profile as most of the outstretched horizontal branches have been lost, no doubt weakened by the snow of February 2021. These new shapes combined with the loss, or at least huge reduction in number, of yuccas has created a subtle but I think clearly discernible difference in the experience of the phrygana. The space seems much lower and one’s eye follows the lines of the mounded shrubs more freely. This river of mounded forms can be added to and I would like to plant additional shrubs in the autumn planting window.

Some sections of the area known as “the threshing floor” will also need to be refreshed in the autumn. A few of the large Euphorbia dendroides were snapped by the snow and the elegant silver-grey succulents Cotyledon orbiculata used as a repeated motif around the circular bed have collapsed and need to be rethought. The three beautiful large specimens of broad-leaved Rosmarinus officinalis (Salvia rosmarinus) have been flattened, revealing how woody they had become. They will not bounce back and will need to be replaced. Cuttings have already been taken and hopefully they can be used to renew the planting. The other interesting casualty of the extreme weather has been the sculptural Ptilostemon chamaepeuce around the threshing floor. A number had started to fail after the extremely hot summer but the snow has finished them off; however there are ample seedlings at their bases which with any luck will replace their parents.

Snow damage to trees at the front of Sparoza

The nursery has been one of the hardest areas to see change. It was Sally’s special place in the garden where she spent most of her time while we worked together and so was particularly sacred and almost felt as if it had a spell cast over it after she died. The snow broke that spell rather rudely by crashing down half of the glorious Pinus halepensis that stood sentinel over the entrance and crushing the planting of the border below. This fallen giant along with the loss of many limbs from its less impressive sisters in the nursery forced a rethink of the space. The light is now so different that the plants needed to be reorganised and placed differently according to their various needs. The reorganisation has allowed us to rethink how the space functions and to try to make it more efficient. The bed in front of the pine has been dug out and replanted with interesting native plants and unusual Canary Island endemics. The back area has been cleared out, and a new small improvised propagation house built for cuttings.

Annuals and geophytes by the water cistern at the top of the garden

One of the great joys after the January snow has been the emergence of the early spring geophytes and annuals. After a very dry 2020-2021, by February we had already had more rain than in the whole of last year and the very wet October seems to have given some of the sleeping bulbs the moisture they needed to flower. The Iris tuberosa and Muscari commutatum are flowering in astonishing numbers – a completely different display from that of last year. And the variations in colours and markings have provided hours of pleasure and discussions about the possibilities of creating Sparoza selections.

A carpet of Vicia villosa and Muscari commutatum on the hillside

At the moment these bulbs are being supplemented with billowing carpets of Vicia villosa and other annual peas. The large number of chunky limbs from fallen friends – the Aleppo pines, Cupressus sempervirens and Searsia lancea – have provided ample material to redefine the lines of the path up the hillside, creating an attractive sinuous edge that is looking particularly good under the snow at the moment. The huge main trunk of the almond, Prunus dulcis, that bordered the terraces has been saved to be made into a bench. These features bear witness to the story of the garden but also add detail and interest.

March snow on Sparoza hill - Noeie looking out to Hymettos

I have spent many hours thinking about the future of Sparoza and how to safeguard the work and achievements of Sally Razelou over the past thirty years; if I am completely honest the weight of it has sometimes felt overwhelming. The extent of the destruction wrought by the snow has been shocking but it has also been strangely freeing. All that we can do is to cut back the damage and wait for it to heal. There are lessons to learn, and the best way forward, I believe, is to take stock of what remains, to think about what should be protected and to embrace and plan for change. We cannot predict what is ahead but we can monitor the conditions – the rainfall and maximum and minimum temperature – to see how the climate may change and be creative by selecting the best and most interesting plants possible for these new conditions.

Follow Lucinda Willan at Sparoza with In Bloom Now and on Instagram.

THE MEDITERRANEAN GARDEN is the registered trademark of The Mediterranean Garden Society in the European Union, Australia, and the United States of America

Data Protection Consent

website designed and maintained
by Hereford Web Design