Growing, growing…gone

I am a gardener, a grower, an experimenter and in all of this I need that most resolute of skills – patience. It is the hardest thing to learn to wait.

But now as I write this after a day of work (and a lunchtime swim), the seeds have been sown. I wait patiently, twiddling my thumbs juggling words and waiting for Spring. I read the news online and see that the UK has been dragged out from the fog of cold. Months of unseasonable temperatures that have stunted plant growth, pushing back the harvest dates, slow sales at garden centres and Easter retail forecast in the doldrums. But this gloom has been replaced by high temps and basking in sunshine. How suddenly nature can change the mood!

But here in Greece, following the later Easter weekend, Spring is trying its hardest to level out the temperatures. We have had hot days, like last Saturday when we, perhaps foolishly, walked to Ermoupoli in the hot 11am sunshine. But we have also had cold nights. Really COLD nights – wearing a fleece, jogging bottoms and socks, and under two duvets! Then yesterday we swam in the sea for a lunch hour dip, the sea is now warming up (or am I acclimatizing to its chill?) – but in 20 mins I had the outlines of my bathing suit beginning to imprint itself on my skin in red lines. These are such rookie mistakes. Yet, we keep on making them. Like spending close to two hours looking at ferry schedules to factor in some trips to nearby islands – a complex mathmatical puzzle that I didn’t have all the clues to or the patience for. Planning is like a guessing game. I had to give up in the end. It’s also feeling rookie the way I am forgetting my Greek. Manolis said to me this morning in the cafe that language is like a tool that rusts up over the winter and needs to be oiled by being practised again. I think was trying to make me feel better about my poor Greek skills by saying he forgets his English when there’s no tourists around to speak to. His English is way better than my Greek will ever be!  

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Practice, practice, patience. These are the lessons of the day. I certainly don’t want to give up on is seeds. I have potted tomatoes, hot peppers, chives, sage, thyme, marigolds and cosmos. Some have popped up in the past 2 weeks, others I am giving the  benefit of the doubt. Perhaps if I just leave them alone with damp compost they will start to find their own little way in the cold frame. Yes! I have access to a cold frame that is the perfect seed incubator. It is bliss to be able to have a place for them to just settle. I have been to the garden centre – oh what an experience, you know there are some women (and men) whose idea of heaven is a shoe shop or perusing expensive homewares. Mine is just a simple garden centre, let me loose amongst the pots and plants, lost in the herb section, going dizzy with the array of seeds. I’d like to say a Greek garden centre is really different, but not really. This one is compact but has a vast array of bedding plants and perennials, typically Mediterranean plants, everything from olives to  fruit trees – as well all the usual storage containers, hoses, and compost. I was with a friend with a car – so naturally got a few items!

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I’m focussing on a small area for growing tomatoes and herbs, potted flowers for the terrace and lots of lavender for the bees. I bought two courgette plans and a chilli pepper as plugs – so hopeful I can either grow them in big pots or find space around us for them to flourish.

One of the things among many that has always fascinated me about Syros is the way the land is still used so productively. It’s fairly similar to most other Cycladic islands large flat terraces exist on nearly every corner of the island, many are so old that it must have been centuries since they were used. In villages the land is still used for small scale farming and domestic agriculture – goat grazing, sheep and cattle, chickens, fields of olives and grapes are most common, but also lots of vegetables in tidy rows. Right now the plots are full of green leaved potato crops grown over the winter and onions waving gently in the breeze ready to be harvested. It’s been a real privilege to be shown around in the village and have a nosy at what people grow, to be given explanations of what is being grown and grafted, when it’s harvested, the types and varieties of fruits, herbs and vegetables. People are rightly proud of their love of gardening, you see it in every window box and on wide swathes of land that’s been worked on by generations of the same family and the sheer toil it takes. It is impossible to walk around without wonder and amazement, given the dry sandy soil and conditions needed to grow require so much water. 

These trees are often grafted as family trees with different varieties of lemons and citrus fruits. A hug array in view like pomegranate, pear, plum, lemon, orange, mandarin, almond and figs..so many fig trees. The olives and vines are probably the most productive – pressing for oil and preserving olives, and making all that deliciously syrupy krasi.

There lies an interesting story about climate change experienced on Syros – I have heard a few versions, so apologies for my ad-hoc interpretation and retelling in advance. During the Second World War’s occupation the islanders experienced a devastating famine – by the 1950s the Dutch horticulturists came with advanced growing techniques promising to increase yields and grow a wider variety of produce. Naturally many were enticed by the promise of growing more produce than just enough to feed their family. As Greece’s post war economy was recovering in the aftermath of war and political upheaval commercial opportunities focussed on domestic markets and shipping fresh produce across the Aegean. As a result, farmers all across the island invested in greenhouses and growing new seeds with wider varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers and other hothouse vegetables. I also heard a story about olives and the loss of a native grown olive from the village in the same period – but I need to save that until I know more. It sounds wistful ‘The last olive tree’ – but I need more time to unearth the tale. In some ways there was probably a short period when Syros became the centre of the horticultural industry in Greece. I have been told, that as far as the eye could see across the bay of Kini there were greenhouses in every plot. This may have lasted 10-20 years – but what happens when land is over-farmed? Not just the effect on soil, as its nutrients reduce, but when commercial scale production starts the sheer volume of water needed is vast. What happened here sounds like a result of not just a changing climate but also some bad luck thrown in too. Apparently by the mid-60s there was less rainfall every year, meaning that the reservoirs and irrigation sternas didn’t fill up. Water is a scarce resource on an island like Syros and especially so as drinking water was still being  brought to the island by boat until 1969 when it was the first Greek island to invest in a desalination plant. But the reducing rainfall problem was only compounded when the wells started to become salinated from sea water seeping into the groundwater course. All spelled disaster for the enterprising growers.

Not much remains of the once booming horticultural enterprise but there are still a few farmers with greenhouses, but most have been abandoned, removed and the earth returned to more small scale farming.

A short-lived but intensive intervention has probably changed the land and fortunes of local life forever. But these long days of patience and productivity remain a beautiful sight on the hillsides where rows of olive trees sit neatly, while the hours of golden sun work to ripen fruit and vegetables.

I tell myself to be patient as I walk around these cultivated corners of paradise, one day…just one day.

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