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 But this gloom has been replaced by high temps and basking in sunshine.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.

Gardening in a new climate

With the six tomato plants from the landlord and a whole lot of seeds brought over in my bag (perfectly legal while we are in the EU, Officer) – I have started the real ‘Greek Garden’. This is actually really exiting – just to see how plants respond and thrive (I hope!) in a totally different climate. Now in our second week in the house, the first set of cosmos seeds I planted on day 1 have actually germinated which cheered me up no end while the weather took a grey dive and we shivered in bed! Now the weather seems to have decided it is summer so it’s a steady 21c in the day and 15c at night.

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In the past 10 days I have potted up: some Tomato Radana seeds, aubergine (from a Greek packet purchased in Patmos last year), courgette, cucumber and broad beans. Having seen some local gardens on my walks around, I know their broad beans and courgettes are weeks ahead, but I will persevere regardless. I think most of the veg will be done in containers – I’m keeping my eyes peeled for any discarded feta/ olive oil cans. This is in fact the most recycling/resourceful gardening attempt I’ve made. I am also researching into reusing grey water from washing up, to help ease our usage when the drier weather starts.

Yet, I only recently purchased an implement almost like a trowel for 2 euros after a comedic expressive conversation with a man in hardware shop in my limited Greek ‘kipourikí’ (gardening)  – fyto (plants) while miming the act of trowelling soil! That is likely to be my most technical purchase. I have a bag of compost (found at the Euroshop) and loads of old plant pots thanks to the landlord’s generosity. All the germination pods are made from either yogurt pots or plastic trays with cling film as a lid or smaller pots with a water bottle cut in half acting as mini greenhouses. Nothing goes to waste here!

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In terms of flowers I have the fore-mentioned cosmos which are collected from the white and pink ones from my uk garden last year, french marigolds, sunflowers of dwarf and tall variety. I also picked up packets of cottage garden mix and nasturtiums from a supermarket trip. All are potted and some are starting to pop up… I also threw a handful on the soil of the bed next to the steps – some have started to shoot. So perhaps the soil isn’t all bad.

Given that we are cooking at home most nights I wanted to make sure I had access to fresh herbs so am attempting to grow coriander, chives, parsley, dill and oregano, both staples of the Greek kitchen, from seed as well. I have cheated with the pot of mint given to us and the Greek basil plant bought in town. By the way the tiny fragrant basil leaves of the Greek variety are amazing, sprinkled on salads and in pasts – knocks the socks of the huge leafed monsters in pots you find back in the UK.  In an attempt to turn the gardening into an educational exercise I wrote my plant labels in Greek too – you know for chats with any local gardeners!

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When in the big town last week I couldn’t resist buying a couple of petunias as well. They are dazzling pinks and purple, alongside the existing red geranium, which I have taken cuttings from too. I am already envisioning a riot of colour! There is also a flowering aloe plant which looked hastily replanted and isn’t faring to well. I will need to keep an eye on that.

Graeme has pitched in as the architect and has built a veg bed, cordoned off with stones collected from the beach, which hopefully with some compost can be a good place for salad leaves and spinach too. This won’t be a Chelsea showgarden but it will be pots everywhere and clashing colour, with bits of flotsam and jetsom to decorate. Could this be next year’s big gardening trend?

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In terms of the old pests, I have noticed snails here and am prepared to do battle organically with beer traps. It hasn’t rained for over a week now and might only see a few minor showers now we are into May. Water will be the big challenge.

Noting the proliferation of cats in the neighbourhood, many people seem to put bamboo kebab sticks in their plant pots as a barrier to cats digging in them I imagine. As if I needed another reason to eat more souvlaki!

With big plans ahead and the weather warming up it all feels like this is the right place to spend the summer watching things grow and creating a garden.

Back to the front garden

Front gardens are undoubtedly a collective eyesore on many streets in London. They are have been downgraded to become unloved and functional places people park a car, store bikes and utilise precious (expensive) space for the much-needed multiplicity of recycling containers. That’s why it’s such a sad state this so-called ‘nation of gardeners’ have let their front gardens get into. Nearly  1 in 4 gardens are paved over to have more utilitarian uses. I understand this completely given high population density spaces we find ourselves in. All space is at a premium. However there are ways of having parking and plants – horticulture that brings us not just an aesthetic cheer, but also supports wildlife and pollinating species. That’s why the RHS Greening Grey Britain campaign really gets to the heart of the problem and gives inspiration to help us all green up our streets. 

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My own front garden was no exception – when we moved in it was an unloved 3 x 2 meter plot of ripped plastic lining and old stones, weeds and paving slabs.  2 years later, the house redecorated and back garden restored, but the front garden had only been stripped back as far as removing the stones to a bare patch of earth – albeit with its own permanent population of dandelions. Hardly the nature reserve we wanted!

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But with a bit of planning and graft we’ve transformed the space – all for less than £400 on materials and plants.  We started with a few basic ‘back of a fag-packet’ plans and wish lists for the look and plant types – the challenge will always be the outlook as its north east facing – gets 3+ hours of early morning sun from May onwards but will be in total shade in the winter months. Finally deciding on one large planted section, and pots that can change with seasonal interest.

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The main investments were the weed lining, shingle and path edging – as well as hardy plants such as an acer palmatum, cotoneaster ‘Coral Beauty’, as well as a  couple of low growing evergreens and a sambucus nigra. All of these will be maintained and kept neat (hopefully). I’ve planted in cosmos and red new guinea impatiens for colour. By a stroke of bad luck (or labelling mishap) the red cosmos all turned out to be deep pink – so we have a kind of brave colour scheme in the front – but hey it’s bright and bold, without any concrete grey in sight!

The pots were all painted blue with spray paint for that overall Grecian appeal. I also arranged a hanging basket with bright blue and purple lobelia, intermingled with highly scented petunias. There are three terracotta wall pots with a mix of the impatiens, lobelia and orange trailing begonias too.

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Now in early August it is really coming into its own and filling out the space with flowers attracting playful bees and butterflies.

The perfect thing has been that the front seems to have escaped the overwhelming invasion of slugs and snails currently wreaking havoc across the veg beds out back. But with time I’m sure they’ll discover it soon. It really has made a positive impact on how we see the house, as well as providing a little cheer for the street. I met at least three neighbours on the weekend we planted it – faces I’d seen but never spoken to in the years we’ve lived here. It’s true – plant something colourful and it’s not just for your benefit, the world wants to say hello and enjoy it too.

If you ever needed an excuse to get outside and bring some cheer to your street, join in, read this for inspiration and get Greening Grey Britain! 

Garden attention = blog neglect

It’s June and look where we are, just about that time us gardeners get ready to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labour. The flower shows are in full swing, inspired green-fingered folk up and down the country are watching their gardens fill with colour, fragrance and produce as the summer temperatures rise.

Well, dear readers, I’ve been giving my garden so much attention that something had to give and sadly, it was the blog. But I’m glad so much energy and attention has gone into growing – we’ve managed to transform the front space, but it hasn’t been an easy ride. The slugs and snails have been particularly invasive this year – chomping their way through whole petunias, sunflowers, courgettes, dahlias, nothing has been too much trouble for the hungry little fellas! But we do have a new raised bed.

This is netted, as well as housing the cucumber, it is has swiss chard, butterhead lettuce, Greek radish and spinach leaves. I picked out a cheeky snail that had eaten its way through the net…

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The tomatoes, aubergine and sole surviving courgette are out in a mixture of patio tubs and growbags. I’m experimenting with quite a few varieties to see which thrive and fruit best.

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The broadbeans have, like last year, been infested with aphids. This has attracted ants. So yesterday I soap sprayed them and then nature was on my side, as the torrential rain helped to reduce numbers. I’ll keep monitoring them. But many of the bean pods look ready to pick this week.

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In other good news – the radishes are being picked as we need them and the flowers are really starting to come into their own. With the humid and high temperatures, everything seems to had a good growth spurt. Still no blooms on the sweatpeas yet but they continue to climb upwards.

I have a parental pride in the ‘foxy mixed’ foxgloves I grew from seed – it is a long process, starting them late last summer to overwinter. But they have been a true highlight since late May. Their towering tall pink spikes attracting pollinators to the garden from far and wide.

Summer is here – there is always more work to be done. But when the real working day is over, I get to retreat here and start work in the Greek Garden.

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A time for patience

The week is flying by and what this means for the seedlings is that a whole load of jostling for space and attention is happening in the ‘germination station’ – aka the kitchen windowsill. The complementary concepts of planning and patience have definitely been at the forefront of my mind in the past week. We seem to have found it so commonplace to have a daily obsession with time – ‘too busy’ ‘no time for myself’ and it most often manifests in negative feelings towards time. The garden is a place with an acute sense of time but not a place to rush or be consumed with timekeeping. I am learning to have patience and wait for these rewards as I wait for the seedlings to show.

There has been big progress with the Witkiem Broad beans which got so tall with 5 weeks I had no choice but to get them planted out on the veggie patch – this was early but I am hoping i have good luck and they are hardy enough to settle. I gave the patch a good digging over first, sprinkled with blood, fish and bone powder and covered in bin bags to help the soil warm up a week before. I’ve staked all 8 plants and positioned them to maximise the sun.

Slugs are a major worry – they seem to have even managed to get into the two mini-plastic green houses I have outside. The past weekend I built the second one – and meticulously wrapping copper tape round the outside!

On the flowers front, the sweet peas had been one of the reasons I needed the second plastic greenhouse as I have got the sweet peas taking over one -getting leggier every week so I’ve ruthlessly pinched them out in the hope this will stunt their growth but encourage bushier sideshoots. I am making steady progress with Sweet Williams and Aster which are out in the ‘greenhouse – although again slugs have been snacking on leaves…

Last year I stuck to some quickly gratifying seeds, like cosmos, marigold and nasturtium. It’s more than likely I will grow these again as they are great gap fillers, but I wanted to set a challenge to grow some longer lasting perennials and a wider variety of annuals,  I have found that even some annuals can be much slower to germinate; Ageratum, Heliotrope and Verbena Bonariensis are painfully slow…4 weeks and barely two or three seedlings in each tray. The temperature fluctuations are probably not helping in the kitchen, cold overnight and on the rarity of a sunny day they will be getting very warm. But I’m determined to not give up…

I have also been germinating a few more unusual seeds from the RHS collection; geranium pratense (meadow cranesbill) which I hope will be a good shade loving plant for the front garden challenge (more on this soon!) . I have put a pot with Armeria Maritima (thrift) seeds into the central heating boiler cupboard in the vain hope that dark, warm conditions will set that off. I have two types of agastache; rugosa (korean mint) and mexicana which can take up to 30 days to germinate. But that might be easy compared with the cold stratification I am attempting with a couple of varieties; so for those not in the horticultural know, like me a week ago! cold stratification is basically faking winter to get the seeds back into life, ideally achieved by letting the seeds hang out in moist compost in a cold fridge! Clearly labelled and in protective tupperware was definitely the order – so the Camassia leichtlinii (californian white quamash) has been spending a week sidling up to the yogurts and cheese before it awakens to Spring or when i take it out and see what happens in a warm sunny propagator. Also in the fridge stratification station is Lavender seeds who might need up to 4 weeks and Chiastophyllum oppositifolium (lamb’s tail) after a 2 week chill out. I am finding this rather exciting as it the first time i have ever tried anything so ‘scientific’ so it’s feeling like a big deal for me! Berkheya purpurea takes 90 days to germinate….as does Aquilegia. They are perennials so i guess that’s why you have to play the waiting game

In terms of the veggie seeds – I am patiently watching the Aubergine seeds and willing them into life! The same goes for the chilli pepper seeds we salvaged from last years crops. One of which is from a Romanian pepper…exciting to see if this harvesting method gives us rewards. This waiting game is making me feel quite stubborn and testing my patience to get these to be a success from seeds rather than buying plug plants. Yes, the tomatoes have germinated efficiently -there is method to setting them off this early as I want to take some Tigerella, Red Pear, Roma and Cherry Tomato seedling plants to my Dad at Easter. Just to start off the inagral North versus South climate challenge. I’m feeling confident that what I lack in experience over his years of tomato growing, the sunny SE Kent weather will make up for!

As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said ‘Time is a game played beautifully by children’. This gardener is happy to play a waiting game and time is on my side.