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 But this gloom has been replaced by high temps and basking in sunshine.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


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!


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 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.

A lazy sunday dinner

I know you probably think weekends and weekdays don’t have much difference here in Greece, you’d be wrong. Not only are weekday’s marked by working and tapping away at a laptop, they are also days to GSD (Get Sh*t Done), whether that’s gardening, food shopping or just tackling things to do. So then the weekend is freed up to relax and explore. Weekends do feel different here in the village anyway, Friday afternoons are slightly busier on the beach as people head down after work and then everywhere fills up with weekenders from Athens and people exploring the island. It’s funny as we have had such crazy heat for the past week that the beach has been absolutely packed as people jostle for shade and space to cool down. This was even worse on Sunday when temperatures soared to 40c – it was like an oven when you stepped outside into what the weather man called ‘African wind’. This is why I am thankful of our little house, its windows don’t get the blazing sun and it stays relatively cool all day – although now we are now using the air-con at night we are reusing all the water the A/C pumps out to water the garden. We stay cool and the veggies get watered!

On Sunday I wanted to make a big one-pot dish to last us a few days – deciding that a traditional Greek Stifado perfectly suits the hot weather. Yes, stew in summer too! I started cooking on Sunday morning which was lucky as by the time the stew had just cooked we had another power outage. So happily went to the beach to swim. But then there was another cut when we returned from the beach. When walking down the street home our neighbour helpfully suggested we just went straight back to the beach as it was too hot at home! “To paralia, pame” (the beach, just go!). It turned out the the islands electricity plant was unable to cope with the heatwave’s extra demands on services like A/C usage and was implementing rotating powercuts across the island to help ease thr pressure. I understand that Kini fared quite badly in the timetabling of these, as the 3 powercuts we had all coincided with major times the taverna’s and cafes’ should have been serving hot food and cold drinks to all the beach customers. By 7pm I was getting antsy – “what if it doesn’t come back on, the stifado could do with cooking for another hour” I whinged at G while lying prone on the concrete terrace with the cat in an effort to stay cool. I started to mentally count the number of tealights we had and wonder if we could eat the contents of the freezer before it all spoiled.

Boom! 8pm and the power was back. I was so happy and celebrated by switching the air-con down low and boiling vegetables to accompany the decliciously slow-cooked stew. I might have sweated in that kitchen – but the effort was worth it.

Here is the recipe for my version of beef stifado (there is probably many takes on this and I wont claim any originality here, but this is tried and tested)

750grams of beef (any cut that’s good for stewing)
4 onions chopped
6 shallots peeled and whole
4 gloves of garlic (or as much or little as you fancy)
1 jar of passata
2 generous spoons of tomato paste
4 bay leaves
1 tspn of cinnamon
2 tspns of dried oreganp
Salt and pepper to taste
300mls of red wine (I used the 1euro bottle from the supermarket)
50mls of red wine vinegar


My method is simple and takes no prisoners of perfection: seal beef in a pan with a big generous glug of high quality olive oil, add onions to fry along. After 10mins or so medium heat, add tomato passata and paste, red wine and vinegar.


Perhaps a cup or two of water to loosen the sauce. Add herbs and spices, adjust accordingly to taste but should be sweet and tomatoey, with a hint of cinnamon and bay. Simmer on a low hob heat for 2 hours, or transfer to an oven pot with a lid and cook on low for 2 hours. The beef should be meltingly soft and the shallots squishy. Keep the sauce moist by adding water/wine as it cooks.

I served this with basil mash, homegrown carrots (from the landlord) and green beans.


Once you have enjoyed one dinner from this dish and have leftovers, its easy to add orzo pasta (the Greek pasta that looks like rice), mix half-cooked pasta in with the leftover stew and then cook in the oven with cheese on top for a whole new dish. This is what we did last night with fresh crusty bead to dip in and green beans on the side. Frugal and fabulous cooking at its best!


A week of being a tourist

I’ve had a lovely week – that word lovely is so English isn’t it? Lovely, not just great, but something that sits straddling somewhere between ‘good’, ‘nice’ and ‘charming’. Anyway I don’t believe there is a Greek equivalent for lovely so we can just stick with ‘Poli oreas’ (very nice)! My parents visited Kini and it was great to show them around, especially to hear their take on observing the place we call home for the summer and the different things they noticed. They enjoyed eating in the local taverna’s and cafe’s, having a walk around the area and stopping for espresso freddo became a daily treat. I am now on cracker rations after eating so much delicious food and partaking in far too many rounds of ‘miso kilo aspro krasi, parakelo’ (that’s half a litre of local wine). But it was fun to visit Ermoupoli with them as well and not to be there on a vegetable shopping expedition as is usually the case when I pop into town.  Even through I had promised a direct bus there from Kini, it was okay once I had got over my mini-tantrum at the change of bus schedule from direct (15mins) to circular all-village loop which takes 50mins. After all it’s Greece and things change at the drop of a kolomboli bead, I hope they appreciated the scenic bus tour round the Island; like a freebie tour of all the villages thrown in! Once in Ermoupoli we had a quick wander round the shops for gifts, after all it is named after Hermes the God of Trade and Commerce. At my Dad’s impatient request a visit to Miaouli Square was called for, after watching it on the Webcam and waving at us more than a few times, my Dad was thrilled to have achieved his ‘dream’ of visiting the platiea in real life!


It’s a great place to get a feel for how Syros was and grew as the centre of the shipping industry in the 19th Century with its impressive neoclassical buildings and town hall, which remains the administrative centre of the Cyclades Islands. We enjoyed a lovely lunch in the sunshine at Ελληνικό Καφενείο (Elliniko Kafenio) just on the square, an excellent chicken salad with figs and manouri cheese, some small bites of delicious olives and cheese. This was a perfect place for people watching on the square accompanied by another miso kilo of krasi. Afterwards we wandered past the Apollon Theatre to Vaporia, which is the area where many rich sea-captains and traders built neoclassical mansions in the 19th Century to demonstrate wealth and prowess; expanding the town as a vast trading centre and shipbuilding empire from its original Medieval and Frankish settlement of Ano Syros.


Vaporia is a beautiful sight to behold and I loved showing my parents the place G and I sat when we arrived in back April, the place with the perfect view that made the journey, the suitcase incident and the stress of the months past just disappear. This view is framed by the blue domed roof of St Nicholas Church, the orange and pink hued buildings perched on the azure aegean sea.  In recent decades the area has been developing slowly since most of the mansions were left abandoned after shipping fortunes halted in the late 19th Century when Pireaus overtook as the major shipbuilding port. Recently some buildings have been restored into small hotels, some apartments are now inhabited, but others lay in waiting.


But overall there is a sense that this is beauty yet to be discovered, not showy or flashy but just at its own pace, like the swimmers and sunbathers dotted on the bathing platforms relaxing in the late afternoon light, they were in no rush to be anywhere else. I understand that Vaporia is where locals swim at sunrise and sunset – I couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful to frame the day than diving in and seeing the grand architecture around them. My mum even said she’d love to spend a holiday in Ermoupoli wandering the streets and shops, a perfect city break. I think that’s why I love Syros, because it has the full contrast of wild barren trails in the north, pretty beaches and villages, as well as this enticing town full of cobbled streets to get lost in and cultural treasures to discover.


While I was playing badly at being the tour guide this week, we also went to Ano Syros for the evening and enjoyed a little wander around the whitewashed , stopping for a drink in the Markos Vamvakaris square, next to the museum dedicated to the island’s most famous musician. Vamvakaris, simply known as ‘Markos’  was a Rembetiko musician made famous in the 1930s for incorporating the bouzouki instrument into this Greek underground music which speaks of lost love, rebellion and is called the ‘blues’ of Greece. He was born in Ano Syros and his most famous song ‘Frankosyriani’ in which he sings of a Catholic Girl from Syros. (Apparently most people on the island will know this song off by heart and sing along…I’ll let you know). After drinks that night, we headed to the only Taverna we could find open and ate a deliciously hearty meal of veal, pork and chicken dishes overlooking the town as the sunset and dusk turned into twinkling streetlights.


This time last week we walked to Delfini beach in the drizzling rain and jumpers, luckily after the rain the weather started heating back up again in time to enjoy afternoons on the beach before they left!

As we took my parents to the port to say goodbye on Friday, we have been started feeling the heatwave that has hit Greece and I am pleased to say unlike most sun-worshipers I won’t be hitting the beach until late afternoon or evening. I sit here inside at 3pm in the cool luxury of air conditioning as the mercury soars outside to 31c in the shade. It’s so hot I only managed a walk this morning instead of a run (mainly to work of all the holiday-food and drink!) Even yoga on the ‘shaded’ terrace has become Bikram-like. So yesterday we had gardening and ‘crafternoon’ which was more like see-what-we-can-do-with-all-this-driftwood-we-keep-collecting. Rest assured, from yesterday’s results we won’t be opening an Etsy craft store anytime soon! But I am pleased to celebrate that today has seen the first ripe cucumber to be picked from the veg bed. Cooling cucumber salad is on our menu tonight and G has ‘invented’ chamomile iced-tea (it’s delicious!). With this I think we are ready to tackle the first summer heatwave!  

Setting off the seeds

In an effort to give the garden a chance to come into its own this summer, without having to rely on buying in too many annuals, I am starting off some flowers from seed earlier this year. I also like to complement the flowers with the challenge of growing herbs and veg from seed too. I’m learning lessons along the way – but here is an update on my first seedlings of the year:


The first action I took in January was to sow sage, rosemary and oregano for the windowsill – last years oregano and parsley has just finished. So it’s a good investment to start them off now and have plentiful fresh herbs to enjoy throughout the year. Supermarket pots of herbs are disastrous – they are overfilled seedlings in tiny pots which the only way to make them last longer than a week or is to separate them out into 5 or 6 pots and give them extra soil and space. Once I realised how rewarding it was to grow my own herbs I promised never to buy supermarket herbs again…(I’ve relinquished on this on occasion when a whole batch of coriander was needed for a recipe, but as a rule..)  I will start off basil, coriander, parsley and thyme in the coming few weeks. But space is a premium in the propagation station (aka kitchen windowsill) this all needs a careful rotation plan. 

Sweetpea – from seedling…..
to 12cm tall in 14 days

The first seed (and my favourite) flowers to get sowing in the 3rd week in January were the heady scented Lathyrus odoratus (sweet peas!). This year I’m trialling a couple of varieties; ‘singing the blues’ ‘skylark’ and ‘cupani’ which is one of the oldest heritage varieties found in the wild Italian hedgerows apparently. All will liven up the fence space and walls from May onwards. But I also plan to sow perennial ‘everlasting’ varieties later in the year which should flower next year.

The first week in February I started with some more traditional sowings of summer annuals that are new to me. Sweet Williams should work well as gap fillers in baskets and borders, (to add to my self seeding ones springing up over the winter), likewise the fluffy flowers of ageratum will work well for cutting in borders and I’m trying out Aster duchess for late season colour and height. To add some structure I’m adding some verbena bonariensis for added purple colour and spiky height which should be hardy enough to stay through to autumn. Im also trying out some heliotrope dwarf marine, which is a half hardy perennial and given its nickname as ‘cherry pie’ it’s a scented attractor for bees. Most have set off quite well the ageratum seems to be struggling in the propagators so I’ve given its tray the special treatment (a sealed sandwich bag!)

Broad beans – reliable germinators

The broad beans went in pairs into each pot without a cover and all 8 sprouted within a week. In my experience (from last year!) they are the easy wins of the veg plot. I’ve started off a couple of pots of heirloom tomatoes ‘tigerella’ and ‘red pear’ – less is more this year and will concentrate my efforts on quality tomatoes rather than an over abundance! I’ve also started aubergines from seed. It’s a new one for me so I’m looking forward to see how challenging and fruitful they are in containers. In the next few weeks I will start to plan out the veg beds in detail – looking at best places for carrots and parsnips, runner beans and sweetcorn.

Until the weather improves I am only admiring the garden from afar but the daffodils are cheering everything up. It seems like the 2016 season starting off rather well. Long may it continue.

Is this Spring?

cheery cherry blossom

       I asked myself this as I walk around the garden on the last weekend in January. The cherry tree has burst open the first pink pops of blossom and there are more signs of the season changing on the way.

A few daffodils are out, this seems to be fairly universal across London. On my new route through St James’s Park, the immediate horizon of the path changed this week from grey and green green, to a sea of waving yellow heads bobbing in the wind and rain.

Although disappointed by the lack of expected order, even if it is unpredictable, I can never be disappointed to see flowers at this time of year. I expect a hierarchy with snowdrops and crocus being the early stars, followed by blue iris and grape muscari , then the attention grabbing daffodils and narcissus, with the proud tulips closing the Spring season.  This spell seems to have been broken in my garden this year at least, with daffodils in January and blue iris flowering 2 months earlier than last year.  But these days are so short and dark- I always feel thankful to see anything burst into flower – reminding us that winter is fleeting, soon warmer days and clearer skies will return.


There has been much in the garden out of sync – the anttirrium still haven’t died back. The fuschia have started new growth shoots and clematis are starting to bud. There is a bleeding heart flowering from the central clump of its woody form.

Bleeding heart persists in the winter gloom


There is also basil and chives re-sprouting in the pots I left in the mini greenhouse. In there are the sweet william that has managed to self seed into the container we grew beetroot in last September.  Nature finds a way to root through and satiate itself in strange conditions, its reassuring and reminds us about adaptation to new environments – a state we all face.

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To respond to the seasonal shift, I’m ignoring caution and setting off some sweet peas, broad beans and chitting some swift early-crop potatoes. Let’s hope it pays to follow the lead of the early spring…