A friend of mine, a novice gardener, spent some hours at the garden centre confused by the vast array of plants on offer. At last she spotted the ideal edging plant – small, neat and compact. “That’s the one,” she cried. “That, Madam,” replied the hapless assistant, “is a lettuce!”
Now, I’m not quite as green (no pun intended) as that, but I admit to being somewhat daunted when I was faced with a Cretan garden for the first time. I had visions of glorious bougainvillea draped over old stone walls, orange and lemon trees dripping with fruit, the smell of jasmine on the evening breeze. Well, I have the bougainvillea, three of them in fact. And yes, they are glorious when they bloom – but, boy do they make a mess when flowering is finished and the strong winds blow. (By the way, those beautiful “flowers” are not actually flowers – they are bracts. The flowers are the little insignificant yellowish things in the centre).
The orange tree had lots of tiny oranges but they all fell off, and the lemon tree never had any lemons! Both have now been dug up to make room for a seating area, so don’t expect tips from me on how to care for fruit trees. As for the jasmine, my husband hates the smell (says it reminds him of donkey poo) so I’ve never owned one. Many plants suited to more northerly climes just don’t do well in this hotter part of the world, so trial and error can be the only way of discovering the good, the bad and the downright ugly.
Local garden centres are a help here – as a rule, if they stock it, it’ll be okay. (I particularly like the newly-extended garden centre in Karteros). Our garden now consists mostly of mixed shrubs, including hibiscus, roses, Felicia (a low mound with pretty blue daisy-like flowers), carissa (evergreen leathery leaves with fragrant white starry flowers, sometimes followed by red, plum-like fruits [supposedly edible but I’ve never dared eat one!]).
(Editor’s Note: The carissa must be fully ripe, dark-red and slightly soft to the touch to be eaten raw. It is enjoyed whole, without peeling or seeding, out-of-hand. Halved or quartered and seeded it is suitable for fruit salads, adding to gelatines and using as topping for cakes, puddings and ice cream. Carissas can be cooked to a sauce or used in pies and tarts. Stewing or boiling causes the latex to leave the fruit and adhere to the pot (which must not be aluminium), but this can be easily removed by rubbing with cooking oil).
Also, I have an enormous yucca which began life in a pot but is now in the main bed and is over four metres tall. This year it has actually flowered for the first time, to my delight. I remove the lower leaves regularly, just stripping them off the stem. Not only does it improve the look of the plant, it prevents unwary visitors being blinded by a vicious spiked leaf (one of the common names of this plant is “Adam’s Needle”). There is also a sago palm (Cycas Revoluta) and a dwarf fan palm (Chamaerops Humilis), both of which look more like a proper palm tree if the lower leaves are clipped off to reveal the trunk.
Most of the smaller flowering plants I grow are in pots, not only because the care can be individually tailored for each plant, but also because in the garden they would be trampled by our dogs!
Tips for the Month: Keep watering, feeding and dead-heading regularly. A plant’s main aim in life is to set seed. Dead-heading prevents this, thereby encouraging the plant to produce more flowers. When doing the roses, don’t just snip off the dead flower, cut lower down the stem just above a strong new shoot. With geraniums, try and snap off the old flowered stem at the base to prevent unsightly dead “sticks” poking up. Pot plants in particular need regular feeding, as the compost is soon drained of its nutrients. Compound fertilisers are the easiest type to use. These usually consist of three elements – nitrogen, phosphate and potash, and the percentage of each is stated on the packets in figures like: 5: 5:10 (5% nitrogen; 5% phosphate; 10% potash). As a general all around feed, buy one with approximately equal amounts of all three.
For flowering and fruiting plants buy a feed with high potash content (tomato food is ideal). There are also special fertilisers for roses, others for acid-loving (lime hating) plants like azaleas, called the royalty of the garden , ericas, etc. These acid-loving plants should also be in special ericaceous compost, and don’t use tap water if you can help it. I use Algoflash geranium food, easily administered from a watering can. Don’t water geraniums too often – the leaves will yellow and the plant could rot. If in doubt, leave on the dry side. If they get too leggy they can be cut hard back and will soon produce new shoots.
Finally, a cautionary tale! Some years ago, an elderly lady, whilst weeding her garden, was pierced in her nether regions by the fishing rod belonging to her garden gnome, and subsequently died. Since Crete properties seem to literally sprout rusty rods of all nature – out of the ground as well as sticking out of buildings – make sure those tetanus jabs are up to date.
By Olivia Branch