Sparoza Garden – Greece

Sparoza was created in 1962 by the English town planner, Jacky Tyrwhitt. She chose to build her house and garden on a stony and arid greek hillside in Attica. The extreme growing condition provided her with a unique gardening opportunity that she decided to share in her book.  Her goal: ‘to assist other people wishing to make gardens in places with a « Mediterranean climate ».

After her death in 1983, the estate became the property of the Goulandris Museum and then, in 1994, the headquarters of the Mediterranean Garden Society. 

I arrived at Sparoza in February 2020 and stayed until the end of June. Alongside Sally Razelou, Sparoza’s caretaker, and surrounded by the richness of greek culture and stunning landscapes, I had a complete gardening experience in the Mediterranée, between tradition and modernity.


Published in Mediterranean Garden Society Journal – N°102


Marie Ruffier-Monet

I recently had the pleasure of spending three months in the garden of Sparoza assisting its long-time custodian, Sally Razelou. During this wonderful experience many thoughts kept recurring and it finally seemed time to commit them to paper. Although these ideas were conceived in the garden here, I wonder whether they can be extrapolated to mediterranean gardens at large.

As a designer, I can’t help but meet a garden in terms of my discipline, empathising with apparent dilemmas and nodding to earlier sleights of hand. Regardless of the region or vegetation or aesthetic approach, the fundamental problems that designers face are all very similar.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous challenge is designing for the off-season. We often hear talk about “four-season gardening” and typically the implication is some adjustment of winter management – architectural grasses, persistent fruits, borrowed bulbs, decorative seed heads: anything to avoid leaving eroding empty beds. This is the way the off-season is treated in much of the Northern Hemisphere; so it was with my last projects in Pennsylvania and so it remains in my home garden in Haut- Languedoc. Thus gardening in Greece, where the dormant period is in summer, feels a bit like switching hemispheres.

When I spoke of this to Sally, she explained that the garden is completely different during the summer, and that heat and drought are more intense and prolonged here than in the South of France. Having been spoiled by the opulence of the Greek late winter and spring, it’s hard for me to imagine the full impact of this natural process on the garden’s design, but already the disappearance of the Oxalis after weeks of weedy torment has led me to think about empty space.

As in art, empty space is a fundamental part of composition in the garden. Its function and its feeling may be tied to its name. Commonly referred to as negative space, this passive feature is the breath between plants, creating definition for  exuberant shapes and helping the busy eye to rest. Truly empty space is more active and asks more of the eye. It makes us search for nothing in particular – the empty “space” itself is rather undefined, an amorphous vacuum suggested by imbalance.

The role of the designer is to soothe all of these elements to the desired harmony and sensibility. They are ultimately the tools of light and shadow.

The true challenge is not so much the realisation of harmony at any given moment but rather the design’s continual anticipation of succession or progression. It is building Gilles Clément’s “garden in motion”. However, during the garden’s most dramatic transitional moments (autumn in many regions, late spring in Greece…), there are no fanfares to cover the sins of the exhausted and the askew. At this time, the garden progresses in its succession through subtraction. In the grand shifts of spring, this moment’s mirror across the solstice, the gardener fills absence with promises: pea sticks and contour and bare soil become an audacious pact with the visitor. But we meet the dormant season differently, as indeed we should.

As Caroline Harbouri reminds us in her article on Sparoza in TMG 100, it is counterproductive to challenge natural events with excessive artifice. So how do we design for this occasion? We look to nature.
In response to the oppressive heat and harsh drought of Greek summers, the key component of the mediterranean garden has evolved in its landscapes, an element long promulgated by the nursery of Olivier Filippi, namely tough shrubs and subshrubs.

When we consider the genera (Cistus, Thymus, Teucrium, Sarcopoterium, Santolina, Lavandula, etc), we may think we know these plants well from our own gardens, but how much do we know about their history? Their Mediterranean behaviour?

Several features unite these specimens. Branched, dense, evergreen, sculpted by the wind and salt, suppressed by the heat and sometimes grazed, these stolid woody plants keep their cool through it all. Growing low and wide-spreading, these wild shrubby tangles create their own ecosystem, a shelter of self-defence in a seasonal desert. Their tight branching and low profile help them to trap water for themselves, but this structure also serves  an important ecological role, regulating soil temperature, mitigating erosion and creating a habitat for wildlife.

During the more temperate growing season from autumn to spring, these plants remain the bones of the mediterranean garden. Much more than their ephemeral neighbours, they support the design dynamics as vehicles of density and contrast, not to mention consistency over time. Condensed by a light trimming (an attempt to recreate the wild growing conditions), these anchors create the foundational rhythm of the garden, but they function too as our negative space as mentioned above, giving flowers legibility and context. When the seasons turn, shrubs remain and the negative space flips, becoming everything that was once coloured around them, an inversion of focus and flower.

Regardless of the design intentions, an understanding of the strategies of shrubs and sub-shrubs is fundamental before one begins to prune or one could easily kill the slow-growing plants.

As the cultural conditions are often tough for these species, the tender new growth will be modest. Pruning should be applied only to new growth, leaving old wood untouched. The shrubs should be shaped regularly (which is not to say frequently) so as to keep them compact. If you find yourself harassing the plant to maintain its scale, it might be best to consider a variety better adapted to the desired height; otherwise, an annual treatment should suffice.

With these lessons in mind, I started to trim the wild thymes in the ‘maquis’ at Sparoza in the hope of building their interactions with the blooming Phlomis fruticosa. The ‘maquis’ is one of the transitional areas in the garden, drifting between cultivation and wilderness. These thymes, growing wild, function too as transitional devices. They are the language of their wild surroundings, but we are tending them, domesticating them almost, thus creating a gesture of integration in our focal plane.

As we discuss the influence of nature on landscape design, so too should we investigate the influence of nature on the designer. This issue is admittedly more philosophical than having to do with spatial composition, but I often wonder about the link between a designer’s potential for creativity and his or her sensitivity to nature. How do real observations of the natural world fuel the fantastic? Are we finding mimicry or genuine ideation? What do we get when our minds wander? If I were to answer only the last question, I might say “associations.” I was strongly encouraged to practice different approaches to understanding space during my studies at the ENSP of Versailles. Some of the necessary metrics were easy enough to grasp, but deeper nuances required more interpretation, more imagination. To understand the behaviour of air, the conversations of trees, the welcome of twilight, this becomes a study beyond “space” – it is a diagnostic of presence. Assuredly, these subjects are abstract and elusive, as too is frequently the means of discovering them. The landscape architect Jacques Simon, for instance, would interact repeatedly with his subjects in search of their logos or underlying truth. Instead of recording field measurements and modelling concepts in a studio, Simon would begin by creating spontaneous artworks on site, finding some authority of imagination through native creative currents. After adequate collaboration with the landscape, an understanding would ultimately reveal itself unconsciously.
Other techniques will vary of course, but inherent in all good approaches is a respect for space and nature (and perhaps even an adoration of it) and for the cultures with which they are bound. It is knowing the limits of imagination and that all good plans consider evidence and ecstasy in equal measure.

This may all seem unusually artistic or esoteric for a landscape analysis, but that is because many of the qualities we pursue are themselves ineffable. To leave theory and return to the heart, when I think about treasured moments in nature or the garden it is the subtler details that stir me first – a touch, a fragrance, tranquillity – instead of their louder designed counterparts. Holding these memories closer to the surface within myself seems to make them easier to uncover elsewhere.

When nature has always rewarded us for looking closer, we have good reason to keep a ready sensitivity close at hand.
Since I arrived at Sparoza, there has been a specific spot in the garden that I visit almost daily. Following the ‘maquis walk’, halfway up the hill, I perch next to the cypress and face southeast towards the mountain massif. This place gives me peace and contemplation. In meditation, I’m arrested with memories. I grew up in the area of Perpignan, in Languedoc Roussillon. I lived with my family in the little town of Saint-Estève, crossed from east to west by the Boulevard du Canigou, so oriented because of its view of Mount Canigou in the French Pyrenees.

This outstanding horizon, with its summit at 2784m, made somehow ordinary by familiarity, became significant when I moved to the Montpellier plain to pursue my studies. It was obvious to me that something was missing in the horizon. The feeling of having lost my Canigou made me uncomfortable for a long time. The missing mountain reminds me of something else that I learned in my studies: the experience of beauty, even in its analysis, is emotional. The lingering feelings of my French horizon have given me a gift here in Greece. My pilgrimage along the maquis path takes me to an event, a moment. We meet like this: first the sky; the blue horizon of mountains; the plains, divided by the Attiki motorway; a ray of Cupressus, a cloud of olives, two of which frame the pool below; currents of Phlomis, thyme and lentisk. These parts wait in a Gestalt narrative seemingly for everyone, but it’s I who am here to assemble them now.

Capturing the glint and mood of the sky, I see the pool borrow blues from its neighbours. Focused by silver olives looking out over it, the pool catches my attention and then forgets itself. It becomes the imaginary reflection of the mountain massif, a piece of mountain – not its trees but the mountain itself (my Canigou) – within reach. I wonder whether Jaqueline Tyrwhitt thought about it when she designed the garden. I wonder whether you will when you visit Sparoza.

Written with the help of Timothy Erdmann.