Meet Lucie Willan of Sparoza, a secret garden paradise on the outskirts of Athens
As Head Gardener at the Mediterranean Garden Society’s Sparoza garden in Paeania, Lucie Willan spends her days under the dappled shade of cascading vines, surrounded by olive groves carpeted with wild Anemone coronariarare and rare varieties of Mediterannean fauna. As custodian of the urban oasis at Sparoza, Lucie is extremely busy keeping the garden healthy while regularly updating maps and list of plants, in between guided tours and visits. Sparoza remains an Athenian secret, little-known outside the gardening community. Lucie speaks to Athens Insider on life in Athens and the challenges to urban greening.
What do you do?
I am the head gardener and custodian of Sparoza which is the headquarters of the Mediterranean Garden Society.
What do you see from your balcony?
I don’t have a balcony but I have a beautiful view across the garden and the Mesogeian plain to Mount Perati and the sea beyond.
About Mediterranean Gardening:
How did you end up as Head Gardener at the Mediterranean Gardening Society’s Sparoza Gardens? How would you describe Sparoza?
I am a professional horticulturist from the UK and came to Sparoza in the autumn of 2020 to help Sally Razelou with the garden. Sally was the custodian of Sparoza for nearly thirty years and when she died in March 2021 at the age of 90. I stayed on to look after the garden.
Sparoza is an historic garden that was founded in the mid-1960s by the British urban planner Jacky Tyrwhitt. It is a beautiful, quirky, experimental, waterwise garden run on organic principles. It is in essence a wild garden that celebrates Greek flora but it has a wonderful collection of Mediterranean climate zone plants. And possibly most importantly it is also a monument to what you can create on a very hostile site with limited resources but lots of time, vision and love.
What advice would you give first-time plant parents?
What is the question you get asked most often?
What is your favourite plant?
Which would you describe as your favourite Mediterranean flowering plant – and why?
My favourite plants change according to the season and my mood but I have a particular love of geophytes and the genus Fritillaria. Seeing these exquisite flowers in the wild or at Sparoza always gives me a thrill.
What varieties would you recommend ‘to plant for a dry future’? And what plants should simply be avoided in the Mediterranean?
I am a big proponent of people using Mediterranean bulbs to add an extra layer to plantings and incorporating drought-tolerant Greek native shrubs and subshrubs in their gardens. These are often highly ornamental and sculptural but are overlooked as garden plants because they grow in the hillsides all over Greece and aren’t readily available in nurseries – plants such as Ptilostemon chamaepeuce, Euphorbia dendroides or Euphorbia acanthothamnos. We propagate these plants in our nursery so that people can experiment with them in their own gardens.
I would avoid growing Dahlias in Greece!
How can one visit Sparoza and contribute to the activities of the Mediterannean Gardening Society?
We have a lecture on Friday 28th April at 7pm on the rare plants of the Chelmos-Vouraikos National Park.
And on Saturday 29th April from 10am-2pm we have a Botanical Illustration workshop where people will soak in spring at Sparoza and learn to paint plants in the garden.
Your favourite thing about Athens. And your worst thing about Athens.
I really struggle with how ugly a lot of the municipal tree work is around the city.
I love the juxtaposition of ancient and modern in Athens, sitting in a taverna watching the world go by and the sweeping views along many of the larger streets.
Can you describe a quintessentially Athenian sight, sound and smell?
I think of elegant, brightly coloured Neoclassical buildings covered in wonderful graffiti, the moving tannoy of the street vendor and the smell of orange blossom.
What has surprised you about Athens as a city?
That it feels more Eastern than Western to me and quite how hilly it is!
What changes (especially in the past ten years) have particularly moved you?
I have been quite surprised and upset by the blocking off of Exarcheia Square and by the proposed changes to the entrance/plateia of the National Archaeological Museum, which I love.
Your favourite picks:
A perfect evening out would be:
Sitting having drinks at the bar at Galaxy and dinner with friends at Seychelles
Your ideal Sunday afternoon:
Walking on Hymettos or swimming at Vravrona
City’s best kept secret?
The Benaki Museum of Islamic Art and food wise I would have to say Rakor and Habesha in Kypseli.
Sparoza is an experimental garden on the outskirts of Athens that was created by Mary Jaqueline Tyrwhitt, an early advocate for choosing plants to suit the dry Mediterranean climate. Sally Razelou became its Custodian and conceived the idea of establishing the Mediterranean Garden Society, which now sponsors Sparoza. Lucinda Willan is now Head Gardener and carries on the spirit of experimentation and plant collecting that was started by these gardening pioneers. For a set detailed lists of plants in the garden have been created and are available here. The garden is zoned into 16 areas, each with its own detailed map and list of plants to view and download.
Sparoza organizes events and guided tours regularly, open to members and non-members. To pre-book, please visit sparozagarden.com.