Last weekend we planted a garden in memory of our very good friend Ann Thomas. I met Ann on my first trip to Greece. An ex-pat kiwi, Ann’s love of classical Greece had drawn her there to work on archaeological digs as a researcher, sketching ancient pottery and writing for The Blue Guide. She lived on the top floor of an old house in Athens with access to the roof where she cultivated the most amazing roof garden I have ever seen – hundreds of pots, plants spilling out of them and into each other.
The garden looked across Athens to the Acropolis. With each visit I would notice the growth in the pots. Olive trees, lemons, herbs, vegetables, geraniums, rosemary, lavender, spinach, companion planting… the roof garden had it all. In later years as the building crumbled a little (Ann was always quickly sweeping up bits, ‘Just a bit of wall’ she would say) I feared that the weight of all those pots would one day bring them down into her apartment.
The roof garden was accessed by a dodgy spiral staircase through the kitchen. As her friend Jim said: “We all risked our lives after too much retsina to negotiate safely the spindly spiral staircase that led to the roof. Up there among the geraniums, jasmine and more we looked out over Athens, layered in time and civilizations and talked the moon across the sky night after night.” Finally the house was declared no longer habitable and Ann decided that, after 30 years, it was time to return to New Zealand.
The garden outside her apartment near Ponsonby was ground level. Three terraces bordered by sleepers leading to her front door formed the main part of the garden. Immediately Ann recreated her Greek garden. A bay tree, an olive and a citrus were the focal points of each terrace. The sleepers were softened by thyme, prostrate rosemary, oregano, mint and other herbs. Any available space was quickly planted. We swapped cuttings and plants. I delivered the odd bag of donkey poo from the north and she would come back to Mangawhai with me to help on the Block. The leaves from my liquidambers are languishing on the ground this year without Ann to help me rake them up as she did most years.
Each gardener has their own style. We thought carefully about Ann’s memorial garden. Her plantings had a distinctive flavour. She favoured Italian parsley, old-fashioned calendula and loved the small leafed basil. Small leaf basil is preferred by the Greeks and is often grown in pots. Basil is considered by the Greeks to be sacred and it was used in holy water and was thought to ward off evil. Ann loved the fragrance and would rub basil through her hands. Basil is now more commonly used and because it loses some of its fragrance when dry it is best to use the leaves fresh.
We endeavoured to plant Ann’s preferences at the Block. With a well-established olive tree at one end we planted lavender, Italian parsley, thyme, oregano, calendulas, white geraniums and blue and white flowering plants. At the other end we planted a bay tree surrounded by lobelia and alyssum. In the spring we will add basil and maybe a lemon tree. There were ripe pomegranates, which we spooned into glasses of wine to toast a truly remarkable woman.