The Gardens Of Corfu

Corfu’s rich garden tradition might seem surprising in an island so small. Partly it stems from the favourable climate, relatively fertile soils, and wide diversity of microclimates, which make possible the cultivation of a wide range of plants. Corfu has hot dry summers but it also has twice the annual rainfall of Madeira or Sicily (and 44 percent more than London). But the rich garden tradition also stems from the island’s unusual social and cultural history. Under successive regimes down the centuries—Venetian, French, British, and Greek—Corfu has always attracted cosmopolitan residents and visitors who kept in touch with artistic developments and garden fashions in European cultural centres and saw that these were replicated locally.

Today Corfu’s gardens cover the spectrum from attractive village plots, urban courtyards and balconies, and the pleasure gardens of old estates to modern villa gardens. Some of the most remarkable gardens have been created in the course of the building boom of the past 15 years, and reflect the talent of contemporary international designers in spectacular natural settings.
What one might call the vernacular gardens in villages and towns have probably stayed much the same for centuries, though with a broadening range of plants. Like those in other parts of Greece and much of the Mediterranean coast, these carefully tended gardens typically combine brightly coloured flowers with useful vegetables and herbs, a scented flowering shrub, and a grapevine or two on a pergola whose shade extends the usable living area of the house.

For gardens intended as art, the design ideals have changed greatly. In 19th century Corfu, the pleasure gardens of the noble houses took inspiration mainly from Italian formal and English Victorian models. Today’s designers, no less cosmopolitan than their predecessors, draw their reference points from the surrounding landscape, both agricultural and wild, and favour the use of local materials and craft traditions. As part of the effort to be authentic—and also, vitally, to conserve water in summer—they make much more use of native shrubs and trees than their predecessors, most of whom used cypresses but probably thought the other natives too mundane for gardens.
Across the spectrum of Corfu gardens, certain ingredients give a characteristic local “feel”:

  • Walls and patio paving made of the local pale reflective stone. Stone is everywhere in Corfu. It appears, smoothly cut, in city paving; roughly hewn, in rural retaining terraces and walls; and as jutting crags and boulders in the upland landscape. Its jagged outlines break through the ground in some of the same gardens where it also appears in exquisitely carved stone urns, balusters, and finials.
  • Rich wrought-iron work is a distinctive feature of buildings and gardens throughout Corfu. Originally patterned after Venetian models, it now appears also in contemporary designs. On houses, it is seen in balcony rails, banisters, and door gratings but it is also the material of choice for garden pergolas, gates and fences, outdoor lanterns, and garden furniture.
  • Big terracotta urns. Often made from the same clay as the typical roof tiles, these evoke the past, when they were used widely for storage and were the vessels in which Corfu exported its olive oil to Venice. Though their uses vary—whether as simple dramatic decorative features or as plant containers—they appear equally in the gardens of old noble houses and in contemporary and village gardens.
  • Typical plants. Olive, citrus, and cypress trees are recurrent favourites, as is bougainvillea, with its joyous colours. Broadleaf native trees and shrubs are now widely used in local gardens, both for their water-saving characteristics and for their decorative value And, in Corfu’s always-humid air, gardeners noticeably choose plants for scent: orange blossom, jasmine and trachelospermum, wisteria, roses, gardenia, stocks, petunias and lilies in pots, and night-perfumed cestrum and moonflower, are favoured, as well as aromatic herbs and shrubs such as rosemary, myrtle, and bay.

Lastly, in this island where the working countryside is never far away, gardens tend to mix the useful with the beautiful. Village gardens and old estates have always done this, and even small urban gardens usually contain a lemon tree and a pot of basil. Though contemporary villa gardens tend to be mainly ornamental, many of them deliberately evoke the former agricultural uses of the land—for example by keeping the old retaining terraces, or by maintaining or reproducing a grid of olive or citrus trees that gives structure to their planting design. Often, too, garden owners with urban and even foreign backgrounds take pride in growing fruit and vegetables, harvesting the olives from their trees, and making wine from their patio grapes.

By Rachel Weaving

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