The cliff-top garden that became one Briton’s Greek odyssey

Along the coast from the Greek port of Rafina, 26km east of Athens, is the home and garden of Norman Gilbertson and Diane Katsiaficas in Kokkino Limanaki. The setting is spectacular: perched on red ochre cliffs above the Aegean, there are no fences or barriers to the seaward boundary, creating the impression that the garden flows uninterrupted out to sea. Across the bay is Marathon, and the beach below is littered with smooth, pure white pebbles – pieces of marble washed down from quarries inland, exactly the same stone from which the Parthenon is made. The work of the past 25 years, the garden wraps around Norman and Diane’s modernist villa. But had it not been for a wartime case of mumps, it is unlikely any of it would have been made.

Born in Chingford, on the London/Essex border, Norman Gilbertson has been “mixed up in Greece” for almost 70 years. Trained by the Friends Relief Service (Quakers) for aid work on the continent as the second world war drew to a close, he was preparing to be posted to Germany. Bombed out of his family home, Gilbertson spent his last weekend in Britain billeted with a Quaker family on the outskirts of London. The family had a little girl of seven who had fallen ill as Gilbertson arrived, and the next day she was diagnosed with mumps. Gilbertson was ordered to stay put in quarantine, and his team left without him, forming part of the relief effort that followed the liberation of Belsen concentration camp.

Gilbertson in Thessaloniki in 1945

A lone relief worker was never going to be allowed to cross Europe in pursuit of his team, and Gilbertson was instructed to settle down to Greek lessons instead. He arrived in Athens in the summer of 1945 to a country on its knees. The German occupation was over but the economy was in the grip of 1,000 per cent inflation and Greece was slipping slowly toward civil war.

Gilbertson’s new team was seconded to the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and sent to northern Greece as part of the welfare programme, distributing clothing and bedding throughout the region. Corruption, theft and threats of violence were commonplace, and on three occasions he came face-to-face with guerrillas. Once, while hiking to a remote beauty spot with a group of fellow aid workers, he left the trail to answer the call of nature and walked straight into a group of heavily armed fighters. After a brief conversation about the reason for his visit, Gilbertson was allowed to beat a hasty retreat.

As the civil war intensified, Gilbertson and his first wife Dorine Arditti – a Greek Jew who had spent two years living underground during the occupation – were posted to the American Farm School near Thessaloniki. The city was being mortared from the hills and was cut off from the rest of the country for many months.

The couple left Greece in 1953, “penniless but rich in experience”, and moved to France, returning to Greece as often as they could. In 1960 they bought the plot of 4,000 sq metres at Kokkino Limanaki, “a tired-out vineyard”, with the idea returning full time and building a home, but Gilbertson did nothing except build a fence around the site. After a career in management consultancy in Belgium and Holland, he retired early and moved back to Greece. Dorine died in 1983 with the plot of land still empty.

In 1987 Gilbertson met Diane Katsiaficas, a Greek-American professor of art at the University of Minnesota, and they married in 1989. Determined to finally make a home and garden in this magical spot, they commissioned the US architect Garth Rockcastle to design a house that celebrated the light and space of its cliff-top location.

Among the first plants introduced was a line of Mediterranean pine (Pinus halepensis) and stone pine (Pinus pinea). Two decades later these trees are key features in the garden, framing views out to sea.

Growing anything at Kokkino Limanaki is a challenge; the soil is stony clay, baked hard and almost impossible to cultivate, so raised beds became a necessity. Local rock, cut and dressed into regular blocks, has been used to make the dry stone walls that form the beds, which are built up to a depth of about 30cm to 40cm, then filled with imported soil and sheep manure. Over the years the raised beds and pebble mulch that dresses them have been augmented by hundreds of “swimming stones” brought up from the beach below by the Gilbertsons’ many guests. As well as allowing a decent depth of soil, the beds help to retain the meagre 30cm (12in) of annual rainfall (almost none of which falls between Easter and October) that otherwise runs off the hard-packed soil surface and disappears down to the sea. Light levels are high, even in winter, and salt-laden winds the norm. Plants need to be tough to survive, and the mix of indigenous and drought-tolerant exotics give the garden a particular character; leafier and greener than a desert garden, but light on expanses of green. There is no lawn here.

The garden is divided into two parts with the house at the centre, reached by a loose-packed stone drive. To the rear of the property is the “working” part where food for the house is grown. There are 34 olive trees, some of which are picked and pickled for the table, the remainder milled into oil. Figs, loquat, peaches, apricots and citrus trees are all prolific, with one tree alone producing 200 to 300 lemons a year and a grapefruit tree 80 or more fruits.

Naturalised and wild plants seed into any niche

Gilbertson, 93, still enjoys the challenges of growing food. “It’s rather fun for a Londoner to grow oranges,” he says. For 20 years the couple have been helped two days a week by their gardener, Evangeli, and Gilbertson happily admits to being “a very good vegetable gardener, so long as the work is done by Evangeli”. In open glades between the fruit trees further raised beds are stuffed with chilli peppers, beetroots, turnips, leeks and basil. Two vines remain from the garden’s past – “a memento to history”.

To the front of the house the planting is largely ornamental, the geometry of the raised beds softened under two decades of growth. This has been Diane’s domain alone for the past five years. There are plenty of tough Mediterranean and exotic plants making up the backbone of the planting, such as Opuntia, agave and Phlomis, but there are beds of roses too, thriving in the high light levels and clean air. One raised bed is filled with dozens of plants of sage (Salvia officinalis) each displaying distinctly or subtly different leaf shape, a result of natural variation in these seed-grown plants.

Ancient terracotta pots – some of them 2,000 years old – are dotted throughout along with an eclectic mix of objects and statuary. With so many views to die for, seating has been used carefully to create “destinations” in the garden, and create a variety of different shady locations to soak up the scenery to the soundtrack of the Aegean rolling in to the beach below. Next to the house are three trees that are too close together to have been deliberately planted. A Cercis siliquastrum has been joined by a young apricot and older olive tree. At dinner the reason for this tightly grouped triumvirate becomes clear, as we are encouraged to throw fruit and olive stones into the darkness of the garden. Given the opportunity, it would seem, anything can put down roots.

With thanks to Mark Rachovides and Elina Tripoliti

Matthew Wilson is managing director of Clifton Nurseries, London

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