WORDS Tamsin Varley
I first visited Ruth and John Greenlee’s Garden eight years ago and was stunned by the amazing oasis they have created on a large piece of land overlooking the sea in central Algarve.
They bought a ruin on a large plot in 2004, which was surrounded by wild coastal vegetation as well as some fig, carob and olive trees. They commissioned Jean-Claude DeFrance from Natura to design, create and plant a garden for them which would include a swimming pool, a pond, a fire pit area where the family could gather in the evenings, a giant chessboard, a sweeping lawn and large flower beds close to the house. As there is a two-metre drop from the back of the house to the garden, a retaining wall was built around the south side of the house, which is on two levels so that there was room for planting close to the house softening the wall.
Jean-Claude’s planting palette tends towards greenery with leaf shapes and colours doing the talking along with a lot of topiary. Ruth prefers more colour in the garden so has gradually changed the original planting with flowering shrubs and perennials, including Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans), Cannas, Globe artichokes, Bottlebrushes, the giant honey flower (Melianthus major), various Cestrums and Agapanthus, to name a few. She has sourced the plants from local garden centres and by cuttings as she is a keen and successful propagator.
Rabbits have been a major issue from the get-go, but a rabbit-proof fence around the main garden has helped a lot. Ruth positively fizzes with energy and when I think of her, it’s always walking briskly around the garden figuring out what needs doing and what changes she’s going to make next. The garden is far from static and new areas are constantly being developed and older areas are relandscaped. The irrigation regime here is generous and the water comes from a borehole. However, Ruth is keenly aware of climate change and on my last visit, I noticed she has replanted a large area with succulents surrounded by a slatey grey mulch which really shows them off beautifully.
I asked Ruth about her soil and was not surprised to hear that it was the heavy clay so typical of that area. However, they invested in an industrial chipper to shred any garden waste which is used as a mulch on the beds. This helps reduce water loss but also rots down and adds organic matter to the soil. This, she thinks, has been the secret behind the lush, healthy plants you see today.
I asked Ruth what her favourite area of the garden was. Much to my surprise, it is the vegetable garden that she tends on her own and is very productive. She loves the challenge of growing vegetables from seed and then the gratification of picking and eating her own produce which she knows is completely organic. I asked her if she has a favourite seating area from which she can survey her garden. She roared with laughter and said she rarely has the time or inclination to sit down for long. Her family had commissioned a lovely seat decorated with roses for her to look over a planned rose garden. However, the rose garden is still to be created and so the seat sits under the shade of a tree waiting to be used.
Tamsin Varley is a member of Clube Dos Bons Jardins, a small, friendly multi-national garden club that meets at different locations around the Algarve on the 2nd Tuesday every month except over the summer with an optional lunch afterwards.