The Sounds and Scents of the Garden

An interview with the Dzamling Gar garden designer, Alix De Fermor

Part of the garden around the Gönpa created more than a year ago.

Mirror: Alix, most of the gardens at Dzamling Gar have been completed, but there’s still the area on the north side of the Gönpa that has not been planted yet. Can you tell us about the work there and the type of plants you’re planting?

Working here is quite difficult because the ground is full of construction material and rocks which are not easy to remove. We cannot use machinery for this and are doing everything by hand, moving earth and rocks with a wheelbarrow. For example, this strip that we have just planted in front of the Meriling house had very little soil that covered different types of water and electrical pipes when we started. So we had to bring soil from the upper part of the garden. Fortunately we had some help from karmayogis for this job and this area has become quite nice. 

Alix completing one of the new garden areas. Photo by Lesya Cherenkova

Digging holes for trees. Photo by Lesya Cherenkova.

Then we have been working on another long strip of land on the other side of the path leading to the Gönpa. Up to now we’ve spent a lot of time and energy digging here by hand to remove the enormous rocks and construction material that are under the earth. 

My idea is to isolate this area from the main road. Once all the large rocks have been removed we will put a few trees on each side of the road that leads from the side entrance of the Gar to the Gönpa. The part that is closer to the underground garages near the entrance will probably be more like a desert garden, a little bit like what we have on the other side of the Gönpa with cactus, succulents and local plants. 

The plan of the last section of the Gönpa garden.

At the moment we are still discussing with the Gakyil how to approach the main area below the Gönpa which presents some particular problems for creating a garden. For example, the main part of the area has three enormous water tanks just a few centimeters below the surface, while another area is directly above a lower level office, all of which makes it impossible for larger trees and bushes to find space for their roots and for drainage. Since it is a bit late in the season to plant a garden, I think we will probably work on gradually organizing the terraces and the rocks so that we can plant later in the year when it is cooler and we won’t need so much water.

Mirror: What mixture of soil do you use for your plants? The earth in this part of Tenerife is naturally volcanic, isn’t it?

Alix: The earth here is quite good actually and full of minerals. It just needs an organic element which is brought by the compost that we add, and then a little bit of peat. With our mulching machine, when we prune trees and bushes, everything goes into the machine and then into the compost, except the large branches which become firewood. Our compost comes directly from the garden and is very powerful so the plants grow very quickly! 

Mirror: Have you chosen any particular plants for this area of the garden? 

Alix: Let’s say I’m trying to create a continuity for the Gönpa gardens because they are a bit different from the others. There will be the same plants as the other section of this garden although I’m going to introduce some new elements. 

Some of the trees at the Gar.

Mirror: In the gardens that have already been established, have you made any changes or run into any particular difficulties? 

Alix: Much of the garden was designed to have trees that give shade quickly and now there’s a lot of shade because the trees grew very fast and the garden was becoming a jungle! Recently we have spent a lot of time pruning them, removing many of the lower branches to let a little more light through. In this way, there will be shade in the hottest hours of the day but the morning sun and the afternoon sun will still come to the garden because the shade from the trees is higher up now. We had a lot of help from Hubert Kotowski with this work.

Then we have had some plants that are bringing too many problems and I have had to get rid of them.  For instance, I had to remove most of the opuntia (prickly pear cactus), which had been planted in the Corona Garden on the right side of the Gönpa because they were always covered in this cochineal bug (dactylopius coccus). The cochineal is not indigenous to Tenerife but was introduced here to make dye for clothes for the bishops. In fact people still use the cochineal to do this natural dyeing process. In place of the opuntia we have planted euphorbia (Canary Island spurge) which are not prone to this bug.

The same insect was also infecting much of the bourgainvillea [the colorful ornamental vines with pink, magenta, purple, red, and orange flowers]. There was a lot of this bourgainvillea along the outer fence at the Gar – much of which had already been planted before we established the Gar –  close to olive trees, orchid trees, and other types of trees and the cochineal bugs from the bourgainvillea got into the trees. Because of them we couldn’t maintain that part of the garden and, in addition, the bugs also made quite a bad smell. So we got rid of a lot of the bourgainvillea, but not all. Now it will be easier to take care of them. 

The garden is evolving and because of that we have to see how it can be maintained. If it’s too much work and it’s not adding any aesthetic aspects, we have to make changes. 

Mirror: The garden here at the Gar is full of birds and in the morning you wake up to the wonderful sound of birdsong. Could you describe some of the wildlife that has come to the garden? 

When we first came here, there were no birds, however, this kind of garden, which is a bit wild and informal with a wide variety of plants, has brought an enormous amount of life. Of course the birds are the most striking of the wildlife because they sing, particularly in springtime when they are making nests. 

But I’ve also seen little hedgehogs that come and drink from the irrigation pipe at night and sometimes eat a little bit of the compost that we put out. Then we have a lot of bees that come for the rosemary, the lavender, and the gaura plants (beeblossoms) which are abundant and proliferating at the Gar. And once the summer starts the garden is full of butterflies, including some rare species that are rarely seen. 

I think that one of the aims of a garden is to provide a habitat for animals, not only for humans. I read an article about birdsong and they say that it makes people happy and they relax when they hear birds chirping, especially in the morning. There is not only the sound of the birds, but you can see them coming and going in the gardens. We also have the wonderful hoopoe  (upupa) bird coming here, a colorful bird with a crown of feathers. The first one came when I planted the grass, and now there are many. There are also many native Canary Island birds nesting in the gardens. 

A view from the Gönpa.

Mirror: The south of Tenerife where the Gar is situated is a very dry area and water is very precious. What is the situation with the water for the plants here at the Gar? 

Alix: The water for the plants is very costly because we have been using the water from the town. At the moment we’re using up the water from the swimming pool which has to be emptied in order to repair the surface of the pool.  The water is pumped to the tank and we use it to water the garden. We will save some money like this for a few weeks because the bills for water are quite expensive. 

Now we have an option to use recycled water because a source has recently opened nearby. Although it is a lot cheaper, my concern is that in addition to chlorine, they put a lot of hormones and chemicals into the recycled water. Surprisingly, plants can take the chlorine but hormones are different. We have around 150 fruit trees at the Gar and we would find hormones in the fruit! However it’s much cheaper so most probably we’re going to start using it. 

The other option could be recycling the water from the Gar, however, this should have been considered long ago before the roads were made and the houses finished. Perhaps in the future we will be able to have a project for this, but it will be costly and a lot of work at this point. All the sweat, all the great effort we have put in to create the gardens might have been alleviated by more careful planning in the early years of the Gar. 

Mirror: Finally, is there anything in particular that you would like to mention about the gardens? 

Alix: People love to come here to the Gar, especially in winter, because when it’s cold in Europe, here it’s possible to be outside. And they can enjoy not only the colors, not only the birds, but also the scents of the garden. 

I remember that Rinpoche loved flowers, and he loved when the flowers attracted animals. One time at Merigar he commented on the lavender growing there: “Oh, it’s so wonderful. See how many butterflies there are!” The garden has become a wonderful habitat for animals and a place for the children, for everybody to enjoy. People like to walk and sit here and I often find people with their noses in the flowers. 

I also think the garden is a possibility for the future, because if the Gar is going to open more and more to the exterior, the garden will certainly attract people. People would come because it’s a beautiful garden and there are not many in this part of Tenerife. 

It could also become a place to hold social events and possibly even outdoor cinema in the evenings in the summertime. So I think it’s positive not only because it’s a habitat for animals, but also because it’s a possibility for our opening to the outside.

Mirror: Thank you, Alix. 

Alix and the garden team in one of the holes dug by hand for planting a tree.

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