Magazine article Sunset

Gardens of the Sun: Mediterranean-Style Gardening in the West

Magazine article Sunset

Gardens of the Sun: Mediterranean-Style Gardening in the West

Article excerpt

Close your eyes and picture a garden somewhere near the Mediterranean Sea. Surrounding a home with thick whitewashed or ocher-colored walls in Spain or Tuscany perhaps. Does it contain a patio or grape-covered arbor for shade, a trickling fountain, and sturdy, heat-loving plants like citrus, olive, lavender, and brilliant bougainvillea? Most likely. Is it shimmering in sunlight? Most certainly, because Mediterranean gardening is, above all, a celebration of a climate.

Only 2 percent of the globe enjoys this benign weather pattern, envied by the rest of the world, where warm, dry summers follow mild, wet winters. The dry half of the year may not suit some thirsty plants. But most people love it, because there's no humidity to make your clothes stick to you and few insects to leave itchy bites. If you use plants that are well adapted to this weather pattern, you'll have few warm-season gardening chores.

As the gardens shown here and on the following pages prove, the Mediterranean way of gardening is winning the West. It looks right. It feels right. It suits our light, architecture, and lifestyle. It saves resources (most dry-climate plants are not heavy feeders, and they don't need a lot of water). Best of all, Mediterranean gardens are designed for pleasure. You can incorporate ideas from them into your own garden, no matter where you live.

What makes it Mediterranean?


Mediterranean refers to the countries that rim the Mediterranean Sea--France, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Spain, Syria, and Turkey--that enjoy the best-known dry-summer climate. It also refers to the climate itself. California, central Chile, southwestern Australia, and the Cape Region of South Africa share this weather pattern with the countries of the Mediterranean Basin.

Plants that grow naturally in each of these regions thrive in all dry-summer climates, so gardeners have a surprisingly large plant palette from which to choose. The familiar herbs--lavender, rosemary, sage, santolina, and thyme--are common choices for good reason: They provide sensual pleasure as well as beauty, and they're tough as nails. California natives such as ceanothus, fremontodendron, and sagebrush are other handsome choices. Also try blue hibiscus (Alyogyne huegelii), grevillea, kangaroo paw, and Westringia fruticosa from Australia; Cape mallow (Anisodontea x hypomandarum), Cape plumbago, kniphofia, leucospermum, and lion's tail (Leonotis leonurus) from South Africa; or Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans) and rockrose from the Mediterranean region. All have developed strategies for surviving dry summers.


To provide color and style, Mediterranean gardens have always relied on artful accessories, not just flowering plants. In ancient Arabia, for instance, glazed tiles were often used to add year-round color to simple evergreen plantings. They lined fountains, covered benches, and embellished walls. Pots, of course, are quintessentially Mediterranean. The Greeks and Romans filled them with flowers to add color to courtyards without greatly taxing the water supply or used them to grow lemon trees or other plants that would otherwise be too tender for their climate. …

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