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Gardens of the sun: Mediterranean-style gardening in the West.

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. But they also used them as beautiful objects in and of themselves--a classic olive oil jar at the end of an allee, a row of bulbous pots atop a ballustrade, or a stone urn atop a pedestal, for instance. Nymphs and satyrs and gods and goddesses, in the form of statuary, were also essential elements in the classic Mediterranean garden.

RELATED ARTICLE: What you need

* Subtle foliage

Leaves lean toward gray green, blue green, and olive hues, with fuzzy or waxy textures.

* Vivid colors

Forget pastels. The Mediterranean sun calls for bold-colored flowers like bougainvillea or kangaroo paw (shown).

* Expansive hardscape

Patios, terraces, paths, and other paved surfaces predominate over lawns.

Shady shelter

* Cast by an arbor or simply an umbrella, shade offers cool refuge on a hot summer day.

* Herbal scents

Rosemary, lavender, sage, and thyme give the Mediterranean garden its aromatic appeal.

* Cooling water

Fountains, pools, and other water features reflect appreciation for a scarce resource in an arid climate.

* Artful containers

Pots and urns, planted with flowers, herbs, or succulents, accent paved areas.

* Alfresco living

Generous spaces for outdoor dining and entertaining take advantage of the mild climate.

Going Mediterranean? Here is help

* Gardens to visit

The Adamson House in Malibu, California, a wonderful Spanish-style house from 1929, with tiled fountains, Moorish pots, and more. 7-sunset daily; tours 11-3 Wed-Sat; free. 23200 Pacific Coast Hwy.; (310) 456-8432. The Mediterranean Conservatory at the Rio Grande Botanic Garden in Albuquerque displays Mediterranean herbs and flowers. 9-5 daily; $7.2601 Central Ave. NW; (605) 764-6200. The VanDusen Botanical Garden has 2 1/2 acres of Mediterranean-rim plants. 10-6 daily; $7 Canadian. 5251 Oak St., Vancouver, British Columbia; (604) 878-9274.

For more gardens, visit the Sunset website:

* Seminar

"Gardening under Mediterranean Skies III: Design with Purpose," a two-day symposium on Mediterranean gardening, features experts and an optional, pre-symposium garden tour. Sep 27-29; Strybing Arboretum & Botanical Gardens, San Francisco; (415) 661-1316 or Oct 4-6; Arboretum of Los Angeles County, Arcadia, CA; (626) 821-3242 or

* New book

Sun-Drenched Gardens: The Mediterranean Style, by Jan Smithen, with photographs by Lucinda Lewis (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2002; $39.95; 800/759-0190). Smithen, a well-known garden instructor in Southern California, has been preaching the Mediterranean message for at least a decade. Her passion for the style comes across in every page of this book, scheduled for release in October.

* Club

The Mediterranean Garden Society has a local branch in Northern California and another in Southern California. This international group will hold its annual general meeting October 1-3 in Pasadena. Visit
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Author:Cohoon, Sharon
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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