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Mediterranean garden meets the environment

When we talk about Mediterranean garden, the first question we have to answer is “What is a Mediterranean garden?” Usually a garden should represent the kind of landscape we would like to have around us. If you ask this question to people, the answer you receive is, most of the times, sun, olive trees, cypresses, lemons and orange in pots, probably the shade of a pergola.

However “Mediterranean” is a profoundly ambiguous word, especially when linked to “garden”. First, it is used for the lands that border the Mediterranean sea, although even then it is applied erratically. At least in the English-speaking and North European world, it is typically applied to Italy, the South Coast of France, the east coast of Spain, Greece and the offshore islands. Yet, the Mediterranean basin has a larger area and more complex geography and morphology so that the pattern of rainfall and of temperature is extremely varied. It can be brilliantly colorful, but it is never lush and at every season in every places, it has its own special kind of austere beauty, one which has its origin in the climate characteristics.

But the word “Mediterranean garden” can also be intended to indicate a certain style of garden. The common assumed characteristics are the use of terracing, of quite extensive paved area, of enclosed courtyards, of water features such as fountains, the use of grey foliage, very important to give color to the garden both in summer and winter, and white flowers to cool, and dark foliaged evergreen to define. But let’s forget about the opinion of people and let us turn to pure nature, which never cheats. The Mediterranean flora, the Mediterranean landscape – what do they suggest? There is no easy answer: the Mediterranean flora is so varied and counts such numerous species that is possible to find in it everything and its opposite. For sure there are olive trees and myrtle, but there are also fir trees (There are probably more Abies species around the Mediterranean than in any other part of the world) irises and oleanders.

If we are satisfied to refer to a stereotyped Mediterranean nature, then talk is easy; if, however, we prefer to tackle reality, then I think we may find quite a number of different examples of “Mediterranean garden”, very dissimilar to the conventional gardens of olive trees and cypresses, agaves, rosemary and cistus. In a way, what we have to face is the coexistence of a wide range of different models side by side in a limited area. The gardens of the Côte d’Azour and Tuscany, but also the Alhambra and Landriana (the latter designed by Russell Page) as random examples, classical or romantic, wild or manicured – everyone may make his choice, with respect for the genius loci and according to his personal propensities. Thank God, we have a very wide range of models from which to make our selection, though the best choice is probably an ecumenical mixture.

How to compensate for hot dry summer and intense light? Should you be new to gardening in a Mediterranean climate, your main question would be how to compensate for hot dry summers and their intense light, made worse by wind’s desiccating force, how to cover bare ground where winter rains have carried most of the soil away, exposing bare rock. We all know that the periodic total absence of rain is one of the characteristics of the Mediterranean climate but we can balance the Mediterranean climate’s negative aspects by taking advantage of the positive ones. Many gardeners working in Mediterranean climate use water savings methods. Apparently, it is not difficult to reduce water use by 50%. There is no need to sacrifice beauty for the sake of water conservation. Contrary to the popular image of a water-saving landscape consisting solely of cacti in a dusty area of rocks and pebbles, drought-tolerant Mediterranean natives are very attractive. They fit every landscape and offer the same variety of shape, texture and color as the water-demanding plants. Such garden will gain in radiance as drought-tolerant plants stand up to dry summers and, when well chosen, look as good in midsummer as in spring.

Whatever the garden is intended for, it needs a precise structure and backbone. In the Mediterranean climate the garden is a significant living space where one may spend most of one’s time. Very often the backbone is given by the existing plants. The solid masses of the century-old oak or walnut and the dense canopies of some Mediterranean shrubs together with the silver-gray trunks of ancient olive trees would, can become a solid backbone for a natural garden. They bring “instant shade” which helps the establishment of a Mediterranean garden.

Picture: The Alhambra garden (Granada)

A vast choiche of models to help in plant selection does exist. But local climate conditions are very important