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Choose plants in the Mediterranean garden

Choosing plants for gardens in a Mediterranean climate is the same as for all gardens: it requires careful consideration. The principles behind suitable plant selections include the overall evaluation of their landscaping potential. So we have to consider the aesthetic and functional merit, the environmental tolerance, te availability in the nurseries and the horticultural know-how. Also, we have to consider what are the plants meant to achieve: to cover the soil (large or small areas?);provide colorful bloom (when?), midwinter, spring, summer, fall protect from what (against wind, unpleasant views?). Is important to consider house style (relaxed and natural, or more formal with clipped evergreens) and a study of the site (sun or shade, soil quality, prevailing winds?).
Plant selection also depends on what grows in your area and your readiness to blend into the local setting and surrounding lands.
However the main suggestion it’s to select plants that thrive in the pedoclimatic environment you are facing. Plants with deep, wide-spreading roots, together with careful planting and mulching, can create an evergreen flowering world, adapted to shortage of labor and water.
Gildemeister (1996) says "whether clearing newly acquired ground, reshaping an existing garden or restoring an overgrown one: only take away what does not belong and don't take out everything. Save native plants and naturally growing trees whenever possible, especially oaks. Trees not only protect vegetation and shade plantings at early stages, they also stop the dehydrating effect of wind and break the force of rain, encouraging water absorption into the soil”. This means to preserve the existing elements of the former ecosystem as a functioning plant community.
The garden should look “natural”, nothing to distract from the glorious view of the sea and the sky, from the beauty of old tree trunks and the restful green masses of plants like mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus), the valuable strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), the elegant myrtle (Myrtus communis), buckthorn (Rhamnus alaternus) and the sturdy laurustinus (Viburnum tinus).
In any case, plant choice have, by necessity, to be water-wise which impose a research into drought tolerant plants. Mediterranean plants not only save water, they will also become a tourist attraction.
It is easy to understand why the phenomenon of drought worry Mediterranean landscape architects and gardeners who have to decide whether to face the problem as though it were a cause to exorcised by the only means they know – that is water – or whether to adapt to the inevitability of things. The two approaches are diametrically opposed: the former is certainly the riskiest, because is based on the assumption that water is an inexhaustible resource available in large quantities, while the latter decries the dangers of uncontrolled use of a resource that is precious for humanity and calls for a change in growing techniques, ultimately bringing the aesthetics of the garden into line with the hard fact of life.
Furthermore, according to the meteorological scientists, the “tropicalisation” of the climate condition, due to the rise in the mean temperature, may probably bring about the “desertification” of vast areas in the Mediterranean basin.
Where water is scarce, a look to native Mediterranean climate plants can be a real help. As a matter of fact, despite many water, mountain and dry lands barriers, several plant species are, surprisingly, widely distributed in the Mediterranean basin. Mostly evergreen, Mediterranean natives have attractive and fragrant flowers. An understanding of how native plants function under stress, contributes to their full evaluation. The careful use of native and introduced plants with drought-tolerant characters is the main theme, based on nature's way of coping with Mediterranean climates. Plants adapted to these condition can and should provide the backbone of Mediterranean gardens.
However we do not have to use Mediterranean natives exclusively. South Africa, California, Latin America and Southern Australia also have a Mediterranean climate and their water-saving plants may be grown together with the Mediterranean ones for additional colors (Acacia, Callistemon, Bougainvillea, Plumbago, Thunbergia, Passiflora, Solandra, etc.).
After the plant have been chosen we have to face the problem of planting. In Mediterranean conditions, new plantings are often slow. When isolated, they hardly want to grow and only shoot up once the soil is covered and mulched, soil life established and crowding sets in.
Our personal suggestion, as pointed out by other Authors (Gildemeister, 1996) is to plant “en masse” to “cover all ground”, to keep humidity in the soil as a reservoir for a long dry summer, to preserve the soil from being washed away, to establish a thriving vegetation which clothes the rock, improves the air we breathe and creates refreshing breeze during hot summer days.
So a well-planned garden initially should include quick-growing pioneer plants, the permanent planting following on. Not all may belong to well-established Mediterranean gardens, but they serve an important function during establishment. Gildemeister (1996) suggests to use shrubs like Phlomis fruticosa, Teucrium fruticans for intermediate stages; Elaeagnus, Myrtus, Phillyrea, Punica, Pittosporum should represent the bulk. Trees like Pinus, Schinus molle, Jacaranda give overhead shade.
Another important thing to be kept well in mind is to protect gardens from the strong and often bitterly cold northern wind (named “tramontana“ in Italy), that can create problems in certain areas. A mixed planting in the north side of the garden made of holm oak, pine, cypresses and high hedges of evergreen shrubs like bay laurel can provide some protection. In other zones especially close to the coast the salty and dry wind from south west (Libeccio) can damage the more sensitive species. Also in this case it is better to provide a natural frame in order to reduce the negative effect of the wind. Shrubs like Tamarix, Elaeagnus, Myoporum are particularly reliable for this purpose.

See also: Mediterranean garden meets the environment

Many parameters, not only environmental, to be considered for the realization of spaces with different species