Designing Gardens for a Mediterranean climate

Join Merilyn Kuchel, President of the South Australian Mediterranean Garden Society (SAMGS) as she discusses the successes and failures in making gardens suited to our Mediterranean Climate.

For twenty years members of the South Australian Branch of Mediterranean Gardening Society (SAMGS) have been sharing our successes and failures in making gardens suited to our Mediterranean Climate. With very long hot dry summers and relatively cool wet winters we have learned to look to those countries who share the same climate to fill our plant palette and inspire our designs. 

Trevor Nottle founder and past president of the SAMGS and writer of many books on Mediterranean plants and gardens offers sage advice to beginner gardeners

“We need to recognise the constraints of our climate and work within them.  We should celebrate our climate which is so suited to outdoor living and alfresco entertaining. We should rest while the plants are resting and be active in the garden during the cooler months.”

Only 2% of the earth’s landmass enjoys a true Mediterranean Climate. (The southernmost parts of  Spain, France, Italy, Greece; the western areas of  Turkey, Israel, California, South Africa, Chile; and South West Australia and coastal South Australia)  These areas have shared characteristics of very long hot dry summers and cool wet winters, many days of clear blue skies, intense heat and high UV radiation. Mostly the soils are difficult for plant growth, nutrient poor, often rocky or limestone with resulting high alkalinity. The plants which have evolved for these regions are very often fully or partially dormant during the dry summers, putting on new growth only after the autumn rains have arrived. They respond to the milder weather and come into bloom during winter and early spring when the soil is moist. As the days lengthen and heat up, they set seed, slow their growth and prepare to shut down over summer. It is almost exactly opposite to most of the ornamental deciduous trees and shrubs from Northern Europe, China or North America which have their dormant period during the icy cold winters.

Plant Selection in Mediterranean Design 

Many of the trees, shrubs and perennials native to those regions closely resembling our climate are most likely to survive or thrive in similar Australian conditions alongside our own perfectly adapted indigenous flora. Good examples of summer dormant plants are South African Amaryllis belladonna and nerines with their large bulbs which store enough moisture to send up tall flowering stems in late summer with the leaves emerging later or autumn flowering cyclamen. Other bulbs such as snowflakes, jonquils, anemone, and grape hyacinths have their leaves emerge in autumn and flower in winter. Some other early spring flowering South African bulbs such as freesias, dwarf gladiolus and babiana are also suited to a Mediterranean garden. Surprisingly, some early flowering liliums do quite well as they too have a large fleshy summer dormant bulb, but they do require extra fertilising to succeed.  There are many perennials which are semi-dormant during summer such as hellebores, Japanese windflowers (anemone), kniphofias and many species of iris with their large fleshy rhizomes which store enough moisture to keep them going over summer. Similarly, many succulents store moisture in their leaves so can survive long periods without rain or irrigation.  Aloes bloom in winter providing a much-appreciated nectar source for honey eaters and spine bills. Some evergreen trees such as Arbutus, and many of our eucalypts have adapted to long dry periods by shedding leaves in midsummer to reduce moisture loss. 

Other plants adaptations include hairy or waxy coatings on leaves to reduce moisture loss, silver or grey leaves to reflect the heat, narrow or needle-like leaves hanging vertically to avoid the sun’s rays, hard or leathery leaves to reduce the risk of UV damage.

Design elements 

While there is no single style of Mediterranean garden there are many design elements which are common to all well planned gardens.

Moving water

Moving water from fountains or rills add drama and cooling whereas still water in pools offers reflection and refreshment for the spirit. In busy cities the sound of moving water can absorb the sounds of traffic or conversation.

Shade 

Shaded arbours and walkways provide shelter for people and plants as well as pleasing patterns of shadow and light. A vine covered pergola is a simple and effective way to create a shaded area for Alfresco dining, one of the great benefits of living in a hot climate. 

Natural materials and features 

Traditionally Mediterranean gardens have used local stone for walls and paving adding to their great charm. Stone is not so readily or cheaply available here but natural materials such as recycled timber and gravel complements gardens. Terracotta pots and urns instantly give a garden a Mediterranean flavour and allow for the rotation of flowering specimens. Mosaics are another colourful way of introducing visual interest when there are few flowers in bloom.

Garden seats are an essential feature and should ideally be placed under shady trees or in secluded corners which invite rest and reflection

While the garden in summer is predominantly green, clipping plants such as teucrium, buxus or westringia into balls or cones adds structure and has become extremely popular in contemporary Mediterranean gardens. 

Trees selection 

The careful selection of trees and their positioning is the most important decision a gardener must make. Fortunately, we are blessed with a wide selection of both evergreen and deciduous trees for every size and style of garden. For small gardens I would recommend citrus, pomegranates, quinces, persimmons, crepe myrtles and almonds and if space allows, I love the look of pencil pines, olives, oleanders and calodendrons. Shade trees for large gardens could include a golden or claret ash or walnut but these will require some summer irrigation. Where space is not a problem, but lack of water is a limiting factor then an Algerian oak, a fig or even a pepper tree.  

Overall layout

Traditional “paradise” gardens are very formal, full of symbolism and reminiscent of Persian carpets and require great discipline and restraint with a limited plant selection. Personally, I prefer a more relaxed informal layout, with a greater biodiversity and lots of hidden paths and places for children to explore and birds to hide. Productive gardens are practical as well as appealing and I like to see fruit trees and herbs mixed in with ornamentals to give a garden an air of generosity and bounty such as the gardens our Greek, Italian and Vietnamese migrants made in Australia after the second world war. 

Perfumed aromatic garden 

Often overlooked but I believe essential to an authentic Mediterranean garden is perfume. Jasminium azoricum flowers throughout summer and autumn into winter. No garden should be without lavenders, rosemary, scented pelargoniums, lemon verbena, salvias and all the aromatic herbs. Winter honeysuckle (Lonicera nivalis) daphne and jonquils have strong scents bringing a special bonus to the gardener on cold days. Perfume can bring back memories of people and places adding a powerful emotional value to our garden

Merilyn Kuchel OAM

President of the Mediterranean Gardening Society of South Australia (SAMGS)

President of the Friends of the Botanic Gardens of Adelaide

Horticultural Advisor to the National Trust of SA

A Resource Book for Climate Compatible gardens originally published in 2010 by the SA Branch of the Mediterranean garden Society (SAMGS) will be updated, reprinted and available in October this year.

Further reading 

The Complete Flower Book by Clive Blazey 

The New Ornamental Garden by Simon Rickard 

Plants for a Changing Climate by Trevor Nottle  

Bringing the Mediterranean to your garden by Olivier Filippi 

Gardening the Mediterranean Way – practical solutions for Summer-dry climates by Heidi Gildemeister 

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