The idea of having a Mediterranean garden has become a big deal – Google it and you will get 152 million hits. Issues like hotter and drier summers are on everyone’s mind, and water conservation is becoming much more important in more and more parts of the country. So any idea for a garden that gets away from the high-maintenance, high-water-use classic style of lawns, beds, clipped hedges and annual flowers is welcome. That’s a style that has dominated gardening for well over a hundred years, but perhaps it has had it’s day. So if you have been looking at pictures like the one at the top, and wondering if this is for you – a solution to so many problems, and beautiful too – read on to learn more about these gardens, their plants, their pros and their cons too.
What is a Mediterranean garden?
Most of us know that the Mediterranean Sea is a body of water surrounded by Europe in the north, Africa in the south, the Middle East is indeed to it’s east, and in the west are the mythic Straits of Gibraltar, linking it to the much greater Atlantic Ocean.
When we talk about ‘Mediterranean’ in connection with plants, though, it’s a concept that covers a much bigger part of the globe. Found obviously around the Mediterranean Sea, it is also found in parts of Australia, South Africa, South America and right here in parts of California, Utah and Oregon. The fact that it covers so many continents means there is a vast array of plants that you can grow in your ‘Mediterranean garden’. Many people perhaps have a concept of it based on a trip to the French Riviera, and think it is limited to the plants they saw growing there – but that would be a mistake.
The Mediterranean Climate
So the ‘Mediterranean’ for gardeners is really a specific type of climate, not a place.
Technically defined as lying between 30o and 45o degrees of latitude in both the northern and southern hemispheres, on the western side of continents, it’s chief characteristics are dry summers that are warm to hot and winters that are cool but not cold, with moderate amounts of rain.
If we look at the standard system used to classify climates, the Koppen system, it’s described as ‘Cs’, a temperate climate, neither tropical nor arctic, where the temperature in the coldest month is on average higher than 27o (-3oC), and at least four months of the year average above 50o (10oC). There will be at least 3 times as much rain in the wettest month of the year as there is in the driest, and that driest month will average no more than 1.6 inches of rain (40 mm).
As for how hot it gets, there are three subdivisions:
- Csa, hot-summer Mediterranean climates, areas where the summer is hot, with one month at least averaging over 72o degrees (22oC)
- Csb, warm-summer Mediterranean climates, where the summers do not average over 72o
- Csc – cool-summer Mediterranean climates, where all it takes is 3 months of the year averaging over 50o.
Well, Alright, but Can I have a Mediterranean Garden?
Now all that technical stuff ends up meaning, for gardeners, that if your winters are not too cold, or too dry, and your summers are warm to hot, you can consider your garden suitable for the Mediterranean garden style.
If you want to get into this more, and see where you stand, here is a very useful site where you just enter your Zip code and get enough relevant information to see how close to the ‘Mediterranean Ideal’ you might be. Just as a sample, I put in a part of Philadelphia (Zip code: 19093) and a quick analysis of the monthly results the site gives showed me that the average temperature in the coldest month is 32o, and the three summer months all average 72o or more, which sounds promising so far. But, the wettest month of the year is in July (4.4 inches on average), not in winter, and the driest month of the year, which is February, averages 2.7 inches, so July is not even twice as wet, nowhere near the needed 3 times in that Koppen classification.is not even half as wet as July. So Philadelphia is a long way from qualifying when it comes to rainfall. So Philly might be a great city, but ‘Mediterranean’ it is not! Punch in your own Zip code and see what you get – you might be surprised.
So What do I do if my Garden ‘Fails’ that Test?
For sure that doesn’t mean you couldn’t have a Mediterranean style garden in Philadelphia. The winters are certainly not too cold, and that’s a critical factor. Some plants native to Mediterranean regions are very adaptable, and as long as they don’t freeze in winter they will do OK in wetter summers. Also, from a styling point of view there are plants that have the right ‘look’, even if they don’t come from Mediterranean climate areas.
Using Garden Microclimates
The biggest factor of all, though, when it comes to ‘cheating’ your local climate, is the existence of garden ‘microclimates’, These are parts if a garden that for one reason or another escape the averages, and they create a miniature climate zone – a microclimate. If you ever wondered how a neighbor, or a garden you passed somewhere, managed to have an unlikely plant growing in it, chances are that smart gardener knew how to spot and use the microclimate zones found in almost every garden.
For example, south-facing walls, and the soil at the foot of them, are well-known as places that are hotter and drier, especially if you also have broad eaves. Many smart gardeners exploit those walls to grow plants that wouldn’t grow so well, or at all, right out in their garden. This would not just be Mediterranean plants, but might be something not very winter hardy. The most famous example, and the one you see often, is Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), certainly not a Mediterranean plant. If you want a Mediterranean example, many migrant families from Italy brought pieces of fig trees with them, and these also grow well, and fruit much better, spread out on a south-facing wall. That too is a relatively common sight in some parts of the country.
Your soil is a second factor that could work in your favor. If you have a naturally dry and sandy soil, even if you have rain through summer, that soil will tend to be dry, while if you have a heavy, clay soil it will be wet a lot of the time, and plants that like dry summers won’t be so happy in it.
Now suppose you have a sloping area in your garden. What direction does it face? If it faces south or west, it will be a lot hotter and drier than the rest of your garden. If that area slopes north, though, especially if it is shaded for much of the year, it will be colder, and the soil wetter – a great place perhaps for ferns and Hosta, but not a likely candidate for a Mediterranean garden. That sunny slope will be though, and if you don’t have a sunny slope, just sun, then raising the soil a bit and creating a raised bed is another way to make an area more suitable for these Mediterranean plants.
Even something as simple as gravel mulch, instead of my usual recommendation of ‘rich organic mulches’ will keep soil drier and warmer, because reducing the organic content makes any soil drier, and the gravel doesn’t do much to prevent direct evaporation from the soil surface.
So Let’s get Gardening, Mediterranean Style
Now you have analyzed your local climate, and checked out your garden for suitable microclimate zones, it’s time to get down to work creating your Mediterranean garden. Check out this blog post for some ideas on planning, general layout, and preparation; this one on trees and shrubs you could grow, and this one on flowering plants and groundcovers. All that will give you lots of material to realize your dream of having your very own piece of the Mediterranean, right outside your door.