Thoughts from a Mediterranean Convergence

By: Richard G Turner Jr

Richard G Turner Jr is the editor emeritus of Pacific Horticulture. After receiving degrees in architecture and landscape architecture from…

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A remarkable series of events took place last fall. The Annual General Meeting of The Mediterranean Garden Society (headquartered in Greece) was held in the Los Angeles area, sandwiched between the two weekends of Pacific Horticulture’s third symposium, Gardening Under Mediterranean Skies. The combined events brought together gardeners from the length of the West Coast (San Diego to Victoria, BC) as well as from five other countries: Greece, Italy, France, Spain, and Australia. The result was an unprecedented opportunity for participants to meet and mingle with kindred spirits in distant lands and share our enthusiasm for gardening—and living—within this magical climate.

A few themes emerged repeatedly during the week. Regions enjoying a mediterranean climate represent only a little more than one percent of the earth’s surface. The Mediterranean Basin—the cradle of Western civilization—and the other four regions of the world (California, central Chile, southwestern South Africa, and parts of southern and southwestern Australia) are today among the most desirable of places in which to live or vacation. Yet, so many gardeners in those regions, particularly here on the West Coast, seem unwilling to accept the climate, seeing only the constraints that it places on gardening.

A simple terra cotta fountain highlights one part of a mediterranean-Californian garden designed by Bernard Trainor and featured in his presentation at the 2002 Gardening Under Mediterranean Skies symposium. This Palo Alto garden will be the site of the 2003 Friends of Pacific Horticulture garden party.

A simple terra cotta fountain highlights one part of a mediterranean-Californian garden designed by Bernard Trainor and featured in his presentation at the 2002 Gardening Under Mediterranean Skies symposium. This Palo Alto garden will be the site of the 2003 Friends of Pacific Horticulture garden party.

One of the apparent obstacles to gardening in harmony with the mediterranean climate is the phenomenon of summer dormancy, a time when plants rest in response to the reduced moisture content of the soil. Those accustomed to colorful flowers and green foliage during the warmer months often reject the notion of summer dormancy, with its browns, golds, tans, and russets in leaves, stems, and fruits. The result, too often, is a heavily irrigated garden filled with plants poorly adapted to the annual summer dry season.

Such attempts to escape the dormancy are hard to justify when water is as limited as it is in the West. There are other solutions, as several of our symposium speakers pointed out (this year and in past symposia). With care in plant selection, a garden of rich green, gray, and silvery foliage, with a variety of textures, will thrive with minimal water during the summer. A well-placed container can accommodate more colorful plantings, adding zest and a shapely form without straining irrigation needs..

Several speakers addressed the role of native plants in establishing a sense of place in a regional garden. Natives help connect the garden to the surrounding landscape and provide favored habitat for local wildlife—perhaps even recreating habitat lost through development of the surrounding community. Chosen according to soils and climate, native plants can be among the most drought tolerant and least demanding in the garden. Analogous plants from other regions of similar climate can be just as successful in our West Coast gardens, provided they don’t feel so much at home that they begin to naturalize beyond the garden gate.

But there is more to gardening in the mediterranean climate. The climate allows—even encourages—an outdoor lifestyle, filled with the bounty of fresh produce from the garden and wine from the vineyard. Making the most of our available water resources by zoning the plantings according to their needs allows a portion of the water to be put to the production of fruits and vegetables. There may not be room for a vineyard in every garden, but even a single vine on a pergola will shade an outdoor dining room during the hot summer days and provide a harvest of grapes in the fall.

Sculpture plays a big role in gardens in a mediterranean climate. Distinctive shapes, colors, and materials, from classical statues to whimsical pieces crafted out of found objects, offer focal points throughout the year—even during the dormant season. Architectural detailing of walls, arbors, terraces, and steps provide additional opportunities to embellish the landscape with year-round appeal.

Water has always been the centerpiece of gardens in arid climates, adding both sound and motion, cooling the atmosphere, and reflecting the sky. Today, even the simplest of basins in a garden maintains that tradition and acknowledges the life-giving value of water for wildlife, for plants, and for us.

I urge readers to return to the articles by Dave Fross (Winter ’99) and Russ Beatty (April ’01), adapted from the first two symposia, and to the articles by Lester Hawkins in the early years of Pacific Horticulture for inspiration on plant selection for mediterranean-climate gardens. Let’s accept the challenges of the climate, embrace the summer dormancy, and celebrate the opportunities and joys of gardening—and living—within our mediterranean climate.

RGT