A Place In The Sun

Mediterranean gardens are thriving in places far away from home.

July 18, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

Mediterranean gardens have rightly been called gardens of the sun -- warm, bright paradises filled with a profusion of aromatic plants, wonderful silver-green foliage and bursts of exuberant color. Just as Americans have fallen in love with Mediterranean food in the '90s, so the Mediterranean garden has become a favorite landscape design.

"When you discover the joys of a spirited, sensual garden," says Pattie Barron in "Create a Mediterranean Garden" (Anness Publishing, 1999), "that keeps delivering surprises as well as scratches, that throws out enticing perfumes as well as pungent aromas, that delights the eye for every month of the year, you will doubtless, like me, soon be looking for more."

The Mediterranean garden is as much an idea as it is a collection of plants, a style that in this country was practically invented in -- where else? -- California.

One could argue that just about every garden in California is a Mediterranean garden. Most of the state is, after all, in one of the earth's five so-called Mediterranean climate zones, which also include parts of Chile, South Africa and Australia. All have in common dry, hot summers with abundant sunshine and wet winters.

But the Mediterranean garden as a style evokes the sunny slopes of Spain, the courtyard of an Italian villa, or some other paradisiacal escape. While conditions are ideal for such a garden in California, Marylanders are also discovering the pleasures and practical benefits of a Mediterranean garden as hot, dry summers continue to be the norm here. Almost all the plants that go into such a garden -- either classic Mediterranean varieties or frost-tolerant substitutes -- have one thing in common. They are drought resistant.

"About the only thing you can do wrong is treat them like a water-loving plant," says Monkton landscape designer Robert Schultz. He has designed many Mediterranean gardens, he says, when they are harmonious with the architecture of the house.

"Often the client still has moist, shady ideas," he adds, which simply won't work under dry conditions. A Mediterranean-style garden is the happy solution.

Because the plants that thrive in the Mediterranean hate to get their feet wet, they do best in rocky soil that provides excellent drainage. In fact, stone of some sort is a characteristic of these gardens. It may be found in terracing, gravel paths, courtyards or flagstone pavers with creeping ground cover growing between them. Lush green lawns are definitely not part of the picture, which may be a relief if you're sick of watering yours.

Maria Price-Nowakowski, the owner of Willow Oak Flower & Herb Farm in Severn, recently planted a Mediterranean display garden at her nursery. She started by terracing the area for drainage.

"Stone is an important substrate for these plants," she says. She added limestone and oyster shell bits to the soil, and she plans to mulch the plants with gravel, which will help keep down mold.

"We have the heat, but the Mediterranean doesn't have the problems we do with high humidity, which creates mold from underneath," she says.

She's planted classic Mediterranean herbs like lavenders and rosemaries in the space, and has a fig tree as backdrop. Miniature pomegranate, olive and citrus trees are growing in terra-cotta pots, which can be brought in when the weather gets chilly.

Plants in pots are another characteristic of Mediterranean-style gardens, even when cold weather isn't a factor. "Accents of containers are very typical," says Kathleen Brenzel, garden editor of Sunset magazine. She filled a 2-foot Tuscan terra-cotta pot with English lavender and lime thyme for her garden but, she adds, "succulents also look great in containers."

As for the plants themselves, there are many drought-tolerant, deep-rooted ones that can be used. The emphasis should be on foliage color. The Mediterranean palette tends to be gray or silvery green, although it ranges from dark olive to lime green.

Shrubby plantings and small trees with picturesque branch patterns are typical. Classic plants that might not survive our winters can be replaced by others, such as yuccas for agaves. Mediterranean climbers like bougainvillea that don't tolerate frost should be grown in containers in this area; small rambling roses make a good substitute. Aromatic herbs are essential to a Mediterranean garden, particularly lavenders. And don't forget early spring bulbs flowering among the rocks: crocuses, hyacinths and narcissi.

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