How to Create a Mediterranean-style Garden
Creating a Mediterranean courtyard, or areas in the garden that are full of the essence of sunnier climes, isn’t as hard as you might think
Read more in this series: How to Grow a Cottage-style Garden l How to Grow a Scented Garden l How to Grow a Lush, Jungle-style Haven l How to Grow a Container Garden I How to Grow an Edible Garden
Most Mediterranean gardens are filled with fragrance from plants such as lavender, myrtle, choisya, rose and jasmine. Even the tall Italian cypress trees, seen all over the Mediterranean, have a distinctive wood sage scent, which transports you on a journey to warmer climes.
Many silver foliage varieties of plants are also used in Mediterranean-style planting. These include Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’, Helichrysum italicum, various species of phlomis, and the soft, feathery Stachys byzantina.
What’s very noticeable in Mediterranean gardens is a lot of repeat planting. There are great drifts of cotton lavender or French lavender and, once they’ve flowered, they are shaped into neat mounds. This way of planting provides architectural interest after flowering has occurred and is used to great effect. You can intersperse the mounds with bulbs, such as alliums, which provide height and variety.
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A pergola or covered area is often found in the Mediterranean garden. It provides shade on hot days and is the perfect canopy under which to enjoy eating alfresco in warm weather. The structures are often handmade from old tree branches and covered in a canopy made of brushwoods or thatch.
It’s easy to construct your own pergola out of wood, or there are many self-assembly kits on the market. You can also buy natural brushwood rolls for screening, which can also be used to overlay existing roof coverings to complete the Mediterranean look.
There’s an array of plants that will grow well over a pergola, including many vines and, for a really exotic look, you could try campsis, the trumpet vine; ‘Madame Galen’ is a hardy form of the plant, and one that does very well in this country.
Gravel is the natural choice for a Mediterranean garden, as it reflects the heat and light, adding to the ambience.
Gravel gardens do best in full sun, in an open site. You can use a landscape membrane over the soil before planting, which will help to suppress the weeds growing in-between plants.
Plants that do well in gravel include herbs. Many of them come from the Mediterranean and will appreciate having gravel around them, as well as some mixed into the soil for extra drainage.
Gravel can also be seen as a low-maintenance style of gardening and, as well as being ideal for herbs, lends itself to plants such as lavender, euphoria, cistus, eryngium, stachys, hebe and agapanthus. The latter prefer their roots to be contained, so also do well in pots.
Pots are the obvious choice for a Mediterranean-style garden. Try to stick with terracotta and large Cretan-style urns to create the right look. You could also add in some glazed plant pots, too, if you like them. I’ve also often placed large empty terracotta pots or olive jars in gardens as a feature or focal point in among planting or on their own on a terrace.
Choosing what to plant in your pots can be a minefield, but I would recommend single varieties of perennials, such as Pelargonium or single shrubs or trees, such as bay.
Keep the planting simple, as you may need to bring some of your plants indoors during cooler months. Plants such as citrus, oleander and Bougainvillea all need winter protection, so it makes more sense to use a single specimen when doing your larger pots.
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For an authentic Mediterranean terrace, look for a terracotta style of paving. The warm tones of the stone will immediately make you feel transported into a sunnier climate.
With so much choice on the market now, from reconstituted tiles that look like terracotta to the real thing, it’s just a matter of trying out a few samples to see what works best.
For a rustic look, choose terracotta paving with a tumbled edge; for a smother look, go for a tile that can be laid to include a pattern, as seen in this garden, creating an outdoor carpet in the centre, perfect for a table and chairs. Laying the terracotta tiles in a diamond pattern also helps to create a more authentic style in the paved areas.
Accessorise the paving with pots, rustic furniture, a wall fountain or bubbling water feature, and scented plants.
Garden walls, whether built of brick or stone, can really help you to create a little oasis or area for a Mediterranean garden. If you have ugly walls, you could try painting them in a soft, warm tone to conjure up the Mediterranean heat. There are so many paint colours now to choose from for outdoor use.
If you’re lucky enough to have walls, they’ll help to protect the more tender plants, and you’ll also be able to grow many of the scented climbers.
A great evergreen climber, Trachelospermum jasminoides, is used in the manufacture of perfume and grows wild in the south of France. Trachelospermum is now easily available as large climbing plants in the UK and it can also be trained to grow horizontally along a wall to great effect.
Think of a classic Mediterranean garden plant and the olive tree probably springs to mind. In the past few years, olive trees have been very popular with garden designers and are often seen on display in restaurants, in front garden pots and out in gardens all over the UK.
Olea europaea is the variety you’ll find in garden centres. To make sure your tree grows well, site it in the sunniest position, with protection from north and northeast winds. Plant in free-draining soil that won’t become waterlogged. Olives can be planted in acidic or alkaline soil, but won’t like clay and will require additional drainage.
Olives grow well in pots in a good mix of multi-purpose compost but, when repotting, do not swamp the tree by using a much larger pot – just go to the next size up.
If your olive is potted, make sure the roots don’t freeze over in the winter, as this will result in poor growth. Use a seaweed feed from May to September and, if you need to prune lightly for shape, do so in late spring and never in the winter.
A water feature is a must in a Mediterranean garden to cool the air in the heat of summer. Water also gives a garden another dimension – the gentle flow of running or bubbling water, and its reflective qualities, add to the atmosphere.
There are many small water features available for gardens now, and you can choose to have a wall fountain with a stone trough against it for the water to cascade into, or you can buy self-contained wall fountains in terracotta, stone, lead or steel.
You could also try making your own water feature: get a large pot, calculate the volume of water so you buy the right-size pump, make sure the pot is watertight and level, then position it over a reservoir, which can be sunken and dressed over with pebbles. With larger gardens, you can create a rill or a large raised pond with a fountain.
Evaporation can occur with water features, especially those with a large surface area. If plants hang into the water, watch out for ‘wicking’ – where water is absorbed by the stem or flowerhead; make sure you don’t overplant around the edge of the feature.
If your garden is terraced or on a slope, this could provide an ideal way to grow many Mediterranean plants.
Placing large rocks from a local quarry throughout the terracing will keep the natural look, and you can plant many smaller varieties of alpine or low-flowering perennials, such as Erigeron and Helianthemum. The plants will soon naturalise and start to cascade over the stones and self-seed.
A set of stone steps leading up through the planting interspersed with trees and shrubs can also be planted with various varieties of rose. Other plants, such as grasses, including the tall Stipa gigantea, will add to the Mediterranean feel.
We can all dream about having a wonderful outdoor building with seating and a roaring fire, surrounded by beautiful scented plants – and hot summers!
We may not always have the hot temperatures all summer long, but we can still create our own little piece of Mediterranean heaven with a few essential elements, even if we can’t have a rustic stone retreat. Garden centres now also have many styles of fire pit available, which would look wonderful in a courtyard setting surrounded by rustic metal chairs.
Also try placing storm lanterns near seating areas and burn citronella candles, which will ward off any unwanted flying guests as well as smelling wonderful.
Place large outdoor cushions on paving for casual seating and use throws for warmth on cooler summer evenings.
What do you like best about Mediterranean-style gardens? Share your thoughts and photos in the Comments below.