If you want to summon the spirit of the Mediterranean to where you live, why not consider growing a Mediterranean garden? The climate of the Mediterranean is hot and dry in the summer with mild and wet winters. The layout of the garden and the choice of plants reflect this pattern, with drought-tolerant plants being the mainstay. Pergolas shaded by climbing vines are a common feature, as are terracotta planters and water features to help ease the hot months.
All of these features come together to work both in harmony with the climate and provide refuge and enjoyment from it at the same time. There’s nothing quite like the soothing sound of a water feature whilst sitting under the shade on a hot summer’s day.
What Is A Mediterranean Garden?
A Mediterranean garden is inspired by the climate and cultures of the people who are from around the Mediterranean sea. The type of planting needed for a Mediterranean garden reflects the propensity for long periods without water; think aromatic herbs, sun-loving olives, citrus trees, oleander, and even hibiscus, which are common in coastal Spain.
A Mediterranean meadow-feel planted with many native species.
The color palette can be somewhat muted in comparison to other planting styles sometimes, but what it may lack in color it makes up for in its ability to enliven the other senses. Mediterranean gardens make frequent use of aromatic herbs, vines, and shrubs that can prove a delight to humans as well as many beneficial pollinator insects, which all add to the vibrancy of the garden.
Gravel and stone are often used instead of a lawn. This is becoming a more popular idea for many people, as we are having to deal with global warming and many regions are suffering prolonged drought. It’s becoming more vital for ecologically minded gardeners to make their gardens less resource-intensive. As lawns are so thirsty, they can be a big drain on water resources in areas where summer rainfall is scarce, such as in Mediterranean climates. Gravel provides a good alternative to lawns and also does wonders to suppress weeds and keep in moisture.
The typical Mediterranean cypress and Washingtonia palm add height and a sense of permanence to the Mediterranean garden and landscape.
Planting a drought-tolerant Mediterranean garden is an excellent way to achieve this goal. It’s also a testament to the fact that an ecologically conscious garden doesn’t have to be boring; far from it! Mediterranean gardens are characterized by a year-long interest in terms of textures, colors, scents, and flowers.
How To Plant A Mediterranean Garden
Many Mediterranean herbs are both ornamental and useful. Many, such as rosemary, lavender, helichrysum, thyme, and many more are both used as shrubs, medicinal herbs, as borders, and are also useful in the kitchen.
Plant them sparingly or go for a dense wild look and plant intermingled with other herbs, shrubs, and trees to add more height and texture. Mediterranean plants enjoy sunshine and good drainage. They require winter moisture but most can’t stand sogginess or being waterlogged. Many plants, especially bulbs, enjoy and even require parched summer soil. Many Mediterranean plants grow through the mild winters, flower in the spring, set seed, and then rest during the hot and dry summer season.
Right Plant Right Place
This may seem obvious but it’s one of the first steps to ensuring success. Mediterranean plants have developed over time to need high-quality sunlight. Avoid planting them in the shade of trees especially if your climate doesn’t quite closely mimic that of the Mediterranean region.
Mediterranean plants tend to prefer free-draining soil, so avoid planting them in waterlogged areas. Also, avoid fertilizing too heavily as they are used to poor soil. A south-facing aspect is preferred as (in the northern hemisphere) this will have sun throughout the day and will be protected from cold air.
Plant your chosen species in the spring, after the ground has warmed up from the wet and cold winter. Planting immature species can give the plants a better chance of adapting to your particular climatic conditions. Densely planting can help retain soil humidity and help the plants survive any drought. It also helps stop the soil from being washed away by the rain and the wind.
Providing conditions that are as close to possible as the plant’s native range will best ensure your success in your garden.
Wisteria after blooming in a typical Mediterranean courtyard.
As the Mediterranean region is prone to hot summers, an area that provides natural shade is vital for anyone wanting to achieve a legitimate-looking Mediterranean garden. Consider creating natural shade with a pergola planted with sun-loving vines, such as a grapevine, or wisteria, or go for another kind of flowering vine. You can cover the pergola in brushwood or thatch to ensure full shade before your vines have time to mature and provide full coverage themselves.
That way you can sit under the shade during the hottest hours and enjoy the peace and tranquility of your garden refuge. The lifestyle of the people of the Mediterranean basin puts a high value on spending time outdoors with your loved ones, often over long lunches served outside. Take advantage of this age-old custom by building and growing your own shaded pergola to enjoy throughout the warmer months of the year with your friends and family.
Cypress planted in terracotta pots with hanging geraniums provide virtually year-round interest.
Use Terracota Planters
Drought tolerant plants in terracotta or stone pots do wonders to evoke the spirit of the Mediterranean. Terracotta pots are so popular they come in virtually all imaginable sizes, from big pots to classically shaped urns. Think trailing geraniums or rosemary dangling over aged pots up against a south-facing stone wall. If you’re more limited with space then smaller pots can be hung up against walls and offset with each other.
Big terracotta urns also work well on borders or as features in stone courtyards and attract lots of attention. Planters can also be submerged in gravel to encourage the roots to find the soil. It will also serve to keep the pots stable and resistant to wind, water, or any knocks they might suffer.
Gravel used as an easy, low maintenance ground cover.
Hard landscaping is a vital part of Mediterranean gardens. Gravel often takes the place of lawns in many Mediterranean gardens and serves as a permanent mulch to conserve moisture and prevent unwanted weeds from sprouting. To add gravel, first choose your site. You’ll want to choose a site that’s both sunny and sheltered if your climate tends to be harsh. First, rake the soil so it’s flat, and then spread 5cm (2in) of gravel on top.
You could also place landscape fabric over the soil, and cut crosses in it to place your plants in. This can help stop self-seeding plants from taking over. Then place the gravel. Being vigilant the first few seasons is advised until the plants are big enough to suppress any unwanted plants themselves.
It’s possible to use gravel over any soil type, but sand or rocky soils are advised, as this is the preference of most Mediterranean plants, trees, and shrubs.
Plant your chosen species sparingly and don’t overcrowd the area. Leave space that can be filled with terracotta or stone planters, or even a stone or wooden bench that will allow you to peacefully take in the scene. Avoid over thirsty plants and aim for shrubs and grasses with silvery leaves and ground cover such as thyme, camomile, or helichrysum to name a few.
Phoenix roebelenii, also known as the pygmy date palm.
Tiles, Pebbles, And Cobbles
Pebbles and cobbles can be made into intricate designs typical of many parts of the Mediterranean. Pebbles mosaics have been used since ancient times around the area and can still be admired in many unsuspecting towns and villages around the Mediterranean. Use stones of different sizes and colors laid on a flat surface to create your own design.
Brightly colored tiles can be used as seen with the Moorish legacy of Southern Spain. They can be used to create major color accents, and add texture, interest, and rich pattern combinations. Consider using them on stairs, patios, walls, or even in water features. They do a great job of contrasting well with the hard landscaping features and earthy tones that characterize this particular design.
Use Raised Beds
Using raised beds not only adds visual appeal to the garden but also helps with drainage. And since virtually all Mediterranean plants love good drainage, this can help you achieve the authentic look you’re after.
They also add more texture to the garden by breaking the monotony of a single-layered landscape. An added benefit is it also makes doing whatever little maintenance work you have to do easier by removing the need to bend down, which could come in handy when you age and save your back from aching. Mediterranean gardens characteristically also grow up as well as outwards, so consider this when you chose what you want to plant in your garden landscape.
Informal shrubs on raised beds next to an old stone wall provide a great contrast.
Create A Stone Wall
Terracing an area with ecological, locally sourced stone can create an irresistible Mediterranean feel. It will also last a lifetime (probably many lifetimes) meaning it shouldn’t require any maintenance. A stone wall also provides a home for many beneficial insects and provides the perfect backdrop to highlight any show-stopping specimens you may want to show off.
Use Simple Outdoor Furniture
The Mediterranean garden is characterized by its timeless appeal. Time seems to stand still in this environment which creates a sense of serenity. Consequently, using ultra-modern furniture would seem out of place next to old stone walls, terracotta, and stone planters. We’ve already mentioned above how important having many different areas to sit in the garden is.
Incorporate aged benches and dining tables and chairs. Planting culinary herbs close by to your dining area can greatly enhance the dining experience for you and your guests by appealing to all the senses at once.
Wisteria in bloom in the springtime.
Plant Easy To Care For Plants
Plant a terrace or a south-facing yard with easy-to-care-for plants that can happily bask in the heat of the sun and don’t require large amounts of water regularly. Then you can sit back and enjoy your garden without worrying too much about it if you’re away or miss your regular watering schedule.
Agapanthus produces beautiful violet flowers on long thin leaves and is typical of many warm climate countries. Cistus (also known as rockrose) is a hardy Mediterranean native that requires little attention once established and is a good choice for borders.
Topiary and Well-Tended Hedges
The cypress is an ever-present giant in the Mediterranean landscape. Clipped hedges of the box are also commonly used for low-lying hedges for a more formal look. They respond very well to topiary and can provide visual appeal year-round.
Add A Water Feature
Water features are common in the Mediterranean garden for many reasons. For one thing, they serve to cool the hot and dry air of the summer. The trickle of water in a garden adds an incomparable dimension that can’t be replicated with anything else.
Whether you choose a fountain, pool, or pond, a water feature can provide relief from hot and dry summers. You’ll find that all kinds of wildlife will be attracted by the water too, which also adds a sense of vibrancy and life to your garden that can enhance your enjoyment of it exponentially.
What To Plant In A Mediterranean Garden?
The Mediterranean cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) is one of the most emblematic Mediterranean garden trees. Their larger and stately form is an extremely popular landscaping element around the region and instantly gives the flavor of this sun-drenched land.
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A cypress tree towers above the landscape.
The olive tree (Olea europaea) is naturally another common feature of the Mediterranean that you can incorporate into your garden. Perhaps no other tree has shaped the many cultures that have sprung up in the Mediterranean basin over the past millennia as the Olive tree has. It’s primarily prized for the liquid gold that is olive oil. Planting an olive tree in your garden is a nice way of paying homage to the most important tree in the history of the Mediterranean region.
Yucca is another species that can serve as an architectural specimen that adds height and interest to your overall design. It also has the benefit of being hard as nails, so is capable of withstanding many different climatic conditions, ranging from extreme heat and drought to extreme cold, down to -37 C.
An old and gnarled olive tree adds a timeless elegance to the landscape.
Palms such as Washingtonia robusta or filifera are common, as are Phoenix canariensis and the date palm, Phoenix dactylifera. If you live in areas prone to frost then more cold hardy palms such as Trachycarpus fortunei, (which is tolerant down to -9 Celsius, with mature specimens surviving even lower temperatures) could be something to consider, although you may still have to protect it from harsh winds.
Fruit trees such as fig (Ficus carica) and pomegranate (Punica granatum) give an irresistible Mediterranean vibe and delicious fruit too. They can also be grown successfully in containers, with fig trees producing fruit well when root-bound. There are also ornamental dwarf varieties of pomegranate that are particularly suited to container cultivation, such as the nana variety.
Whilst not technically a palm but often grouped with them is the Mediterranean native Chamaerops humilis, sometimes referred to as the European fan palm or Mediterranean dwarf palm. This is the most common cold-hardy palm ‘species’ used for landscaping in temperate zones.
Chamaerops humilis, or the Mediterranean dwarf palm grows in clusters. You can also train it into a single specimen. Doing so will result in a tree that far surpasses its ‘dwarf’ moniker.
You could also consider planting a pygmy date palm (Phoenix roebelenii) in a pot to place around your garden and bringing it inside if the winters are too cold where you live. Pygmy date palms have also been proven by Nasa and other studies to be effective at removing VOCs (volatile organic compounds) from the air, thus improving the air quality. Another hardy option is the sago palm.
Succulents such as Agave attentuata, are another common feature that requires no care whatsoever when planted, provided your temperature doesn’t dip too low in the cooler months. Succulents can also be used with great effect when planted to offset harsh stone walls or cracks in paving.
The Agave attentuata provides interest in a dry garden and often contrasts well with its companion plants.
The prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica, as well as other Opuntia species) are also emblematic of many dry and sun-drenched Mediterranean lands. They also look good planted in terracotta pots offset against stone walls.
Hibiscus is another common feature of the Mediterranean garden, sought after for its beautiful flowers throughout much of the growing season. They can also be planted in containers and brought inside for the winter if your climate doesn’t allow them to thrive outdoors.
Oleander is a Mediterranean native that blooms a large portion of the year. Once established, it requires little in terms of care and grows vigorously. In Spain, it’s commonly grown as a shrub, as a privacy hedge, or sometimes more rarely trained into a tree.
Oleander is a vigorous growing shrub common around the Mediterranean. Its flowers are vibrant and can remain present from spring to fall if the conditions allow it.
Shrubs and Ground Cover
Bear in mind that what you plant should be drought tolerant and require little maintenance. Floral interest, if possible, should be spread throughout the season to provide you with a changing landscape for you to enjoy as the month progress.
Remember also that many native-Mediterranean herbs, shrubs, and bushes don’t flower in the summertime when it’s too hot, but rather around the higher temperatures; so spring/early summer and fall.
The Mediterranean garden serves to enlive all the senses, with the sense of smell being an important part of the puzzle. Jasmine is commonly planted to fragrance the long and languid nights of the summer.
Of course, no Mediterranean garden would be complete without some citrus trees. Bitter or sweet orange or any of the numerous citrus crosses are popular, as is lemon. There’s nothing quite like the heady aroma of citrus blossom in spring to enliven the senses. Fortunately, most citrus respond well to container growth, provided they’re in well-draining soil, as their roots can’t stand being waterlogged. They make a lovely statement planted in terracotta pots or large vases. Raising them on decorative rustic stones helps with drainage too and adds to their visual appeal.
Calamondin (Citrus mitis) is a fruit-bearing tree whose fruit you won’t commonly find in the shops. It also blooms later than other citrus varieties, such as the bitter orange (Citrus × aurantium) and Citrus × sinensis, which typically bloom in spring.
The Bottom Line
Mediterranean gardens can provide a serene sanctuary for you during the hot summer months and beyond. Mediterranean cultures put a big emphasis on spending time outdoors with family, and the typical Mediterranean garden reflects this propensity. You can often find an eating area covered by a pergola with flowering vines trained up. Mediterranean gardens typically grow both up as well as around.
The Mediterranean garden aims to gratify the senses year-round, with many hardy shrubs flowering before and after the hottest months. However, many of these shrubs such as rosemary, lavender, and helichrysum are aromatic year-round, as it’s the foliage that provides the scent.
Terracotta pots with hanging geraniums are extremely evocative of the Mediterranean summer, as they will flower when many other plants won’t. They also look great planted against whitewashed walls. Large terracotta pots can be filled with anything and especially work well with Mediterranean garden staples that may be too sensitive to the cold in your area, such as citrus or olive trees.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.