One of the most frequent requests from clients when I am taking a garden design brief is “colour in the summer”. It’s an obvious place to start, and a logical wish; those who have holiday homes in the Algarve are here in the summer months, or that is when they have guests and they want their gardens looking vibrant and healthy. But what if I told you that a vibrant and healthy garden in our Mediterranean climate looks radically different to the expected lush green leaves and bright flowers?
Whether in northern or southern Europe, we are surrounded by gardens that are “green and pleasant”; lush lawns, overflowing flower borders. We instinctively feel that the healthy landscape is the cared-for landscape: everything clipped, fed, watered and weeded. This is already problematic. Starting with the soil, which is the foundation for everything we grow: the more it is cultivated, the higher the risk of erosion and damage to its structure.
Getting too enthusiastic with fertilisers can produce excessive growth of large, soft leaves, attractive to pests and diseases, and more vulnerable to drying by the sun. It can also alter the chemistry of the soil, rendering it less hospitable to beneficial organisms.
Pruning, meanwhile, is important to maintain shape in some cases, e.g. hedges/topiary, while a good rejuvenative prune can renovate and improve a plant’s health. But too often pruning is carried out “just because”, or because a plant was poorly chosen and is too large for its space. Pruning can produce that same excessive soft or weak growth, leaving plants vulnerable.
When looking at the Mediterranean climate, there are further troubling realities. Daily watering through the summer goes completely against the natural instincts of plants at this time of year – those instincts being, much like our own, to hunker down, shore up what scant resources we have, and settle in for a long, relaxing siesta. Plants in summer-dry climates want to be in stasis. This is like winter for them; they hibernate. They don’t want to be forced into growth with water and feeding. And surely we don’t want to be paying for all that increasingly pricey water and breaking our backs working in the garden during the hottest months! So what can we do instead?
It all comes back to looking to nature herself for inspiration. The landscape beyond the garden fence is a mixture of deep greens and shimmering golds at this time of year – which, in my view, has its own special beauty.
Consider winter gardens in northern Europe: we accept that we must rely on rare flowers and allow the majority of interest to be provided by structure – dried seed heads and grasses, the tracery of bare branches. Looking at photos from winter plantings in the UK, it’s remarkable how much they resemble a Mediterranean-climate summer scene. Why is this winter aspect acceptable but not the particular beauty of our hibernating summer landscape?
Working with the natural qualities of the plants, we can make choices based on the interest they will provide throughout the year, not just in their prime moments. A garden allowed to follow its natural seasonal adjustments will be different from one day to the next: green and beginning to flower in the winter (rosemary, aloes, paperwhite narcissus, almond blossom), a riot of colour in the spring (undoubtedly peak season for flowering among med-climate plants), a structural, muted scene in the summer with silvers and golds (herby sub-shrubs and grasses) spotted with occasional colour (Epilobium canum, Perovskia and Bupleurum fruticans all flower in the height of summer), and a rush of re-greening when the autumn rains come.
This garden will also be absolutely of-its-place. Compare this to the typical scene of lawn, palm trees and shrubs. The same all year round, and you could be anywhere – California, Dubai, Australia, China...
I do understand the need for greenery and freshness around the house during the hottest days – and how to achieve that with minimal water use is a topic for another day – but there is no doubt in my mind that “siesta gardening” represents the ideal compromise between low maintenance and high interest.
By Marilyn Medina Ribeiro
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Marilyn Medina Ribeiro has degrees in Graphic Design and Landscape Management and has worked in nurseries, parks and private gardens. In 2008, she moved to the Algarve, managing hotel gardens and later founding her own company to promote sustainable land management.