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The Creative Shrub Garden: Mediterranean style

by Timber Press on October 6, 2014

in Design

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Olives, woody herbs, and the parchment remains of spring flowers cling to a rocky, sun-drenched Cretan hillside.

Drought-tolerant shrubs in an easy-to-care-for scheme for a sunny spot.

Picture the warm tones of the Mediterranean landscape: red-brown soil and sand-coloured rock blend with low-mounded shrubs adapted to withstand the summer sun, heat, and exposure. To resist desiccation in times of drought, some have small, tough leaves while others sport silver foliage. Colourful flowers appear in spring and early summer, before water is in short supply and shrubs assume a more parched appearance. Some of these blooms appear on the shrubs, while others emerge from bulbs growing between the shrubs. They all add a light, vertical dimension to the planting.

In the glaring Mediterranean midday sun, the landscape becomes less defined as a haze of grey, green, and sand blankets everything. In early morning the mounds of woody stems and foliage become more defined, each one taking on its own unique soft colouring. The landscape is full of aromatic woody herbs, and their pungent fragrance drifts on the warm air. Scent is as an important quality of this style of planting.

Where would this scheme work?

The Mediterranean style suits an open, sunny position and poor soil. It is ideal alongside paving and decking and in gravel areas, and it sits well in contemporary and coastal designs. This is low-maintenance shrub planting, simple and minimalist. You can also use it for a container-planting scheme for paved areas, balconies, and courtyards. Light-coloured terra-cotta pots and pale sandstone paving would reflect the character of the rocks and soil of the Mediterranean landscape.

The basic combination

These low shrubs are normally planted as small pot-grown plants, but they have a deceptively broad spread and grow quickly. Space them at least 60cm (2 ft.) apart in the open ground. If you are growing in containers, use terra-cotta pots at least 30cm (1 ft.) in diameter and plant in loam-based compost with added grit for good drainage.

Santolina rosmarinifolia ‘Primrose Gem’, with its mounds of soft grey foliage and pale parchment yellow flowers, is a gentle, sociable shrub that sits well with any other sun lovers. The flowers of most cotton lavenders are loud and inappropriate, whereas these blossoms are a charming feature in summer.

Santolina rosmarinifolia ‘Primrose Gem’

Santolina rosmarinifolia ‘Primrose Gem’

The santolina is the ideal partner for wonderful Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’, common purple sage, which has grey-mauve foliage that is darker at the tips of the shoots. This shrub is the perfect mixer and softener, and one of the most valuable plants in a sunny, dry position alongside paving or decking or in gravel. The spikes of bright blue flowers in early summer are a magnet for bees.

Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’

Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’

To add colour and more fragrant foliage, I have chosen my favourite English lavender, Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’. This compact, long-lasting shrub will retain a mound of silver foliage in winter.

Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’

Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’

Expanding the scheme

These small additions are only a little larger than, or similar in stature to, those in the basic combination, and they are interchangeable if you want a wider choice of options.

Hebe ‘Red Edge’ is truly a plant for all seasons, with its tough grey-green leaves that flush deep red-purple at the tips of the shoots in winter. It is a strong, textural mound in the planting and will cope with cooler, moister conditions than most of the shrubs in this scheme.

Hebe ‘Red Edge’

Hebe ‘Red Edge’

Cistus obtusifolius ‘Thrive’ may not be the largest-flowered sun rose, but it makes up for it with quantity by blooming from early summer through to fall. The flowers are at their best in the morning, and they scatter the surrounding ground with confetti of white petals by evening. Small green leaves contrast with the soft silver and mauve-grey foliage of other subjects.

Cistus obtusifolius ‘Thrive’

Cistus obtusifolius ‘Thrive’

Ballotta pseudodictamnus is a shrub from the Mediterranean landscape, and its soft green upright stems, which carry the felted flower heads, burn to golden parchment by late summer. It has a more open habit and softer texture than its planting partners, and it loves dry, warm weather.

Ballotta pseudodictamnus

Ballotta pseudodictamnus

In a large garden

These two larger shrubs are still relatively modest in size and would be ideal in pots on a sunny balcony or terrace, with any of the smaller plants grouped around them.

Pittosporum tobira ‘Variegatum’ looks like it belongs on the terrace of a villa. It captures the atmosphere of warm sunshine, especially when the fragrant cream flowers open at the ends of the shoots in summer. These blooms have the heavy, sweet scent of jasmine we associate with the Mediterranean night.

Pittosporum tobira ‘Variegatum’

Pittosporum tobira ‘Variegatum’

Myrtus communis, common myrtle, adds that surprising bright green that occurs in the Mediterranean alongside the softer shades of parchment, gold, and olive. Its aromatic foliage is a delightful partner for the creamy white late-summer flowers.

Myrtus communis

Myrtus communis

Bulbs & perennials

Alliums work perfectly with this style of planting, not only for their stunning flowers but also their seed heads, which are reminiscent of the parched umbellifers that often appear in the Mediterranean landscape. Allium cristophii is one of the finest, with its sparkling lilac flower heads and enduring seed heads that last until fall. Planted among the shrubs, the withering foliage of the alliums will not detract from the overall effect.

Allium cristophii (seed head)

Allium cristophii (seed head)

Allium cernuum extends the season by producing its firework-like flowers in summer. Delicate blooms on fine stems surprise with their cerise-purple colouring. They are particularly striking emerging through a haze of Stipa tenuissima, one of the loveliest grasses for a hot, dry situation. On well-drained poor soil, the grass and alliums will seed and drift among the shrubs, softening and adding movement throughout.

Allium cernuum

Allium cernuum

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AndyMcIndoe_006_Lynn Keddie THUMBNAILAndy McIndoe is managing director of Hillier Nurseries and Garden Centres in Hampshire, England. As designer of the Hillier exhibit at the Chelsea Flower Show for more than two decades, he has upheld the company’s unprecedented record of 68 consecutive gold medals at the show. His two-acre garden at Sherfield English near Romsey is naturalistic in style with an extensive wildflower meadow and informal planting.

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“A gorgeous book! And oh so helpful.”—Wall-to-Wall Books

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