Garden Variety: Step outside– visit the Mediterranean

By Jennifer E. Beaver

Did the profile of California natives in my last column whet your appetite for more drought-tolerant landscape alternatives? If so, consider the lovely unthirsty plants of the sunny Mediterranean.
Like southern California, the Mediterranean receives rain only in the winter and abundant year-round sun. Encompassing Spain, France, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Turkey and Portugal, the countries of the Mediterranean Sea basin are famous for intense flavors in both food and drink. Squeeze a lemon or crush a sprig of rosemary– there’s nothing mild about the experience.
A visit to the Mediterranean can start with a stroll in your own garden. The bougainvillea, jacaranda and lavender? All from the Mediterranean. Ditto eucalyptus, jasmine, and fuchsia.
Like to add to the Mediterranean mix? How about agaves– those bold, sculptural succulents that need little water but add lots of drama to the landscape? Proven Winners, one of the country’s largest plant propagators, is introducing many new agaves in various sizes, shapes and colors. Watch for them at garden centers and major retailers. Or consider a fast-growing trumpet vine that can cover an unsightly fence or building in a single season. Like all Mediterranean plants, they love the heat and will take off quickly. Just remember to water even drought-tolerant plants consistently during the first two years until they become established.
Tuck in aromatic herbs like basil, oregano and thyme wherever you have a spare few inches in both containers and beds. Rosemary takes a little more room but flourishes happily in full sun with occasional water once established. Lemons and olives can garnish a patio in style and look particularly at home near Spanish-style houses that echo their country of origin. Just make sure you select non-fruiting olives like Little Ollie to minimize the mess from dropping olives.
Unlike most California natives, Mediterranean plants offer flexibility in form and planting arrangements. No matter where you live, you can bring the Mediterranean home. For example, my neighbor has a tall rosemary hedge that releases a delightful, pungent scent whenever someone strolls down the path. Yet a single slender rosemary shrub in a pot provides the same fragrance and usefulness. For culinary purposes, oregano and thyme work well in containers and raised beds– and are also outstanding drought-tolerant ground covers that release their spicy fragrance when crushed underfoot. Best types for our area include golden oregano and creeping golden marjoram, and woolly and elfin thyme. Check out mountainvalleygrowers.com for a wonderful herb selection and abundant information.
Experience California natives and Mediterranean plants growing in harmony at the restored gardens at Rancho Los Alamitos (rancholosalamitos.com). Admission is free.

Jennifer E. Beaver, a Wrigley resident, is a master gardener and author of Container Gardening for California.

Garden Variety

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