By Steven Hightower, Master Gardener
Mediterranean gardening is really a three-way win in Sonoma County. First, it fits--it looks right in the landscape. Secondly, plants for a Mediterranean garden are mostly very water thrifty--they have adapted to survive long hot summers with little rainfall. Last, many plants on the palette are relatively deer-proof, and allow gardeners to "live in harmony with the wildlife".
Mediterranean climate is a term derived from those countries bordering the Mediterranean Basin such as France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Morocco. Present on continental west coasts in a band around both the northern and southern 40th latitudes, and associated with five large subtropical high pressure cells of the oceans, the climate also occurs in northern coastal California, South Africa, and small portions of southern South America and Australia. The North Pacific High relates to our climate in California.
Mediterranean climate is typically cool and wet in the winter, with infrequent freezes, and warm or hot and dry in the summer, with very little summer rain--just like Sonoma County. There is a large collection of plant species that are well suited to this climate, wherever it occurs.The Mediterranean forests, woodlands, and shrub biome is closely associated with Mediterranean climate zones. Particularly distinctive of the climate are what are technically known as sclerophyll shrublands, and called chaparral in California.
Few Mediterranean plants can tolerate prolonged or severe freezes, but many can handle the occasional frost. Most are relatively drought tolerant once established, but like well-drained soil. That means that that in places with clay or adobe soils, which occur with altogether too much frequency in Sonoma County, a lot of amending with organic material is necessary. What will grow well for you depends on your specific site and microclimate: soil type, amount of coastal fog, frequency of hot, dry wind, directional sun exposure, amount of slope. While most species are drought tolerant, that does not mean NO water when young or when we have a two-week period of 100+ days.
We didn't consciously set out to plant a Mediterranean garden. Our home sits on a bench in the oak woodlands of lower Sonoma Mountain, looking out at the Mayacamas and up at Jack London Park. When we first acquired this magical place, we spent three years camping out most weekends, to learn the lay of the land, the angles of the sun, and the ways of the wildlife. As we watched the elusive silver foxes, the groups of bronze turkeys, the squirrels and jackrabbits, and the dappled fawns with their tawny mothers, we made a decision not to fence off this special place and impede the free movement of all of the lovely wildlife--all of which, after all, has been here much longer than we have. As a result, we've gradually adopted a manner of planting that they just aren't very interested in.
So we consulted the usual lists, and, when you add heavy clay soil and hot dry
Mediterranean plants often have smaller and less showy flowers than those of typical English cottage garden plants, and sometimes none at all--but they frequently wear foliage that is colorful itself at certain times, may feature bright berries--like our native toyon, or sport shapes and structures that are very architectural in nature, such as the agaves, aloe, flax, and even lavender. Bright flowers combined with a mixture of foliage from grey-green to rust, and punctuated with strongly architectural plant-shapes makes for a very interesting whole. An herbaceous border of creeping thyme, heather, lavender, yarrow, rosemary, miscanthus and flax fronting a dry-laid native stone wall, behind which stretches an upslope of Arbequina olives interplanted with Meyer's lemon bushes, all backed by a row of straight-backed Italian Cypress is a delightful sight.
Our garden is not fancy or formal: just a little hardscape, with native boulders and a few multi-ton jobs shifted in during construction, and some nice low dry-laid native-stone walls. This personal-taste combination of natural woodlands, slightly augmented, would never make a garden magazine or garden tour, but suits us, and is consistent with our desire not to wall off our piece of heavenly real estate from the rest of nature's inhabitants, but rather live in relative peace with them.
By planning ahead and using ecologically sound practices you can maximize your chances of success with this type of garden. Plant in the fall, so winter rains will allow the plants to become well established. Mulch and compost to conserve water, provide nutrients and loosen the soil. Plant windbreaks where appropriate, and use trees to provide dappled partial shade during the hottest part of the summer days. Critically, use drip irrigation to provide what water plants will need to survive the worst of the summer heat. Most importantly, look around at your site--know what is growing natively. Expand that, by planting more of the same, and pick other plants that meet the Mediterranean criteria, harmonize with the natives, and look pleasing to you. You may come to agree that Mediterranean gardening is right for Sonoma County
Heidi Gildmeister says in Gardening the Mediterranean Way: "To achieve a true Mediterranean look, it is not necessary to splash contrasting colors around. The foliage of Mediterranean native plants is mostly evergreen, and green alone can achieve a restrained contrast that imparts a natural look. . . .Consider subtle contrasts that complement each other or set each other off. . . . Color in itself is not always beautiful: it is what we do with it that creates beauty."
I can heartily recommend the Mediterranean-style garden, for its easy and natural-feeling integration into our local landscape, for the water-wise and wildlife friendly nature of its plant list, and for the beauty and harmony it can provide when intelligently and prudently designed.