Inspired by famous Colchester flower grower Beth Chatto's gravel garden, with its drought-tolerant plants, Kim Wilde shows you how to create a Mediterranean haven.
Mediterranean gardens are great for year-round colour, they smell fantastic and they're low maintenance. The secret of their success is not abundant sunshine and manure, but plenty of grit or gravel to ensure soil drainage and to keep the roots and crowns of plants dry.
If your soil is very dry, it may need organic matter to improve water retention. Mediterranean plants are lime lovers and need a neutral or alkaline pH level in order to thrive. Gardens with acid soil (a pH value below seven) wi11 not produce good results, so check using a soil-tester kit from your local garden centre.
It's all in the preparation
Good soil preparation is essential. Dig gravel well into your soil - although it's a labour-intensive job, it will guarantee a trouble-free garden. Don't do it when the soil is frozen or wet.
Buy gravel in bulk as you'11 need much more than you think. Choose gravel that's the size of a flattened pea. Gravel makes an excellent mulch and, in wet periods, wi11 stop roots and crowns from rotting. In hot weather, gravel holds water for longer by reducing evaporation from the soil. Coarse limestone chippings scattered over the top gives a natural look. Gravel is also an ideal material for paths. Use landscape fabric underneath to prevent weeds from growing, rotting holes in the fabric for planting. I often like to leave a few areas unprotected to encourage pretty self-seeders, such as Califoroian poppies (Eschscholzia califoroica), Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) and Pot marigolds ( Ca!endula officinalis). Raised beds and terraces are truly Mediterranean and really show off plants. If you have a sloping garden, consider making terraces with low-retaining wa11s so that trailing plants, such as Euphorbia myrsinites and prostrate rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis 'Prostratus') can cascade over them. Raised beds are great as they'll add levels and character to an otherwise flat garden.
Smaller gardens can be created in stone troughs or terracotta pots placed on a bed of gravel. Houseleeks (sempervivum) are among my favourite plants as they quickly multiply, producing stwming rosettes, which look so exotic.
Planting Mediterranean style
For real impact, contrast shapes and textures before thinking about colour. For instance, the starry heads of eryngium flowers look beautiful against the bobble heads of santolina.
Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii carry great frothy heads of lime-green flowers and look stunning with a huge bush of lavender (Lavandula stoechas subsp. pedunculata). Use vertical plants, such as the Acanthus mollis or A. spinosus, and plant them at the front of a border to appreciate their striking basal leaves. Next to the shrubby shapes of rosemary, box or artemisia, they'n bring drama and impact. Mediterranean plants
Buxus sempervirens is usually associated with clipped topiary or the traditional maze. In the Mediterranean, wildland buxus, or box, grows uninhibited, providing a useful evergreen, which contrasts beautifully with the more rounded shrubs.
Artemisia 'Powis Castle' with its highly aromatic, ferny foliage, responds well to spring pruning - it will grow ungainly otherwise. Cut down the woody stems to 15cm from the ground, to where new shoots are emerging. For contrast, plant Allium giganteum with its violet spherical flowers.
Cistus, or sun rose, are hardy evergreen shrubs native to the Mediterranean. Saucer-shaped papery flowers crowd the shrub all through sunnner in shades of pink or white. My favourite is Cistus act, contrast shapes and are thinking about colour ladanifer (gum cistus). It has large white flowers with deep red blotches around bright yellow stamens.
Succulent plants, such as aeoniums, sempervivum (houseleeks) and portulacas, can be easily grown in containers and will thrive for months on end with no water. They are best brought in from the winter frost.
Vmes grow happily at our south-facing home and cover the pergolas with their foliage all sunnner, until deliciously sweet grapes appear. I prune the side shoots from the main stems back to one bud each winter. Vitis amurensis 'Brant' has sweet purple fruit and stunning colouring. Also, try Vitis rotundifolia 'Seyval Blanc', v: vinifera 'Siegerrebe' ai1d v: rotundifolia 'Triomphe d'Alsace'. Good soil drainage is needed, so add grit and organic matter to clay soils.
Avoid making the soil too rich as this will increase foliage at the expense of fruit.
Create a Mediteffanean Garden, Pattie Barron (Lorenz Books, 14.95), is an inspirational and beautiful book well worth searching out.
Beth Chatto Gardens, Elmstead Market, Colchester CO7 7DB. Tel: 01206 822007
Garden of the month
Chatsworth, Bakewell DE45 1PP (tel: 01246 582204)
Gardens don't come much grander than the 100-acre one at Chatsworth, home to the Duke of Devonshire. With a delightful maze, rose garden, rockery and wonderful water features, you'l1 be enthral1ed for hours. Open daily from 10am, last admission at 6pm.
Friends and neighbours
Did you know that some plants gain essential benefits from neighbouring plants? Alliums, for instance, have a fungicidal effect that helps keep carrots, tomatoes and lettuces healthy. Mint is great for growing near cabbages as it can repel the cabbage-damaging white butterfly. Onions see off carrot fly, while carrots get rid of the onion fly - a great combination. Nasturtiums, besides having pretty, edible flowers, can keep aphids off broccoli.
Remember, too, that instead of growing three lots of vegetables in separate beds, y ou can grow them together. The classic example is peas, potatoes and sweet corn, which all produce higher yields when grown together.
Q: I often suffer allergies. What plants should I avoid?
Steer clear of grasses with flower heads, as these often provoke allergic reactions, as do lilies and plants with daisy-like flowers. Try to avoid gardening on humid days, when pollen lingers. Flowers like roses and fuchsias rarely irritate, so try to stick to these.
What's in bloom
- Kniphofia 'Bees' gunset gives a display of yellowy flowers until late summer. As the name suggests, bees love this.
- Buddleja davidii 'Empire Blue' has wonderfully dense, dangling violet-blue panicles.
- Lavatera 'Barnslev' produces a profusion of white flowers with red eyes and pretty grey-green leaves.
Things to do in August
- Take cuttings from pelargoniums and fuchsias
- Later in the month, harvest apples
- Get ahead by planting spring bulbs
- Make sure ties are not stopping the growth of climbers
- When they're ready, lift onions
- Free paths and crevices from weeds