Our favourite ideas for Mediterranean gardens bring a flavour of the hot, sunny Med right to our outdoor spaces. With global warming bringing us hotter, drier summers, new possibilities are opening up as far as planting is concerned. Creating a low-maintenance Mediterranean-inspired garden could be much easier than you might think, and doesn't necessarily involve undertaking a complete overhaul of your existing space.
In fact, many of the plants we already grow in our gardens originate in hot countries, so adding a Mediterranean vibe could simply be a question of arranging and adding to plants you already have to highlight the theme. Want to know more? Read on for our top 10 easy ways to add a touch of the Med to your outdoor space, then head to our garden design ideas for more outdoor inspiration.
1. Choosing Mediterranean plants for your garden
The foliage of plants native to hot countries is often silver-coloured and there’s a reason for this. It deflects the burning heat of the sun and helps them to conserve water. While that may not be so vital when we grow them in a cooler climate, the great thing about silvery foliage is that it looks good on its own but also partners well with other colours, so it’s a perfect starting point for a border. Try these to bring an instant flavour of the Med to your outdoor space:
- Santolina, otherwise known as cotton lavender, has silver, aromatic leaves with an interesting, softly spiky look. In mid and late summer, it has yellow flowers. Plant it alone, arrange it in drifts across a border or have it dotted though a gravelled space.
- Caryopteris clandonensis ‘Sterling Silver’ has wonderful silvery blue-green foliage which set off its small, deep blue flowers perfectly.
- Eryngiums, or sea hollies, have a good, upright growing habit and spiky bracts around their small, greenish flowers. All have silver foliage but the most striking of all is Eryngium giganteum ‘Silver Ghost’.
- Artemesia, particularly the lovely A. ludoviciana ‘Silver Queen’, has narrow, silver aromatic leaves on upright stems. Its only downside is that it has a tendency to flop over so it’s best in a densely planted border, where other plants will be able to support it unobtrusively.
- Stachys byzantina – or lamb’s ears – is a low-growing, gently spreading perennial with gorgeous velvety, grey-green leaves. It makes good ground cover.
2. Add fragrance for an authentic Mediterranean garden
On a Mediterranean hillside in high summer, the first thing that hits you is usually the wonderful scent of lavender and thyme. By positioning them in full sun, so the essential oils in the foliage will be drawn out to the max, they will quickly fill your garden with their aroma too. Other woody herbs such as rosemary, sage and winter savoury (which has a similar fragrance – and flavour – to thyme) also work well. For maximum aromatic effect, add in some heady summer jasmine or, in sheltered areas, the slightly more tender star jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum) and allow it to scramble up a wall or fence.
3. Use repeat planting
Unlike English cottage gardens, which tend to be a wonderful jumble of myriad plants, the Mediterranean planting style requires a restricted planting palette, with the same plant used repeatedly, either in drifts or dotted through the space. The plants used in this way often have a neat, mound-like growing habit – lavender and santolina, for example. After they’ve flowered, closely trim them and they will carry on adding architectural interest right though the year. Tightly clipped mounds of box, grouped in clusters or arranged in a row alongside a path, add just the right note too.
Try also repeating cistus, eryngium, hebe and euphorbia though the space. Euphorbia mellifera is a large evergreen that has small, amber-coloured flowers in early summer. For even more impact, go for Euphorbia wulfenii – it has big, acid-green flowers in early summer and can be a real show-stopper. Alternatively, Euphorbia cyparissias is very useful en masse as ground cover – with fern-like foliage and yellow flowers that last right though the summer months, it’s low-growing and will spread slowly and manageably.
In a fairly large garden, narrow, upright Italian cypress trees look good planted at intervals along a pathway or used as punctuation points in a border (and although a less obvious source of fragrance, they give off a lovely pine scent when you brush against them).
4. Choose low-maintenance gravel
Nothing sets off Mediterranean plants better than pale-coloured gravel and if you use a good-quality, water-permeable weed-suppressing membrane underneath, it’s a quick and easy, low-maintenance way of transforming even the most unpromising of spaces. The light colour of the gravel will help to reflect heat back onto the plants and you can soften the edges where gravel meets a pathway by allowing thyme, oregano or marjoram to spill over onto it. Cut them back as soon as they’ve flowered to keep them looking neat and fresh, and to prevent them sprawling too far. Add extra interest by arranging large stones and small boulders in a naturalistic way across the gravel.
5. Improve your soil
If your garden has light, sandy soil, you’re all set. But drought-loving Mediterranean plants hate sitting in cold, wet ground over winter, so if you garden on clay it’s best to mix in plenty of gravel before you start as this will help with drainage. Where frequent waterlogging is likely, it’s best to put plants in pots or in raised beds rather than in the ground.
6. Create some shade
Every good garden in Greece, Spain, Italy or the south of France has somewhere shady to retreat to when the sun gets too hot. Erecting a sturdy pergola over a patio is the perfect way to replicate this at home. It’s the ideal opportunity to introduce climbers to your scheme too, making the most of the often-overlooked vertical space in a garden – try a grapevine, which will look fabulous when its fat, juicy bunches of grapes hang down over your seating area in late summer. Be sure to choose a sweet dessert variety – ‘Leon Millot’ is ideal. Or, train a stunning campsis (Campsis radicans) with its large, brightly coloured, trumpet-shaped flowers, over the structure. The hardy variety ‘Madame Galen’ is a good choice.
7. Go large with Mediterranean-inspired pots
Oversized pots and planters are characteristic of Mediterranean gardens and terracotta is the obvious choice, with its warm colour, tactile feel and ability to soak up and reflect back the heat of the summer sun. Be sure to invest in frost-proof terracotta though. It’s a little more expensive, but it will make it through cold winters unscathed whereas cheaper versions may shatter as soon as the thermometer dips below freezing.
Choose plants for your pots carefully. True Mediterranean-style choices will not only look the part, they’ll also be able to cope with near-drought conditions, meaning you’ll need to spend far less time wielding a watering can or garden hose over the summer. Colourful pelargoniums are ideal (red or shocking pink varieties look stunning against the pinky tones of terracotta pots) and osteospermums and gazanias both work well too. These are all tender, so will need bringing into a cool, frost-free greenhouse or porch over the winter.
One plant that does better in a pot than in the open ground is agapanthus, making it an ideal candidate for a large terracotta urn. Opt for a variety with either pale or dark blue flowers, or go for icy white. Whichever one you choose will instantly add a touch of Mediterranean sophistication.
Fig trees produce more fruit when their roots are confined in a pot too – and what better way to remember a fabulous holiday abroad than being able to pluck a perfectly ripe fig, still warm from the sun, from your very own tree? The same goes for lemons and limes – both can be grown in pots but will need to be brought indoors over the winter months.
If you’re short of planting space, bay trees are happy in large pots – and they have the added bonus that their aromatic leaves can be used fresh or dried in Mediterranean-style cooking too!
8. Mix in some Mediterranean colours
In hot countries, pastels and ochres look fantastic as the backdrop to plants but in countries like the UK, where the skies can be grey as often as blue, these tones can look a little washed out. So consider ramping things up a notch or two when it comes to painting walls, fences and sheds by introducing a vibrant colour. Mid-blue works well, as does purple. Colourful mosaics look good in a space with a Mediterranean feel too – perhaps as a table top or inset into paving. Don’t overdo it, though. Most of your colour should come from the planting itself and the backdrop shouldn’t fight with that.
9. Plant a small tree
If you have space, an olive tree works brilliantly as a focal point. Although they grow on sun-baked hillsides in the Med, they will cope with a cool winter in a sheltered spot. If you live in a colder climate, it’s best to grow an olive tree in a pot and bring it under cover once the weather begins to turn in autumn.
Hardy palms and yuccas lend an instant Mediterranean vibe to the space too, or how about the feathery foliage of a tamarisk with its froth of pink flowers in summer? In spring, you could have a similar cloud of pink with a Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum), which will be smothered in small, pea-like flowers on bare branches in April and May.
10. Add a water feature
If water can play a key part in your garden, so much the better. Its presence will add a cooling feel and the sound of it gently trickling over a surface is extremely relaxing. Gently cascading water from a mains-fed, wall-mounted fountain is ideal if funds and space allow, but a simple solar water feature in a large pot can work well too. Find more ideas in our guide to water features.