The Flavours of the Med
Jam-packed with flavour, a Mediterranean garden virtually looks after itself.
Mediterranean flavours are ones we all love – tomatoes, herbs like thyme and rosemary, figs, olives… The list goes on. Luckily, it’s easy to establish your own Mediterranean garden filled with these tough plants, as well as others that enjoy the same growing conditions.
So while the inspiration for a garden like this is those dry, sunny climes surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, from whence the cuisine of Greece and Italy and more sprung, you can slip in a few other plants that pair well with the flavours or just look good growing alongside the true Mediterraneans.
As you know, when you’re planting a garden you start with the big stuff first, like trees and shrubs. Obviously the olive tree is the most iconic of Mediterranean trees, but you could go for a fig instead. There are a number of fig varieties to choose from, and the easiest and best thing to do is to speak to a local expert and find a variety that suits your particular climate perfectly. They grow quickly and start to bear fruit quite young, so can be very rewarding. A lemon tree is another good option if you need or would like more trees – you can never have too many lemon trees! ‘Eureka’ is the variety to go for, for all-round performance.
One of the things we think of when we think of that romantic part of the world is terracotta pots. Perhaps put a few mints in some terracotta pots to add a bit of height (and to contain the rampant mints!) and position them around the garden. Another minty option, particularly in and around pavers, is Corsican mint. Corsican mint is one of the lesser-known mints, but what a spectacular little groundcover it is.
A row of rosemary plants is always a lovely edge to a garden, to form a small hedge of useful and beautiful plants as well as to mark the end of the garden. One of our favourite rosemaries is ‘Tuscan Blue’, which we recommend using in threes – we love the way it flowers. Still working with bigger plants, perhaps dot some artichokes around the garden, leaving them with enough space to grow into. These have to be one of the most popular plants in our office, with their spectacular architectural shape and grey foliage, which contrasts so well with bright greens and other colours. To complement the grey of the artichokes, consider Lavandula stoechas, such a beautiful plant that can be used just about anywhere in just about any garden.
As I said, if you want to stretch the Med theme a bit, one way this can be done is by introducing South Africa’s very own spekboom (Portulacaria afra) to the mix. Spekboom is such a trendy plant these days (some might say too much so), renowned for its never-say-die attitude and ability to soak up carbon from the atmosphere, but the leaves are also very tasty in a summer salad. And obviously it has similar water requirements to most of the Mediterranean plants. Again, we’d recommend planting these in bunches of three, and their bright lime-green foliage and red stems will sparkle against the greys.
Then there are the herbs. A good place to start is with rocket because this is such a useful little plant. In the Med it is a weed, popping up in cracks in pavements (and in salads). What we would also plant, and in numbers, are thyme, lemon thyme, creeping thyme, oregano, oregano ‘Hot and Spicy’ and garden mint. Then fill in gaps with parsley and Italian parsley, calendulas and sage. Basil is a tricky proposition in our damp climate – sweet basil (the tastiest one!) turns up its toes in no time at all, no matter how carefully we pamper it. Instead we tend to try one of the perennial basils, like ‘Red Ruffle’ or ‘Wild Magic’. Their flavour is perfectly acceptable, especially when cooked, and they keep on growing and producing leaves and flowers for years. We have also popped chilli plants into our Mediterranean list, perhaps in a few varieties, so that we could make arrabiata sauce from our produce… Speaking of which, a couple of tomato bushes are definitely necessary for the same reason – after all, what use is basil without some tomatoes.
Growing Mediterranean plants
All of the plants that we have mentioned share very similar requirements:
Soil: Well-draining soil, even shale or sandy soil. While they can cope with poor soil they will do better with added compost.
Water: Water until established, after which these plants can make do with what nature provides, by and large.
Feeding: Feed once a month to get the best out of them. Use an organic pelletised fertiliser.
Sun: Full sun.
Our Favourite Five
If we were going to start a Mediterranean edible garden and were limited to just five plants, this is what we’d plant: