Tag Archives: Mediterranean climate

more mediterranean than thou

Gosh, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? The main distractions keeping me away from posting have been a couple of classes I’ve been taking to fill in some art history holes I hadn’t bothered with before. For one of them I’ve been doing a little research on Granada’s Patio de la Acequia, the “Courtyard of the Aqueduct,” one of the gardens at the Generalife, the garden fortress across the canyon from its more famous neighbor, the Alhambra.

This particular garden, a long, rectangular space with a central water feature 162 feet long and 4 across, holds the distinction of being “…the oldest ornamental garden in the Western World, with the additional value of never having ceased to be a garden during the last seven centuries” (Casares-Porcel et al. in Delgado et al., 2007).

I enjoy creative research of this sort, and I thought I’d share some of the cool things that I’ve been finding out.

Today, the garden looks like this:

Patio de la AcequiaPeter Lorber. Gartenanlage Generalife, Alhambra, Granada, Spanien eigene Aufnahme, Erstellungsdatum 22.Juni 2006. Photo via Wikimedia.

But like any garden that’s been a while it’s undergone some major changes. The plants, for sure, have gone through a few generations and some major changes. For example, the big splashy bougainvillea that you see behind the column capital on the right side would in no way have been part of the original garden. The Patio was started in the later thirteen century. Bougainvilleas weren’t described until the 1700s, and didn’t make it to Europe until later. And the big splashy fountains are generally bogus to the original as well, having been added in the 1940s or early 1950s by architect Francisco Prieto Moreno. (EDIT: Sep 19: While the fountains are not original, their appearance pre-dates Prieto-Moreno’s work on the garden. I’m still researching when they appeared.)

But the one really mind-blowing discovery that came about in this garden was the result of some excavations done in the wake of a catastrophic fire that consume one of the adjacent structures. Archaeologist Bermudez and his team dug and dug and didn’t encounter the original soil line until they got 70 cm. beneath the level of the original pavement. And his and others’ research began to paint a picture of a garden with planting beds sunken deep between the walkways and water features.

Part of me–the gardener side–says “so what.” Maybe they just dug out the old icky soil and added a new layer on top. But excavations in Seville at the gardens of the Alcázar have found garden beds with stucco decorations on their sides. Others had fresco paintings. So that pretty much convinces me that they weren’t going to all that bother just to bury their ornamental garden bed decorations under a pile of garden soil, and it reveals that these were part of a garden tradition where they had lowered planting beds at least some of the time.

Below is a photo off Flickr of one of those gardens at the Alcázar, the Patio de las Doncellas, the Courtyard of the Maidens, that’s been restored to its original low soil surface. In gardens today you’re used to seeing raised beds, or garden paths near the level of the surrounding plantings. But this? Wow. (There were probably fewer personal injury attorneys around in medieval Spain, so I doubt the ropes at the edges of the garden bed reflect the original way these beds would have been experienced.)

Patio de las Doncellas, SevilleChristophe Porteneuve. [Patio de las Doncellas, Alcázar, Seville]. Photo via Flickr.

And the last piece of information related to all this was a little graph that I put together trying to see how my local climate stacks up to Granada’s, rainfall-wise. On his most recent visit to lecture at my local California Native Plant Society, Bart O’Brien, author and Director of Special Projects for the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, pointed out how California’s mediterranean climate is the most extreme of all the five main mediterranean climates in its extremes of wet and dry.

The following compares Granada, located at over 2000 feet of elevation against sea-level San Diego, so this isn’t the fairest of comparisons. And Granada’s annual rain fall is something over 14 inches, versus San Diego’s average of slightly over 10 inches. But you can get a general sense of how extended the California summer dry can get.

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unusual october

October usually throws some ridiculously warm and dry weather at us. This was the month that in 2003 and 2007 saw monster wildfires racing through the county, including the largest fire to hit California in recorded history (in 2003).

We’ve a few of those warmer days, but what’s been surprising has the the cool, wet foretaste of winter. Here’s a little example: This is my parking pass for work, where I usually go in to the office Mondays through Thursdays. Each big dark X corresponds to a day when it was too wet to ride my scooter in to work. Add to that another morning when I got a bad weather report and arrived pretty drenched.

Over the last two weeks it seems like half the mornings looked a little like this, with mist–or outright rain–turning the pavement wet.

Finally, the line of repurposed cat litter buckets that had looked so forlorn all summer at the drip edges of the roof were beginning to fill with water. In fact my two rain big barrels are now full, ready to have their contents shared back into the garden.

In response to the cooling trend plants are leafing out; seedlings are germinating. Readers not in mediterranean climates might think they’re reading a garden blog from the southern hemisphere. But no, this is California, which shares this wet-winter/dry-summer climate with less than 5% of the earth’s surface. To make up for being so special we’re treated with almost 20% of all the world’s plant species. More than a fair trade for long summer months with close to no water.

I was out in the front yard over the weekend, tidying up growth that had hit its expiration date. Mixed in with branches that had truly died were plenty belonging to drought-deciduous plants that were coming back to life. On the left is our local chaparral currant, Ribes indecorum, turning from brown twigs to leafy twigs. On the right is Verbena lilacina, a plant that can stay looking fairly green over the summer if you give it more water than I do.

Everywhere I stepped I had to avoid mashing tiny little buckwheat seedlings, or these guys, itty bitty little chia plants (Salvia columbariae). Early this summer when I took out the dead plants of this annual I made a point of shaking the seed heads over the dirt. Still I was worried that I wouldn’t have enough germination to repeat the amazing show of last spring. Looks like I didn’t need to be so concerned.

In the back yard seedlings of baby blue eyes were pushing their way through the mulch. The mulch really does help keep down the weeds, but this species fortunately doesn’t seem overly daunted by my attempt to save myself a few dozen hours of weeding. Various creatures do find these seedlings extra-tasty–including the cat, which seems to think these are almost as good as catnip. Once they’re larger the cat doesn’t seem to pay them any attention. I’m hoping for a nice half dozen or so survivors.

And there were even more seedlings. These are a few days away from showing their first true leaves, but I’m hoping that they’re the beginnings of clarkias that surrounded this patch of bare dirt. If not clarkias, they’re likely seedlings of this really noxious weed that shared the space with the clarkias. We’ll soon find out…

Yes, it’s been an unusual October. But I’ll take plants leafing out and seedlings pushing their way out of the ground any day over another round of brushfires!

the dry gardening handbook

Olivier and Clara Filippi have been gardening in the south of France for well over a quarter century. Theirs is a mediterranean climate, and their nursery, Pépinière Filippi, located near Montpellier, specializes in plants adapted to the dry-summer/wet-winter cycles that you find in only five large regions on earth: the Mediterranean zone, proper; South Africa; the southwest corner of Australia; Chile; and much of California.

Cover or The Dry Gardening Handbook

When I picked up Olivier Filippi’s recent The Dry Gardening Handbook: Plants and Practices for a Changing Climate, I was expecting it to be a different sort of book than it is, maybe something about general drought-tolerant plants, or a volume dedicated to helping your garden adapt to using less water. What this is, however, is a straight book on mediterranean gardening and plants suited to mediterranean climates–something that probably shouldn’t come as a surprise since that’s the focus of the author’s nursery.

There’s a brief introduction to what constitutes a mediterranean climate, followed by notes on the strategies plants use to survive and thrive in it. Good advice on planning, planting, establishing and watering a new mediterranean garden comes next. Then Filippi gives us the heart of the book, a listing of over 400 mediterranean-adapted species, containing common and scientific names, approximate mature plant sizes, and notes on cultivation and propagation. (If you can begin to read French, you can check out the online catalog at the author’s nursery, which closely mirrors the list of plants recommended in the book. There you’ll also find some of the advice that’s offered in the book, although without the nice photos in the book.)

Olivier Filippi gardens in France, and the plant list definitely Eurocentric: lots of different lavenders, cistus, phlomis, for example, with relatively few plants from other the other great mediterranean regions. In fact, many of the non-Mediterranean mediterranean-friendly plants listed are drought tolerant selections from several non-mediterranean climates. For gardeners in dry climates that don’t undergo mediterranean cycles, these suggestions might be some of the best options to try. But those plants might not the be greatest of discoveries: Photinia, heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica), red-hot poker (Kniphofia sarmentosa) and American gaura (Gaura lindheimeri), for instance, are probably already common offerings in many American nurseries.

One of the book’s most outstanding features is the use of a “drought resistance code” that assigns a number from one to six to each of the species in its plant list. Based on work by plant geographer Henri Gaussen, the number quantifies the number of months of the year a plant can be expected to survive under drought stress. The book also contains instructions on how to calculate the climatic profile of where you live. (I figured out that my coastal San Diego location exerts a 3.5 to 4 drought stress factor. (Edit May 20: I oopsed on my figuring for coastal San Diego. My revised number is a much dryer drought stress factor of 6.)) All that’s a really useful way to understand drought.

When you see plants sold in nurseries and catalogs as drought-tolerant, the description can be meaningless. A variety that would go fine for two weeks without water could turn into seasoned kindling if subjected to six or seven months of continued drying. Realizing that a “drought-tolerant” chamomile plant has a drought resistance code of 2 would begin to tell you that it wouldn’t thrive in the same conditions that would suit California’s more “drought-proof” Romneya coulteri, which has a drought resistance code of 6. Having that information could help you plan companion plantings, as well as help you avoid plants altogether that would only lead to expensive mistakes.

Coming at plantings from a mediterranean focus leads the author to say some choice things about lawns:

You don’t have to be a visionary to see that the traditional lawn is an absurdity in mediterranean climates. If you nurture a deeply rooted feeling that you can’t be happy without a vast, lush lawn, then perhaps you ought to consider going to live in Cornwall… People often imagine that they need a huge expanse of lawn, but all too often the only person who walks over a traditional lawn in its entirety is the unfortunate individual who has to mow it every Sunday.

The author’s solution? Landscaping that pays attention to where you live. For those of you in mediterranean climates, this book can help you develop a deeper understanding of what’s unique about your environment. It can help you come up with good plant choices compatible with what your location offers. Along the way, it could help you save water, reduce pesticide use and maybe even free up some of those Sundays you spend mowing the lawn.