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St. Anne's Church, Jerusalem, courtyard garden with flowering perennials and palm trees, taken by Diane Rixon

Dreaming of a Mediterranean-style oasis in your own yard? Me too! Okay, let's get inspired!

So, what makes certain gardens "Mediterranean," anyway? Well, for starters, they're designed to withstand both lots of heat and irregular rainfall. The garden designs are visually appealing, true. But they're also low-care and eco-friendly. Because plants are selected for toughness, and lawns are absent or insignificant, there's less need for chemicals and watering.

1. It's all about contrast.
Mediterranean styling is pretty easy to imitate. The essential element? Contrast. That is, contrasting hard, structured surfaces with soft, unstructured foliage and blooms. Think tumbling vines atop high stone walls. Think paved walkways next to climbing roses. Think clipped hedges fronting tall, slender cypress trees. You get the picture.

Jerusalem gardens to inspire you(click thumbnails to view gallery)

Yes, it's dryFind a focal pointA place to restContrast: stone meets flowerContrast: stone meets flower again

2. Contrast, part A: Climbers and creepers.
Twining vines and cascading climbers look fabulous in the Mediterranean-style garden. Try climbing roses and grapevines. English Ivy is the best bet for most beginner gardeners. Just bear in mind that many of the hardiest vines grow so well they are considered invasive. Ivy is in this category and so is Chinese wisteria. Plant with caution or not at all.

3. Contrast, part B: Go vertical.
Tall, stately cypress trees are ubiquitous in the Mediterranean landscape. Here in the US you will want to try something that evokes that look but grows well in this environment. Juniper and aborvitae look great, stay green all year, and need little water once established. What more could you want?

4. Contrast, part C: Smooth goes with spiky.
Contrasting plant textures is the secret to awesome landscaping. Just look at the photo above that I took at St. Anne's Church, just off the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. Why do these plants look so stunning? One reason is the contrast of smooth leaves with spiky palm fronds, rounded geranium leaves with prickly conifer needles.

5. Stone, stone, stone.
Stone makes for great "bones" in a garden, and it's essential in a Mediterranean-style garden. Paved walkways and stone walls are ideal. If that's beyond your budget or interest level, that's okay. Use stone or (my lips are sealed) faux stone containers here and there instead, and substitute pea gravel for paving stones in your walkways.

6. Containers.
Container plants look good pretty much everywhere; however, they look particularly lovely in Mediterranean-style gardens. (It's that contrast thing again!) Place hardy plants in every container you can get your hands on. Larger containers make great focal points. Smaller containers look best arranged in clusters for maximum visual impact. Preferred pot type: terracotta. Very budget-friendly, indeed.

7. Statuary.
Always nice to have. But please: choose something that's size-appropriate. Your quarter-acre yard does not need a massive, gushing fountain or life-size reproduction of the statue of David. I have seen this sort of over-reaching before and, trust me, it's disastrous to behold!

8. Create a focal point.
The best gardens contain paths that lead somewhere. That is, to some sort of focal point. This can be as big, expensive, and time-intensive as you can bear. Examples? How about:
  • a fountain
  • a pond
  • a mosaic
  • a small courtyard
  • a pergola
  • an arbor.
Good news: small and inexpensive ideas work, too. Here are some ideas that won't break the bank:
  • a tall urn
  • a small statue or container plant on a pedestal or plant stand
  • a garden bench
  • an eye-catching tree
  • some lattice-work
  • a small water feature
  • a small rock garden or faux ruins made from salvaged stone (Go ask around at building sites.)
  • a collection of (large!) seashells.
9. Planting: The fun part.
Planting doesn't have to be complicated or expensive unless you make it so. That is, Mediterranean-style gardens don't have to utilize plants from that region. Use plants readily available here in the US and select them according to the same rules you'd normally use to select plants.

In other words: consider the mature spread of each plant (width x height), plus the sun and moisture levels it prefers. Don't worry: if you follow the landscaping guidelines above, it will look Mediterranean even if the plants came from The Home Depot!

As a general guide, consider filling shady areas with ferns, semi-shade areas with tough shrubs, and sunny areas with ornamental grasses. Include palms and other tropicals if your region is warm enough. Add vines, olive trees, fig trees, or citrus trees (again, if you're in a southern zone) and climbing roses wherever you can. Remember: in cooler regions, juniper and aborvitae are wonderful substitutes for cypress trees.

Finally, mass aromatic herbs, and colorful perennials and annuals out front in sunny, high-traffic areas. Good choices include geraniums, lavender, lamb's ear, sunflowers, poppies, aloe, sedum, rosemary, basil, and thyme. Sanity-saver: plant everything that needs regular watering all in one area.

While massing and structure are important, a few apparently random elements -- such as wildflowers tucked here and there between paving stones -- will save your garden from the dreaded Personality Deficit Disorder. Just don't forget to water regularly to get seeds or seedling established in such tough spots.

10. Steal ideas.
Still not sure where to start? Look for photos of existing gardens... then copy them! You don't have to invest in an expensive coffee table book. Check out my Jerusalem photo gallery for starters to see what real Mediterranean gardens look like. Or just go to Google Image Search and plug in a search term like "Mediterranean garden." You'll get tons of free ideas this way. Like these: wow! Double wow!

Then there are how-to guides on the Web. Organizations like The Mediterranean Garden Society, for example, are helpful. (Check out these photos of a Greek garden, for instance.) Oh, and don't miss Bill Volk's Construction Chronicles backyard renovation series here at DIY Life. Keep looking and pretty soon an image will start to form in your mind. Sketching your ideas out on paper will help you settle on a plan.

A final note on style.
Mediterranean-style gardens can be very lush, very dry, or somewhere in between. Let your local climate and your own personal tastes guide you to a design that works for you -- without breaking your back or your bank along the way. Try not to agonize about attaining perfection or trying to please neighbors or friends. This is your work of art!

I hope you found these pointers helpful. Have fun creating your own backyard slice of the Mediterranean!

For more info. on container gardens to add to your Mediterranean oasis, watch this video:


  • Bill Volk

    Diane -- good stuff; my compliments!

  • 1 Comments / 1 Pages

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