Making the most of the shade

When choosing plants for a Mediterranean garden, the first that usually come to mind are those that do well under the hot sun, but many gardens, particularly in the city, are shaded either by tall trees, neighboring buildings or the house on the site itself, and may not get much direct sunlight, particularly in winter. A home in Athens’s northern suburbs on a 670-square-meter site shaded by two giant Tilia cordata (little-leaf linden, flamouria) was designed around the trees and the result is as striking as it is simple. One of the trees shades a large courtyard bordered by beds in which differing shades of foliage, plain and variegated, are combined with taller shrubs and trees. «We wanted the open area to be lived in, so we decided to have a paved courtyard-garden,» said the owner, who is a garden designer and chose – and maintains – the planting scheme herself. The courtyard was planned as a continuum with the interior of the house; the same tiles have been used inside and outside. The linden tree, its square bed covered with pebbles to stop the family’s dog from tracking soil over the tiles, provides a mantle of shade over a spacious outside dining and living area. A pathway leads between two planted areas from the courtyard to a secluded space at the rear. One of the beds that gets the full benefit of the sun is planted with aromatics, including two kinds of thyme, rosemary and salvias (although lavenders have not done well) as well as other gray-leaved and hardy species including lantana. An apricot tree has been trained against a wall of the house right behind this bed. On the other side of the path, in partial sun, are Veronica (with pink blooms) jasmine, salvias and strawberries. Behind them are two large, easy-to-grow Philadelphus coronarius «Aureus» (golden mock orange blossom), covered with heavily scented creamy white flowers in spring and summer, and some Salvia microphylla, which have tiny red blooms. In sunny corners of the courtyard and at strategic points around the house are pots containing annuals, changed with the season, visible from each of the large windows that let in plenty of light. At the moment, pansies surround kumquat trees; in summer they are replaced with annuals such as impatiens. A screen of tall shrubs around the perimeter, providing privacy for both the courtyard and garden, include varieties of Viburnum (vivourno), some of which have been shaped into trees. These are interspersed with hardy climbing roses such as the spicy-scented President Herbert Hoover, with blowzy, pinkish-gold blooms, a Margo Coster rose (with large white flowers) on the perimeter fence, and a very hardy evergreen climbing jasmine, which flowers only in spring but compensates with a profuse display. Around the back of the house the planting scheme is deliberately «wilder,» providing a shady retreat from the more open courtyard area. A yellow-bloomed Arbutilon stands in a pot; a Mahonia bush in a corner of the house wall has yellow blooms in spring. The owner said that although chiefly «shady,» all parts of the garden get at least some indirect light and she has found that some plants, such as wild geraniums (cranesbill), usually considered to require a lot of sun, have actually thrived with some shade. Another two varieties of wild geranium found in Greece are the Macrorrhizum, with magenta flowers, and the Sanguineum, with white/red blooms. The owner has used Mediterranean plants as much as possible and does not use chemical sprays. Extensive use has been made of ground cover, including Hypericum (St John’s wort or Rose of Sharon), Vinca minor (common periwinkle), a small-leaved variegated ivy, Ceonathos repens with blue flowers, Hypericum calcycinum, which produces yellow flowers in spring and makes a carpet that can be cut back every five years or so, and Lamium (dead nettle) Other shrubs that do well in shady gardens include the tall Arbutilon, with an orange-pink-reddish flower that can be trained as a climber and flowers in the shade, the Mediterranean hibiscus, with small pink flowers, lilac (paschalia), dwarf oleanders, and a shrub known as the Leontaris, often found in Kifissia and which has an orange flower reminiscent of a lion’s mane. Fuchsia, with bell-shaped flowers, is also good for shade, as is Ajuga repens, a ground cover good for areas where grass is not easy to grow, Bergenia cordifolia – hard to find these days, but which has always been a classic choice in the northern suburbs – and the blue flowers of the Solanum crispum (Chilean potato vine). Inside the front gate stand pots with two different varieties of Buxus, a Prunus with pink blossoms and an attractive green leaf, a mauve Cestrum, and a variegated Pittosporum (angeliki) with small pale green leaves bordered with white. A small open area at the front is planted with Bellis, a type of daisy, instead of a lawn, bordered by Veronica, pomegranates and a Lagerstroemia, a tree that produces bright pink flowers in August, myrtle, wild violets, and Cotoneaster integerrimus (European Cotoneaster) with red berries. Another flower that is supposed to thrive only in the sun but is faring well with indirect light is the Syrian hibiscus. Most of these plants can be found at plant nurseries around Athens, or from mail order sources in Europe. Observe the garden at different times of the day to see how much sunlight each section is exposed to. If nursery sales staff don’t appear to be aware of plants’ needs, check in a good gardening book or a plant finder on the Internet, such as the Royal Horticultural Society website.

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