CULTURE

Turning a new leaf: Choosing plants for different purposes

Source material on Mediterranean plant species is often so comprehensive one sometimes wishes the choice had been whittled down a bit for the average gardener, who is often hard put to handle such a wealth of choice. Australian horticulturalist Trevor Nottle, whose books are familiar to many people gardening in Mediterranean climates, has published a new volume with a different slant on using these hardy species. In «Plants for Mediterranean Climate Gardens» (Rosenberg Publishing, Australia, 2004), Nottle does not attempt to cover a large number of plants but in each chapter focuses in depth on a selection useful for a particular purpose, always bearing in mind the goal of the right garden design and maintenance. He makes his points in a personalized way, so that in his chapter on «Statement makers» – «the sort of plants that call out across the garden, ‘Come over here and look at me!’ Such plants can also bring finality to the scene, stating boldly, ‘That’s all. This is the end.’» – one can picture just the kind of plant he means. Making a statement and creating structure in a garden are themes that Nottle returns to frequently. He reminds us of the mistakes we often make in trying to create a «natural» look. Referring to the way the Romans developed the concept of taming the wild landscape into a garden and training evergreens, such as olive, bay, laurel, box and myrtle into formal shapes, he suggests: «Perhaps we can take from (this concept) something that offers modern garden makers a chance to develop the structure of their designs without making great demands on their topiary skills,» he says, contrasting the idea of a «tableau of clusters of different plants clipped at different heights» to that of the «endless swathes of gravel and bark mulches deployed in dry gardens, or the equally repetitive sweeps of gazanias or osteospermums planted willy-nilly with little thought and no imagination. Give the idea a go,» he encourages us. Shade and scent A selection of 10 lesser-known trees is suggested for shade – a «personal selection based on experience» that includes the Russian olive (Eleagnus angustifolia) and the chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus). His chapter on «Scent makers» does not neglect plants with scented foliage that release their aroma when brushed against. Another chapter is devoted to plants with silver or gray leaves that have become synonymous with drought resistance, such as lavender cotton (Santolina pectinata), the lavenders (Lavandula) and Ballotta pseuddictamnus (a Cretan native). Although he says silver-leaved plants have been «done to death by garden designers and fashionistas eager to replicate the Mediterranean style made so chic in… the wetter parts of Europe as a result of recent water shortages,» Nottle suggests a «broader view.» One interesting technique he proposes is the pollarding of eucalypts to get more of the intense silver juvenile foliage that has a more interesting leaf form than the usual gumleaf shape. Annual pollarding, he explains, means a new crop of stems appears each growing season, ensuring a continual supply of new leaves (as we see here on Athens’s streets each year with the mulberry trees). The other Mediterranean standbys – succulents – are also given a chapter on their own, again just 10 plants but treated in depth and covering a wide variety, from the glossy-leaved Haworthia comptoniana from South Africa to the colorful ice plant or pigface (Lampranthus), which he suggests planting en masse instead of here and there among other plants. Common mistakes Nottle talked to Kathimerini English Edition by e-mail this week about his views on the use of plants in Greece. «Greece is quite mountainous, unlike Australia and South Africa, so the cold weather tends to be colder and wetter, and definitely has more snow. This can give rise to more opportunities for gardeners to utilize microclimates in their gardens,» he told us. «Also Greece has many, many wonderful wildflowers that can simply be included in a ‘made’ garden thus intensifying their impact by being planted more densely and in designed ways that reveal their beauty.» In his own garden, he grows as many seeds of Greek wildflowers as he can – «crocus, cyclamen, galanthus, scilla, hellebores, irises, narcissus, gladiolus, hermodactylus, muscari – all wonderful, beautiful and hardy in Mediterranean climates.» «Too much attention is given to imported plants from Holland and Germany and France,» he added. «Azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias, magnolias, conifers and roses – all of which are very poorly adapted to alkaline Greek soils, are not hardy in summer dry climates without extensive irrigation, are very poorly adapted in their leaf structures to hot dry air, and are frequently seen for sale in Athens in flower – by which time it is far too late to get the plants established in gardens before summer arrives,» he explained. «Most of them die. Grow more Mediterranean plants derived from Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, the Mediterranean islands, Morocco, Algeria, South Africa, southern Australia, California and Chile.» Plant nurseries in Greece are bringing in more and more Mediterranean species, but staff are not always knowledgeable about them. In his book, Nottle gives some very no-nonsense instructions for anyone out shopping for plants. «Gardeners are a notoriously soft touch for hard-pressed sales assistants. A good relationship with suppliers is important to successful gardening and landscaping so it is time to develop reasonable expectations of those businesses that supply you. You can be demanding and particular without being aggressive, mean-minded, superior or abusive,» he writes. If one can use the word «page-turner» in association with this genre, then may I suggest Trevor Nottle’s latest book as a perfect gift for gardeners looking for something informative yet chatty and readable. It is part of a series on Mediterranean climate gardens that also includes one on succulents and Australian plants. Next year will see the release of volumes on bulbs, California natives and roses. Rosenberg publications are available in Europe through Gazelle Book Services, UK, e-mail [email protected] About the author Trevor Nottle lives in Adelaide, South Australia, and has been involved in a Mediterranean approach to gardening and garden design for over 30 years. A writer and lecturer with an international reputation, he is the manager of the major tertiary horticultural teaching institution in South Australia and is also well known as a horticultural consultant and garden historian. His other books include «Gardens of the Sun» and he has written many articles for magazines and journals, including that of the Mediterranean Garden Society, based in Greece, of which he is a foundation member.