Mediterranean Garden Society

Is My Garden Mediterranean?

by Caroline Davies
photos by Caroline Davies

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No. 116, April 2024

The photo at the top of this page shows Cyclamen purpurascens with its heavenly scent along with a vibrant Streptocarpus and Burrageara Orchid Stefan Isler (Photo Caroline Davies)

MGS Past President Caroline Davies writes:
Caroline Harbouri’s excellent article “Plants From Beyond the Mediterranean” (TMG115 pp. 29-35) has spurred me on to examine whether my garden like hers is not mediterranean.

To explain further, I have been lucky enough to visit Caroline’s garden on her roof terrace in central Athens and like me she grows most of her plants in pots. But that is where the similarity ends. My garden is in two courtyards – a sunny, north-facing front courtyard which is much smaller than my back yard which gets very little sun in winter. Of the three MGS branches in Australia, Victoria would be the one with the least mediterranean climate, although our summers can be hot and savage. Not so for the past few years when we have had much rain and lower temperatures, although I am talking about Melbourne. This summer in the past month we have experienced some bad fires in the Grampians area and the Western District of our state.

I can say truthfully that I do not give my pots daily watering in summer as Caroline has to: only when our temperature exceeds 40 degrees and this has not happened for a few years. I do not have an automatic watering system, preferring to water pots by hand, realising that some require far more moisture than others. I have never had a lawn, from my very first garden in Melbourne. This was in the early 1970s and it was much larger than my present one. We covered the ground with large sandstone paving stones in the back garden, with diverse creeping plants growing between the gaps such as Dichondra repens which irritatingly grew far more abundantly in some spots. It was a learning journey and the front garden was paved with old bricks with large beds filled with bulbs, roses, shrubs, small trees and perennials. Passers-by called it an “English cottage garden” but I knew it was not. I did not grow vegetables but lots of herbs and I do not think I had one pot. Since then I have had four other gardens until I came to my present one where I have lived for twenty-five years. It is my smallest but packed with a diverse range of plants.

The giant Burmese honeysuckle at its flowering peak

When I say I grow most of my plants in pots, I should add that I do have a few in the ground. For instance, I have a Giant Burmese Honeysuckle (Lonicera hildebrandiana) on my front wall which I nearly lost some fifteen years ago because I regarded it as tough and did not give it additional summer moisture very often. This year it became out of control with all our early summer rain and it has been pruned back hard as my local council complained it was “obstructing the footpath” which was an exaggeration as I was pruning it lightly but making sure the flowers would bloom as usual before Christmas. For the moment I look at a much sunnier front courtyard as the honeysuckle has much catching up to do and plants such as the various dianthus varieties, an old rosemary and a Sydney rock orchid are flourishing with far more light.

Dianthus “Fair Folly”- an ancient pink

In the back I have Parthenocissus henryana in the ground, clambering up a wall, and I have to watch it as it will, with no effort at all, leap into a rather unhealthy silver birch in the adjoining property. Intriguingly, in the ground are also plants which self-seeded themselves in the pebbles. For many years I had a Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum) in a pot on my back porch. I loved its unique silver-patterned foliage and was overjoyed when, finally disposing of the pot, I found a healthy plant was growing nearby; it has expanded and flourished over the years since. The same situation occurred with Helleborus odorus, a form with simple green blooms which I have seen growing wild on Corfu. This plant eventually rebelled against its pot containment but the many flowers ensured its survival in another shady spot in my back courtyard where it flowered for the first time last year and will endure.

The Japanese painted fern growing in the pebbles

Meanwhile many areas of paving, stone and modern sculptures are brightened by the irrepressible seaside daisy, Erigeron karvinskianus, which hitched a lift in a pot from my previous garden. Its small white daisy flowers self-seed happily and it is very easy to pull out when things get out of hand. The same applies to the little Freesia laxa which blooms in red or white and appears in new spots every spring.

What about the pots? I do have some very large ones as I am aware that height is needed in the smallest garden. My pride and joy is an Arbutus × andrachnoides which I first saw in a country garden in Tuscany many years ago and fell in love with its red bark. I regard this as a true Mediterranean plant as it is a cross between Arbutus unedo, the strawberry tree, and Arbutus andrachne, the Grecian strawberry tree, which I have seen growing wild on Crete. It is a plant which should not be grown in a pot but it has survived for some fifteen years as I gradually increased the pot size. Next time will be a dilemma as I am not strong enough to deal with the large tree it has become. 

Arbutus x andrachnoides

The other striking tree is a Cussonia paniculata, the African Cabbage Tree, which I first saw in a conservatory at Moats Corner, the remarkable garden on the Mornington Peninsula  which belonged to Mrs Duncan, a formidable gardener. She actually expanded the roof of the conservatory to accommodate her plant. I do not have to worry about this as I believe my plant which still looks very healthy has become a bonsai. I have seen such a one at Roraima, the inspiring nursery and display garden of Lyle Phillipe on the road to Geelong and it gives me hope. My plant came from there originally.

Cussonia paniculata

Until very recently I had an enormous New Zealand flax (Phormium ‘Apricot Queen’) in a stone trough. It had broken the trough in several places and the roots had gone through the pebbles to the soil beneath. I was very grateful to my friend Penny Dunn and a young gardener, Rochelle, who removed the monster for me. From a distance it did look impressive, but it dominated my back courtyard and obstructed the view of other pots from my sitting room. At the moment I am weighing up what to do with the broken trough and relishing so much extra space.

The view of pots which had been obstructed by the NZ flax

I have noted that visitors to my garden are attracted by the table on my back porch where I display bulbs, cyclamens, orchids and streptocarpus when they are at their best (see photo at the top of this page). These are the plants which give me most pleasure as I can see them on the wettest days. Over the years I have gradually added to my collection of rare bulbs, thanks to the generosity of friends but also spending money to acquire more. I much enjoyed Michael McCoy’s recent talk for Angela Durnford’s MGS series of garden lectures. He is a landscape architect I have known for many years and he was extolling the virtue of bulbs but stating how expensive they are. I do not begrudge this as once a plant is established it multiplies. At the moment I am repotting my winter- and spring-flowering bulbs and dreaming of the flowers to follow. I have a variety of crocuses, galanthus, narcissi, fritillarias and of course the cyclamens. I also have a soft spot for the scadoxus/ haemanthus clan and have gathered quite a collection of these hardy South African bulbs. 

I find cyclamens so rewarding as not only are the flowers enchanting when they emerge, reminding me of many sightings of them in Greece, but the foliage endures for so long and each type of Cyclamen hederifolium, for example - the one which grows wild on Corfu - can have such distinct differences in its leaves. I recall many years ago a painting by the late Marjorie Holmes which showed all the different cyclamen leaves she had gathered on the island.   

Massed cyclamen

Not mediterranean but hardy are all the shrubby begonias I grow and propagate so easily from cuttings. I know few of their names as many were gifts or obtained from abandoned gardens, but they endure through our summers as long as they are in the right spot. I think that is crucial and here in Melbourne, in a usual year which this one is not, I need to shield them from the hot afternoon sun. My garden is full of memories of other people and it was Sarah Guest, a talented gardener whom I valued as a friend, who first set me on the path of begonias, which I had always associated with the municipal plantings of my youth in England. She gave me a cutting which she had struck in water on her kitchen bench. Whenever I do the same I remember her. Sadly Sarah died last year. Like me she was a Life Member of the MGS and had a truly eclectic garden.

A white cane begonia grown from a cutting

Returning to Caroline’s article, I do not grow the wonderful array of subtropical shrubs she mentioned but I do have a passion for Vireya rhododendrons which are known as the tropical rhododendrons. These are the other plants which bring height to my garden and I have several which have fragrant flowers, adding to their allure. My favourite is ‘Highland White Jade’. Its scent is intoxicating and I love the purity of its white flowers. The plant does need to be repotted and I have put some decorative rocks at its base to stop it from keeling over with the strong winds we face in Melbourne these days for it is top-heavy. I also have other fragrant varieties: an enormous one called ‘Pindi Pearl’ that has apricot pink flowers which come later than the white. I have too an Australian native form: Rhododendron lochiae, with a deep red flower, which I have seen when we used to visit tropical north Queensland. It has no fragrance but I like it for its Australian character. In the wild these plants are epiphytes which means they can survive in the same pot for a long while.

Vireya rhododendron “Highland White Jade”

I do not grow many Australian native plants but can never resist flannel flowers (Actinotus helianthin) which remind me of walking along the south coast of New South Wales where it grows in pure sand. I also grow various Scaevola aemula varieties which bring brilliant hues of blue and pink to my garden in summer, and a very large Dianella tasmanica ‘Variegata’ which I bought from a plantswoman in Tasmania aeons ago. I recall her telling me that she had to import the seed from Scotland!

The variegated Dianella tasmanica behind “Walking Torso”by Polish sculptor, Maria Kuczynska

My garden was to be an easier option as I aged, and I am now alone, but once a gardener, it is terribly hard to put the brakes on and stop. I feel I meet the mediterranean criteria although I do not grow many of those grey shrubs which Caroline mentioned. I do know that I water less than many of my friends and the beauty of all the bulbs is that they hate to be too wet while dormant. I have lost bulbs in the last few years, as our rainfall has been intense at times, but there are always enough to welcome another gloomy winter’s morning or sparkling spring day – a reassurance of the continuity of nature despite the world’s attempts to destroy it.

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