It is very rare when I write my first column for September that will be published before Labor Day. But this year has been strange all the way around.
As I look back on previous September columns, I see a lot that discuss Autumn in the garden. But few seem to discuss rain or the lack thereof. This year, I am skipping the normal autumnal topics (I love that word “autumnal” and so rarely find a place to use it) and go instead to the fact that once again we have had a lovely summer but with very little rain.
In fact, I can only remember a really good rain in the third week of August. Mother Nature is so much better than I am at soaking to the roots of plants. I am not really complaining about the lack of rain as the plants have enjoyed the abundant sunshine.
Which got me to thinking how our native plants and those from the Mediterranean area seem to thrive on our cool, wet winters and our warm, dry summers. So, when planning for next year’s garden, it might behoove (another great word) us all to look for guidance in using some Mediterranean species.
In general, Mediterranean plants like as much sun as you can give them. They also don’t like wet feet, so well-drained soil is necessary for our wet winters. Most are easy to grow, deer-resistant and have few pests.
My favorite Mediterranean plant has to be lavender. It is a great plant to put along a walkway so you will brush against it and release its heavenly scent, or pluck a leaf or two as you pass to inhale the sweet aroma. Often times I will cut a sprig of lavender to put in my iced tea for an additional pop of flavor. And of course, the flowers and leaves can be dried to use in sachets or potpourri.
There are several different types of lavender. Spanish lavender blooms with tiny bracts that look like rabbit ears. But the flowers have very little scent, with most of its perfume coming from the leaves. It does best in a hotter climate. French lavenders have a more subtle scent but boast a blue-grey leaf that is very pretty and, as a bonus, it is deer-resistant. The French flowers have a little tuft on the top, giving this plant its alternate name of fringed lavender. As an Anglophile, my favorite is English lavender, although it originally came from the Mediterranean, too. This is the scent we most often think of as true lavender. Named after two well-known English gardens, the ‘Munstead’ and ‘Hidcote’ are most used and easy to find.
Lesser-known and lesser-used varieties of Portuguese and Egyptian lavender are from the western Mediterranean and seem to have a stronger, more distinctive scent than even the English lavender. These might be harder to find unless you go to specialty nurseries. Since much of our nursery shopping this year has been on-line, seeds or plants from reputable internet nurseries may be the way to go to find the Portuguese and Egyptian types.
Lavenders can get pretty leggy if you don’t do a light pruning every other year. The pros say not to cut into the woody parts as they won’t regrow, but I have had success cutting a bit off the tops and a little into the wood. New leaves will grow lower on the plant in a few weeks.
Another of my favorite Mediterranean plants is rosemary. Rosemary leaves are favorite culinary herbs as well as being used for medicinal purposes. It is considered a shrub and can grow to about 3 feet. But there is also prostrate rosemary that loves a good rock wall or large planter to hang from. Rosemary leaves can easily be dried for cooking, or used fresh. It is a great source of Vitamin B-6, calcium and iron and gives a nice flavor to chicken and fish. It also has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds and is said to be good for preventing memory loss. This from MedicalNewsToday.com: the aroma can improve concentration and mood and contains carnosic acid which may help brain health, especially in stroke victims. It is also pretty in the garden, easy to grow and smells good. What’s not to like?
Phlomis -or Jerusalem sage- is a fun plant to grow. These summer bloomers are native to Lebanon and Turkey and have green-grey leaves that look like sage but are not edible nor fragrant. They bloom with yellow or pink-mauve flowers on stalks and are an evergreen perennial shrub. They do like sun and well-drained soil, though, so add some sand or grit into the hole before planting. This shrub can get a little unruly but is easily pruned in the spring to keep them in control. The seeds can be harvested in the fall after they dry, or this can also be propagated by division in the spring.
Looking to easily-grown Mediterranean plants can certainly add some interest and scent to the gardens even in a dry summer.