Sunday, 6 October 2013

Mediterranean Gardens - Louisa Jones at Melbourne’s Landscape Design Conference 2013

Melbourne’s landscape design conference this year comprised lectures by writer Anne Latreille (`Garden Voices’: Australian designers both past and present); American landscape architect Ken Smith (`Sky to Ground’); US tropical garden designer Raymond Jungles (water in the garden), Juan Grimm from Chile and Australian Paul Bangay (with photographer Simon Griffiths), Professor Toshio Watanabe (Japanese gardens), Aniket Bhagwat from India; – and I found particularly relevant (in our climate and with today’s enthusiasm for edible patches) – Canadian-born French-based Professor Louisa Jones’ Mediterranean Gardens with her fresh (to me) examination of these gardens born of use but not shorn of beauty.

Louisa Jones’ comparison of Mediterranean gardens to English was particularly instructive when we still see the hangover of the latter here, and yes, I am guilty of that, with my British-born parents. (Growing up in a large suburban garden of perennials and of perfumed shrubs not clipped into perfect cubes, I heard the comment that my mother’s garden was `very English’ when I was a teenager.  I had no idea what it meant then, of course, (and bristled when I overheard it called messy) but thought I did now. Jones’ clear views have helped me rethink completely – always a bonus, surely; and reassess my own garden, of course.

What is most unsettling is the odd notion that J, my partner of 29 years, as Australian as a white person can be, seems to like notions of English gardens (E) – as Jones expiates – where I, child of very British ones, seem to want elements of a Mediterranean garden (M). Could this be?

So, to some obvious differences: English-style gardens (E) are floral, mainly ornamental; Mediterranean-style gardens (M) are a mixture of use and beauty, containing plants that produce fruit, leaves and roots for consumption. (See above: red poppies under olive trees in spring with buttercups and Queen Anne ’s lace)
Jones argues that the latter (M) are a moving mosaic, too, with year-round interest for the 5 senses while English gardens peak in summer (or spring here, I surmise) and only the visual sense (E) is considered; that was certainly true the decade that roses began to lose their wonderful scent, and continued, I’d say, when people derided David Austin for bothering to breed his roses with their sensational fragrance. But I digress.
[Here J and I are roughly 1 all. I care about flowers but believe in spreading them out year-round; he cares about the orchard and he planned the edible patch that mainly I plant. I buy vegetable seedlings each spring and autumn and also try to grow some interesting veg from seed each year.

I care greatly about the visual but love to brush a herb for its fragrance and sensuous softness (it’s almost immaterial if it’s used in the cooking pot too, see below); we enjoy fresh tomatoes, sweet corn enormously; we love the flutter, splash and song of birds, so the garden is multi-sensual; but I’ll be honest, visual is by far the most important to me. I am the granddaughter of a painter, after all.]

Louisa Jones argues that Mediterranean gardens are herbal and botanical compared to horticultural (E) and immersive (M, below) rather than a series of pictures (E). They are site-specific (M) with local logic of place while English gardens are often fitting many places, she says, and, interestingly for me, open lawns edged by borders (E) – which I have (in part) – rather than gardens with layers and views (M) – where I long for vine-clad pergolas (M) in summer and trees to cast shade on the hottest days – where J prefers wide open spaces. Here, on this point, here, suddenly, J is English! Just a little bit, but way too much, I reckon, for our hot summers, which I dislike so intensely.

Here in Australia we don’t have that soft, moist light Jones speaks of (in English gardens), no, we have some days of 40°C and over, in some summers in our Mediterranean climate; we should garden accordingly. More shade, please.

Jones also spoke of Mediterranean gardens being strongly sculptural and an unusual notion, that `formal and wild are not opposites’. While her images of untamed, harshly wind-swept and salt-sprayed shrubs of lavender and rosemary were indeed looking clipped, (see wind-pruned Euphorbia arborea and Pittosporum tobira, below, at Cinque Terre (my image)), I don’t think the idea would translate either to blousy rain-soaked perennials and shrubs in the UK, nor to arid Australian gardens where many native plants, if left unclipped, become dreadfully straggly. It’s the wind of ocean or mountain that that is needed for this – or man’s sheers.

In Mediterranean Gardens, a Model for Good Living, Jones writes of house, garden and landscape:  the climate encourages open-air living during much of the year, and indoor and outdoor spaces intermingle: courtyards, balconies, gardens are extensions of the living areas inside. We are seeing this here in Melbourne more and more with our opening walls of fold-out glass panels and our al frescos. Climate management leads to refined living. Jones cites Jean Giono about Provencal dwellings: “…sunshine is the enemy! Their rooms are cool, their shadows soft” and Jones adds that a southern arbour with grape vine, wisteria or both, cools the house and links indoors and out (see second picture).

Climate management is important too, and water distribution, use of local stone, and summer shade with pergolas, trees, light in winter through a tracery of branches of deciduous shrubs and trees (such as the Judas tree in the last picture). How I long for some huge deciduous trees. (My mother grew wisteria on her north pergola to shade living room and kitchen in summer and deciduous clematis up the west wall to shade her bedroom similarly; a good plan.)

Arguably a Mediterranean garden is set apart too, by its clipped broadleaf (as well as fine leaf) evergreen shrubs along with that vital summer shade, as seen, above, in a little café in Venice. It seems pretty simple to get that Mediterranean-style garden but it has the right colour wall, of course, the bright light, the terracotta pots. Importantly, retractable shade. Spatial definition with those pots in nice proportion to the small area. Varying heights, clipped shrubs. Peaceful colours.
But it’s not easy to maintain.
What bothers me is that so many of my landscape design clients say to me that they will plant in pots and it will be easier. Say what!
No, it will need much more watering. Plants in the ground are much easier in Melbourne’s Mediterranean climate.
Jetlagged in Rome, I saw the waiters outside cafés watering all those pretty potted plants at 7am on a Sunday morning. On a hot day I am sure that they had to do it again at night and maybe in the middle of the day too. Do you want to be a slave to the look? Never have a weekend away?
Instead I am growing balls of a dwarf lilly pilly (Syzygium `Tiny Trev’) in pairs down my front path for structure and in pairs occasionally elsewhere too. (Four pots for accent have the same in protected shade but, if facing the heat, pots have been planted with agave or succulents…with reluctance.)

More importantly, we have terraced our hillside garden a bit (for my little lawn, straight out from the house veranda) as so many Italians have (like at the Cinque Terre, below), and created a harmonious setting for our outlook (view is probably too ambitious a word for our pretty vista across our little valley, of Eucalypt-topped hillside). I always wanted to walk straight out from the house to the garden and not have a deck. It turns out that this, too, is Mediterranean! 

So I make it J 2 and me 4 in the Mediterranean stakes; me 1 and J 3 in the English garden style; quite surprising. (Perhaps I can consider myself European-influenced?)  I wonder what he’ll say.


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