Let’s check this week’s forecast. Lisbon, Portugal is expecting clear skies, a high of 80° and a low of 66°. Barcelona, Spain is showing clear skies also, highs around 86° and nighttime lows of 69°. Athens, Greece will have morning clouds, followed by a clear afternoon, a high of 80° and a low of 73°. Sound familiar? Palermo, Rome, Malta, Algiers . . . it’s all about the same. In fact, the gardens in these Mediterranean Sea cities are experiencing a climate surprisingly similar to ours here in Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, Corona del Mar and Newport Coast.
These cities, all in the northern hemisphere, are connected by a Mediterranean climate. In the southern hemisphere, identical Mediterranean climates can be found along the western portion of central Chile including the city of Valparaiso; in the Cape Peninsula of South Africa, especially around the city of Cape Town; and in southwestern Australia, including the city of Perth. Being in the southern hemisphere, the weather this week in Valparaiso, Perth and Cape Town will be about what we would expect here in Newport Beach in early January. Highs in the 60’s, days ranging from sunny to partly cloudy and periodic rain. Lows in the 40’s and 50’s.
Mediterranean climates are rare, occupying less that five percent of the world’s land mass. These five Mediterranean climate areas of the world share four unique qualities. All are within a latitude of 30° and 40°. All have large bodies of water, usually oceans, to their west. Temperatures seldom reach above 100° and seldom drop below freezing. However, to a gardener, the most important distinction of a Mediterranean climate is that it receives its rainfall in the winter. Summers are bone dry.
If you’ve lived here for long you might take this summer dry period for granted. But a completely dry summer is a rather rare condition on our planet, shared only by Mediterranean climates and arid, desert climates. In spite of what you may have read or heard, Orange County is not a desert and never has been. Unlike deserts, our temperatures are moderated by the Pacific Ocean. We’re also not a tropical climate; winter is far too cool.
With no rain to sustain our gardens through the dry summer months, we water. And summer water is without debate the most important component to most of our gardens; gardens comprised of plants from climates that do receive summer rainfall.
Gardeners have evolved different strategies to deal with Mediterranean summers. One approach is to let your garden rest during the dry, warm summer. This is the strategy our native flora and other plants from true Mediterranean climates use to deal with summer. If you plant choices are appropriate, you may simply be able to turn your sprinklers down, maybe even off, and let your garden slip into a sort of evergreen summer dormancy.
Tropical gardening, as I discussed last week, is a second alternative. Although with no summer rain, we do not garden in a tropical or even sub-tropical climate, we can grow many tropicals quite well here. A summer garden of lush plumeria, hibiscus, ginger, banana, elephant ears, bromeliads and orchids is quite possible as long as you supply plenty of the missing ingredient, water.
A third and growing strategy is a garden dominated by plants from arid climates. Usually these plants are in the form of large succulents, agaves, aloes, euphorbias, sedums and others. If well designed and planted, an arid or succulent garden can be breathtaking. The forms, colors and textures that are created in such a garden offer year-round interest. These gardens use water modestly, but may need soil improvements to improve drainage and may be more expensive initially.
Many of us, including myself, employ all of these summer strategies in our gardens simultaneously. There are portions of my garden alive with tropicals, blooming plumeria, bromeliads growing from trees, colorful cannas, elephant ears arising from a potted water tub and mounted staghorn ferns. I also have a sizeable contingent of water thrifty succulents like sedum, dasylirion, agave, crassula, dudleya, blooming aloes and colorful aeoniums. Other plants I just let rest, like many of my bulbs, some of the true geraniums and California natives.
A fourth strategy many gardeners employ to cope with southern California’s summer-dry Mediterranean climate is less premeditated. Perhaps it is not even so much of a summer gardening strategy. It may be more of a reaction than an action.
This is a strategy of climate denial, usually offset by the willpower of the gardener. The basic approach being of this strategy is to plant as much as possible and as often as possible in an attempt to conceal summers impact. More bedding plants, more color bowls, a couple more roses, some well-placed penstemon, salvia or lavender and the garden can be pushed right through summer. This approach should not necessarily be criticized; it also works. It is an avid gardeners’ most likely approach to summer and can be easily seen by taking a drive through a nice neighborhood.
Whatever the strategy, take some time to plan and execute an approach to your summer garden that will work for you. Whether your summer garden is resting, alive with tropicals or displaying the forms and textures of arid succulents, there is no denying the Mediterranean climate in which we all garden.
Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens, Corona del Mar