Gravel Garden Planting – The Mediterranean Maquis
So six different planting areas/beds – what were they to be?
Area A:- Acer Walk
Area B:- Mediterranean Maquis
Area C:- Herbaceous planting for July on
Area D:- Subshrubs/shrubs and bulbs
Area E:- shade border (very small)
Area F:- Shrubbery
Let me start with the area most directly inspired by both the Mediterranean, and Beth Chatto’s gravel garden – the Meditteranean Maquis. In the '80s I assisted an ecology/botany graduate friend of mine to lead a botanical/walking holiday in the Plakias area of Crete in the spring to see and identify the spring flowers. We were not at or on beach level, but walking through the foothills above the beaches (where all the original villages were), and enjoying the beautiful Maquis environment. We were greatly assisted in our endeavour by having both the walking guide and the Plant List of the area that Lance Chiltern had been working on during the '80s. (When my husband and I returned there in the later nineties we were delighted to find we could still buy the walking guide booklet from the local market, but unfortunately not the plant list.) The Maquis is a habitat that spreads round the Mediterranean, but on Crete is particularly dominated by thymes, oreganos, laurel and rosemary. The scent of these aromatic plants in the sun as you walk through them is extremely memorable, both in the spring when they are in a lusher-looking sward accompanied by spring flowers, and in the late summer (when I would holiday with my husband) when a lot of the other vegetation had died away in the searing heat. Here is a picture of Cretan Maquis I have borrowed from the Natural History Museum of Crete to give you an idea of the effect of all these close-growing plants:-
Originally the idea was that the Maquis would come down the hill at the bottom of the gravel garden and meet the Mediterranean Courtyard so you had sunbaked aromatics as you sat on the courtyard, but as you can see from the first photo, over the months that elapsed from moving the plants in the original hospital bed to create the courtyard until we created the gravel garden, a new idea emerged involving some Acer palmatum 'Dissectum'. I will explain more next month.
Here is a shot from June 2013 showing the planting in that area in the second summer after planting:-
You can see the red leaves of the acer on the right of the picture, and the beginning of the tapestry of close-knit aromatic foliage from the different oreganos, marjoram, santolina, thyme, Dorycnium hirsutum and prostrate rosemary, with the silver spikes of Lamb's Ears in the back and the Yucca and Allium schubertii. Whilst I have not used laurel in this planting scheme, I did concentrate on oreganos, rosemary and thyme.
The four plants I used from the Origanum family included Golden Oregano – Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’; Greek Oregano –Origanum vulgare subsp. hirtum – which has smaller darker green leaves and white flowers compared to the Origanum vulgare I also used (which has pink flowers); and Marjoram – Origanum majorana – which also has pink flowers and loves chalk – even seeding itself into grass if you let it. When we holidayed in Plakias in September you could see huge bunches of Greek Oregano hung up to dry outside the locals houses for use during the winter. When all these plants are in flower they are magnets for bees and butterflies – the Gatekeeper butterflies in particular find the Marjoram irresistible.
I also used prostrate rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis Prostratus group) planted up agains the groynes. These were rooted cuttings of our original plants that moved here with us from London, and had got very lanky and overgrown. I planted some oreganos and marjorams as a semi-circle in front until the rosemary grew and obscured them. Mixed in among the oreganos were some Thymus vulgaris plants I grew from seed. I don’t know whether it is just that my thymes are part of a mixed planting and get crowed out by their neighbours, but they become leggy and woody very quickly, and I generally grow from seed and replace every couple of years. Right by the utility path I planted a Santolina – Santolina chamaecyparissus. Over the years this has got bigger and bigger and is extremely fragrant as you brush past it. To begin with as the rosemary was so small I planted Viper's Bugloss (Echium vulgare) in there beside the cotton lavender to give some bulk – here the two are a few months after planting in August 2012:-
The Viper's Bugloss is a biennial so I grow it from seed each year to be able to plant the rosettes out where I want them to flower the following year. (Note the yellow flowers of the Sedum stenopetalum in the foreground, more on that below.) Bees are attracted to Viper''s Bugloss (Echium vulgare) – and also love the Lamb's Ears (Stachys byzantina) – as you can see from this picture from July 2013:-
Looking at the Maquis area from the steps down through the gravel garden in the second summer from planting, you can see the Lamb's Ears (Stachys byzantina) more clearly:-
I hope the tapestry effect of the different little-leaved herbs spreading out behind the Lamb's Ears is clearer for you too. As you can see from the stalks and seed heads I had planted Alliums through the lower plants – Allium hollandicum 'Purple Sensation' near the groynes, and the seedheads you can see coming through the Golden Oregano are Allium Nectaroscordum siculum – Sicilian Honey Garlic. Here they are coming into flower on a very sunny late May morning this year:-
The idea was that as you walked through the maquis area (ie from the utility path past the santolina and origanum family past the lamb's ears the “landscape” would change to a drier more sparse gravel area where the Yucca was. Here it is in late July 2013, flowering away:-
This plant is a Yucca filamentosa or needle palm (and extremely sharp the leaves are too, going through jeans if you step back into it incautiously). We know it as “Aunty Win’s Yucca” as a lump of its fleshy stem and root was dug out of her garden for us in November one year, and I broke it into smaller pieces and potted them into shallow trays over winter and then planted them out into the ground near the house without much hope they had survived. But as you can see it did. Interestingly, whilst it flowered in 2013, it did not flower again until last year in the heatwave, and my cousin-in-law who gave us the plant from his Mum’s garden said that his plant had done exactly the same! This year it has also got big fat flower spikes.
The impressive allium seedheads are from Allium schubertii which was planted near the Yucca. Also between the Yucca and the Lamb's Ears I planted a sedum which had an interesting grey/pink/purple tinge to it, Sedum cauticola ‘Coca cola’:-
Together with a tiny red-leaved sedum I got at a Dorset Hardy Plant Sale at a Yellow Book Garden one year – Sedum spurium ‘Red Carpet’ or Dragon’s blood sedum, it is impossible to weed round as its round branches are extremely brittle and shallow-rooted as it spreads, but if you poke the bits back into the gravel it will regrow (here it is elsewhere in the garden to show its branches:-
And here it is in flower near the Yucca at the end of July 2013:-
You may be able to see how variable the leaf colouring is – it looks almost green here, and indeed at different times of the year the leaves can be this green colour, green with red edging, or deep red. It doesn’t seem to be related to the amount of sunlight the leaves get, perhaps it’s to do with day length? It propagates quite easily from all the brittle bits that I knock off. At the other end of the Maquis, below the Santolina (Santolina chamaecyparissus) I have put some more Sedum spurium ‘Red Carpet’ spreading under the acer for continuity, together with a green leafed one with yellow flowers (Sedum stenopetalum) as you can see below flowering at the same time in July 2013:-
They are peeping out from a rosette of Viper's Bugloss (Echium vulgare) that has seeded itself from its parent’s position a couple of feet away by the Santolina as you saw in an earlier picture!
By June 2015, the fourth year after planting looking from the Santolina (Santolina chamaecyparissus ) I was extremely pleased with the tapestry effect - the area looked like this:-
Yellow flowers from the Alchemilla mollis blend with the Santolina and Golden Oregano. You may be able to see the grey foliage of the Dorycnium hirsutum at the right of the picture in the middle? In my original planting I had put it in with the Greek Oreganos thinking its grey foliage would complement the other small leafed aromatics. Its foliage is not aromatic and it is more woody as a subshrub. Its flowers are small and whitish, not the light pink lotus-shaped ones you see in the catalogues – the vagaries of growing something from someone else’s collected seed. Looking from the steps above the Yucca the other way the Dorycnium hirsutum’s striking foliage is cut by the branch of the Prostrate Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis Prostratus group) which has already flowered:-
You may not be surprised to learn that the “Walk” between the acers and the Maquis had closed up with plants by then and each year I have to reclaim the path, cutting back all the herbs (they are either frozen, dried or used immediately in cooking) and pulling out self-seeders to ensure freeish passage. As I write this piece during July, the prostrate rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis Prostratus group) has completely overgrown its allotted space, and last year I took cuttings which are growing on at the moment. This week we dug it out, exposing very lanky oregano (and lots of weeds!) underneath. Once I have reconditioned the ground the smaller rooted rosemary cuttings will be planted there, changing the look of the area again.
Next time, creating the Acer Walk.