Olives are not the only fruit: The idea of bringing the Mediterranean to our own back yards is a seductive one, says Emma Townshend. But just how realistic is it, with this soggy climate?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

For many of us the desire for a Mediterranean garden is not so much to do with being fashionably sensible about water, or creating 'sustainable landscapes', as it's to do with evoking those delicious, sunny, summer holidays. Having recently acquired a copy of Angela Hartnett's Cucina (Ebury Press, £25), which makes me dribble every time I open it, I was starting to obsess about Italian food served in the great outdoors. And then I spent a weekend on a bread-making course where the pizza oven was right in the middle of the Sussex oak woods, and now I am fixated on the idea of an outdoor fireplace. I've even seen the exact fireplace I want, in a new book called Designing With Succulents (by Debra Lee Baldwin, Timber Press, £20) which has endless tempting pictures of California-style aeonium gardens.

Yet the fact of the matter is that we have just suffered the rainiest-ever June. What would be the point of planting drought-tolerant, or of having an outdoor fireplace, if everything is going to be drowned by a monsoon?

Well, historically, Mediterranean gardeners have been as magpie-eyed in their search for new plants as us Brits. Lots of things that are now grown in the Med originated in seaside climates such as in New Zealand and South Africa - so they actually appreciate a bit of a soak. After all, think of Tresco in the Scillies, where Agapanthus grow wild in the lanes, revelling in 30 inches of rain a year. Bird of Paradise plants, too, need lots of water in their growing season, as do Bougainvillea and Plumbago, which are accustomed to Caribbean downpours. In fact if you check the detail of gardens from Monterey to the South of France, you'll find almost all of them are equipped with sophisticated watering systems to keep everything looking lush.

On the other hand, the native wild plants of the Mediterranean really do like dry conditions. Kew Gardens is holding a Mediterranean festival this summer, and there is a new area of the garden planted with ancient cork oaks in red soil, and a grove of gnarled centenarian olive trees, rescued from a road-widening scheme somewhere in Italy. Having just read Olives, the Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit by the transplanted New Yorker Mort Rosenblum (Absolute, £7.99), I feel able to speculate imaginatively that the rescue trees have come from the construction of one of those mysterious, empty, Mafia-scam motorways in Sicily that don't really go anywhere.

Rosenblum became obsessed with olives after buying a few acres in Provence. When he started, he was a complete novice: 'Olives meant nothing to me. Olive oil was an over-priced, pretentiously-packaged fluid you dribbled into pasta sauce when you were in an ebullient mood. I thought green olives grew on one kind of tree and black on another.' But he writes with the passion of the convert; the book has story after story associated with the olive tree - quite a few of them concerning the Mafia connection. One tale, involving a certain Tino De Angelis, involved the faking of huge, wholesale storage containers of olive oil by layering the oil on top of water and then selling them as investments to American Express. Shady dealers worldwide would surely be proud. But then there are also the sadder stories, of the olive wars on the West Bank, where ownership of land is inextricably linked to looking after what's growing on it. Rosenblum visited Tunisia, Croatia and Morocco to find the more unusual stories of the olive. And he even managed to keep me gripped by arguments over the relative merits of centrifugal oil-pressing machinery. Apparently, cantankerous old French men can develop village-wide feuds over the simple question of whether or not to use hot water to hurry the oil through the press.

Standing under the olive trees at Kew, though, it begins to rain torrentially, and I know that at nearby Wimbledon today, they've been pulling the covers on yet again. The olive trees seem foreign to me, and deeply evocative of somewhere else; I can't see myself accepting them as suitable planting for the English garden, not just yet. But the rain is definitely not foreign to the olives. In fact, Rosenblum explains that heavy winter rain is the reason that Italian and French olive groves are so heavily terraced: in his part of the world, after storms and flooding, whole olive trees can just disappear without trace into collapsed sinkholes. So perhaps English weather and olive trees aren't so incompatible after all.

And if you are desperate for a bit of that holiday feeling after several waterlogged weeks and all this talk of olive groves, I would recommend a dip into Hugo Latymer's The Mediterranean Gardener (Frances Lincoln, £16.99). Even the slightest garden gesture, such as a few geraniums in pots, can add a flavour of the Riviera. Especially if you paint the pots with a brightly coloured paint first - a Greek restaurant near me has big tubs, covered in that Mediterranean blue, planted with red and white geraniums.

Spider plants rescued from the bathroom will also do their bit for the tropical feel. With a bit more money to spend, I would invest in an oleander, which will flower all summer. They have beautiful foliage, aren't too frost-tender, and can transform even a sodden English back gardeninto a tiny bit of Corfu beach café.

Mediterranean Summer is at Kew Gardens, tel: 020 8332 5655 until 9 September

Comments