We were watching an interview with the head gardener at Tresco Abbey on the Scilly Islands just off the coast of Cornwall. The garden is notable for growing a whole range of plant material which is too tender for the mainland and the gardener claimed they had a Mediterranean climate. He then proceeded to elaborate and it could have been me describing our climate here.
“We never get very hot and we never get very cold,” I say. “In fact we are almost frost free and we get regular rains twelve months of the year along with high sunshine hours.” Is that a Mediterranean climate? I don’t think so. It is what we call a temperate, maritime climate. Wikipedia agrees with me. A Mediterranean climate is that which is experienced by all those countries ringing the Med – places like the south of France, Portugal, coastal Spain, Italy, Greece and down to the coastal areas of North Africa. It is also found in California, south and west Australia and parts of South Africa. These are places where they grow wonderful pistachios, luscious olives and grapes, where lavender, bourgainvillea and red geraniums flourish. Hot, dry summers and cool, damp winters are what characterise the Mediterranean climate.
Head inland from these coastal areas and you get to the classic continental climate – hotter, drier summers and much colder, dry winters. The closest thing we have to a Mediterranean climate in NZ is probably Hawkes Bay while only Central Otago could be said to have a continental climate. There are reasons why they are the cherry and apricot bowls of New Zealand. The rest of us fall pretty much into the aforementioned temperate, maritime class with the upper reaches of Northland leaning to the subtropical end of the spectrum.
No amount of wishful thinking and attempting to redefine our climatic definitions (we have seen wild claims that the North Island is subtropical) is going to alter the actual temperatures and rainfall distribution we have. Most of us would like to be a degree or two warmer all year round and a little drier – or at least have the rain fall at night and please make it warm rain. But we are not a sub tropical Pacific island and we have to understand what we have in terms of climate and garden within that.
This is not to say that we can’t grow some of those Med plants. We can and we do but they are not always long lived. Many of those plants are the grey foliaged ones – whether the aforementioned lavender, cistus (rock rose), oleander, even artemisia (the wormwoods), rosemary and succulent sempervivums. In areas of higher rainfall, the one critical issue to growing these types of plants is superb drainage. Most of them also need full sun. In New Zealand, they are often recommended for coastal conditions where sandy soils give sharp drainage and dry out quickly in summer.
The same is true of many of the Australian native plants which have adapted to drier conditions. Some put on terrific floral displays – the grevilleas, some of the wattles, anigozanthus, even the fragrant boronias which many of us have tried and lost. It is usually the wetter climate and fertile soils that are the death knell of these plants, as indeed with most of the showy proteas from South Africa.
It is not all bad. We do have quite a bit of success with some of the Australian plants from their subtropical forest areas. These plants are used to higher humidity and heavy rainfall while tolerating the cooler conditions we have. Plants like the doryanthes (spear lily), the subtropical cordylines, the aromatic myrtles such as Backhousia anisata and citriodora will all thrive in our climate if given reasonably protected conditions.
The problems often come with the desire to recreate the romance of a holiday. For many New Zealanders, the Mediterranean areas with their long history, their breathtakingly quaint villages contrasting with the grandest architecture imaginable, crowned by a blue as blue sky (most of us visit in summer) are the pinnacle of sophisticated style. If it is sophisticated there, it must be sophisticated at home, right? Wrong. Mediterranean gardens and plants have evolved for Mediterranean conditions. They are more likely to look contrived, verging even on the pretentious, when set in this green and verdant environment of ours.
Experienced gardeners often like to push the boundaries of what can be grown in their conditions. It is enormously satisfying to look at a thriving plant which would generally turn up its toes and die in such an alien location. But experienced gardeners rarely try and create an entire garden using a genre from a foreign land and an incompatible climate. Nothing shouts novice louder.
If you want that Med look, it may be easier to move. What we do have in the centre and north of the North Island is one of most benign climates imaginable and the result is lots of lush growth which is the envy of those from harsher climes. We are better to start with what we have rather than to try and recreate an inappropriate fantasy from foreign shores.
First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.