On moving to the Costa del Sol from northern climes there is a lot to learn with regard to creating or maintaining a new garden. Here we experience a totally different rhythm of seasons. Although the higher temperatures, increase of sunshine and absence of frost makes gardening seem an easy proposition, it can actually be more difficult to maintain and especially to create a new garden.
The Mediterranean climate takes its name from and is influenced by the proximity of the sea. The outstanding featues of the climate are hot, dry summers and mild winters with variable rainfall. The short spring and lengthy autumn are transitional seasons which tend to merge imperceptibly into one another with no winter season as we have been used to. The Mediterranean climate is also called a 'winter rainfall' climate and other areas around the world with a similar sunshine and rainfall pattern are also said to have a Mediterranean climate. These are found in the south-western cape of South Africa, the central and southern coast of California, central Chile and south-western Australia. This means that plants from those areas will do well here. Most cacti and succulents also thrive as they adapt well to variable rainfall patterns as long as the overall climate is dry.
All Mediterranean climatic areas lie between 30-45 degrees latitude whether to the north or south of the equator. Other regions, although lying outside of these latitudes, may also contribute plants capable of adapting to Mediterranean conditions. There are also wide variations in conditions between countries sharing the common characteristics of winter rainfall climates. Egypt, the French Riviera and the coastal regions of the Middle East all differ slightly from the norm.
But it grows next door
Added to this, the influence of local geography and topography over quite small areas gives rise to micro-climates, where even neighbouring gardens may experience significant and crucial differences that can influence whether a plant will thrive or fail. It is therefore rewarding to try and assess the micro-climate of your own garden before buying plants.
Of the contributing factors to individual characteristics of a micro-climate, altitude is the foremost. A difference of 30 metres (100 feet) up or down a hill can cause as great a change as 100 kilometres along ground level. As altitude increases the amount of sunshine, average temperatures and length of growing season all decrease, while wind strength and rainfall increase. Spring comes earlier in the valleys than in the hills.
Coastal v inland
There are also significant differences depending on the proximity to the coast. By the sea the weather is more equable, being sub-tropical with no frost, so that extremes of temperature are less common. Generally it is sunnier than inland although if high winds do arise the salt spray can be very damaging.
Urban v rural
The difference between urban and rural situations is also considerable. The urban environment gives rise to higher temperatures due to the thermal absorption properties of concrete and artificially generated heat in the buildings. Day temperatures are likely to be higher in non-coastal low-lying areas but in winter months the nights will be cooler.
North v south
Another consideration of the micro-climate is the aspect of the property. North-facing slopes tend to be colder in winter due to increased shade and, outside of Axarquia, may be exposed to cold northerly winds. However south-facing slopes are subject in summer to increased sunshine and hot, drying winds from the Sahara.
The climate affects the soil. Drier climates tend to lead to a diminution of the percentage of humus present in topsoil. Ants - which take the place of earthworms in warmer climes - are inclined to remove humus to lower levels in the soil profile.
In the hills of Andalucia slate and shale are the most common rocks and these decay to form barl. This type of clay is sticky, contains a lot of lime and, in Spain, also a high content of splintered rock. In these areas you will notice the large white cistus growing. In summer this type of soil sets like concrete, making it impossible to work without machinery. Lime-tolerant plants will be supported, otherwise a new garden with this type of soil will need generous additions of sand, topsoil and manure to make it workable.
Horse and goat manure are generally available, but it is helpful to make compost from garden and household waste. Heavy clay can also be lightened by the addition of river gravel, which improves drainage and makes planting and weeding easier.
Old fincas in low lying areas tend to have soil which has been cultivated over the years and therefore is of better quality than properties situated in the hills. Low-lying coastal properties often built on sand will have the opposite of problems encountered with clay. Free-draining they need the addition of good-quality loam and humus to improve texture.
On the Costas the prime consideration is the availability of good water supplies. If more than one source is available it is a bonus. If the source is below ground level, such as a well, then it is essential to have an electricity supply nearby to provide power for a pump.
Basic plants and features
The most basic Mediterranean classics include bougainvillea, hibiscus, oleander, begonia, jasmine, cacti, succulents and pointed cypresses. These will grow virtually anywhere throughout the area.
Shade is very important for you and your plants. Planting large trees is not a great idea unless you have a huge amount of space. Larger trees create larger roots which use up all the water and nutrients in the soil, making it difficult to grow anything beneath them. There are plenty of small deciduous trees which can be planted.
Pergolas and walkways lined by posts or pillars, which can be covered with scented climbing plants are always beautiful. Several posts or pillars in a circle with a framework on top create a gazebo which can be covered with roses, passion flowers, Morning Glory or jasmine. These areas make a cool, shady place to hang your hammock. The traditional idea of dining under a vine-covered arbour is a mixed blessing as grapes often need spraying to keep them healthy and the ripening fruit attracts wasps.
Fruit and veg
A wonderful element of gardening in southern Spain is being able to grow your own fruit. Not only apples and pears, but oranges, lemons, apricots, mangoes, bananas, dates, figs and many others. Walnuts, pecans, almonds and hazlenuts also grow well.
Unusual varieties of tomatoes, melons and squashes are suitable for summer. Mangetout and sugar snap peas will grow in winter and asparagus, broad beans and broccoli in spring. Lettuce, rocket, endive and spinach will grow all year round. All the usual herbs grow well, including lemon grass.
When contemplating the design of your garden, its size and style should reflect the proportions of your house. The lie of the land or the characteristics of the plot may restrict you. Aim to balance the arrangement of your plants. Choose plants with contrasting leaf colours and textures, so that they will look good when not in bloom. A garden needs to have seasonal changes to be interesting but make sure that you have a basic structure which is pleasing. A piece of sculpture, a beautiful pot or a piece of driftwood amongst the plants can add character and give your garden a mixture of nature and culture. Clipped plants look good contrasted with more free flowing natural shapes. Hedges of cypress, euonymus, lavendar or herbs can be used to edge borders. Myrtle, pomegranate, teucrium and durantia can be clipped into balls and other shapes.
The bright light here means that it is possible to use powerful clashing colours like pink and orange, red and purple or quieter combinations like blue and white. In a small space deep pink works better than red. Rich yellows reflect the sun and are warm and vibrant, whilst citrus yellows are sharper and more refreshing. Blues reflect the sky and there are some stunning echiums, agapanthus and salvias available.