When you live in a semi-arid region, having a beautiful, romantic garden out of a gardening magazine may seem out of the picture. Cue the Greek garden.
A Greek Garden is a type of Mediterranean garden framed through Greek culture. It features native, drought-hardy plants (often edible and used in Greek cooking) and creates outdoor spaces that people can use all year round, from the cooler, wet winters into the dry, hot summers. Look for symmetry, neutral backdrops, natural stone, and terracotta pots.
However, it’s important to remember that while Mediterranean plants like olive trees and rosemary come first to mind when thinking about Greek gardens, a Greek garden is more than just plant choice. It’s a functional design that uses many elements, some plants, others not.
That’s pretty good news when you live in a place where olive trees won’t survive the winter. When following the form (and interpreting it through your own local culture and climate), you can incorporate or swap in your own local, semi-arid plants.
The best region for growing a Greek garden is a semi-arid climate, with hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters, like the climate in Greece. California has an excellent climate for a Mediterranean garden.
If you have freezing winters, you can still grow a Greek garden, you just have to be more careful about plant choice. If you’re in a region that’s consistently humid and/or damp, you’re better off looking for another garden that’s better suited to your climate.
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Greek Garden Ideas
So what is a Greek garden? A Greek garden is a type of Mediterranean garden, adapted to the unique climate of the Mediterranean, although a Greek garden is specifically adapted to fit the climate and culture of Greece. Spanish and Italian gardens are also Mediterranean gardens, with each being similar yet unique from each other.
A Mediterranean garden’s purpose is to create outdoor spaces that people can enjoy all year round in a semi-arid climate, especially during the dry but intense heat of summer. The garden includes a variety of local edible plants that are used in local dishes, and flowers that add splashes of color.
You don’t need a large garden to create a Greek-inspired garden. Even a narrow balcony will do. Many people in Greece only have access to a strip of stone outside their houses for terracotta pots, or a stone-paved courtyard.
What Plants Are In A Greek Garden?
There’s just no way to list all the plants that you can incorporate into your garden. The Mediterranean basin includes over 25,000 species alone, accounting for 10% of the plant diversity in the entire world.
And as mentioned above, you don’t need to stop at just Mediterranean origin plants. You can include local native plants. When selecting plants to go into your garden, keep these characteristics in mind:
- Drought-tolerant. Greece has long, dry summers with very little rainfall from June to August, so many plants from the region are well-adapted to drought conditions. If you’re in a semi-arid region, or your region is getting drier, then take this note and choose drought-tolerant plants so you can skip the irrigation.
- Blue-gray/silver foliage. Many plants native to semi-arid regions have blue-gray or silver foliage, like lavender and olive trees. This color helps reflect the intense sunlight to resist its drying heat, an advantage that helps the plant be more drought-tolerant. So while you can definitely use plants with green leaves, you’ll also want to include others with that blue-gray foliage.
- Bursts of color. While Greek gardens have a lot of demure silver foliage and neutral stonework, they are not sad beige. The neutral backdrops draw attention to bright pops of color from flowers, like the vivid bougainvillea.
A few popular plants include:
Lavender (Lavandula spp.)
A popular plant in many gardens, lavender hits three of the main characteristics – it has blue-gray foliage, is drought-tolerant, and adds splashes of color with its purple florets. You can harvest the flowers to dry for fragrant sachets or to include in cups of tea.
While English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is the most widely used, there’s actually 47 species of lavender with different flower shapes and fragrance strengths, with many cultivars based on these, so experiment a bit to add variety and flair.
Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus, Rosmarinus officinalis)
Used as a seasoning herb and in perfume sachets, rosemary is another common culinary herb, featuring classic blue-gray needles with tiny blue to white flowers. In USDA Zone 8 to 10, rosemary can grow into shrubbery bushes 4 to 6 feet high!
For those in colder regions, they’re best grown in containers. While they’re difficult to start from seed, you can start new rosemary plants by taking a cutting.
Olive Tree (Olea europaea)
Probably one of the first plants you think of when you think of Greece, olive trees have blue-gray or silver foliage with fragrant blooms that turn into decorative green drupes before turning into olives. They will live for a very long time.
Only hardy to Zone 8, they’re best grown in places with Mediterranean-type climates with dry summers and mild but wet winters like California. If you’re growing in colder regions, grow in a container to overwinter in a cool, indoor location like a greenhouse.
Bougainvillea is not native to the Mediterranean (it actually comes from the dry regions in eastern South America), but you wouldn’t know that from how frequently it shows up in Greek gardens. If you’re looking for intense color, bougainvillea comes with bright pink or purple flowers (well, actually a modified leaf called a bract). You get the best foliage after a dry winter.
You can train the vines up walls and trellises or over doorways and archways. It’s only hardy to USDA Zone 9, but where it can overwinter, it will spread. And spread. And spread. Your biggest problem will be cutting it back, so keep that in mind when deciding where to place it. You don’t want to pick a narrow space for it.
Sage (Salvia spp.)
Salvia, or sage, is pretty versatile. You can grow it as a herb, or select varieties that put up impressive displays of purple or pink flowers. The sky’s the limit. Many can overwinter in cold regions.
Grapevine (Vitis vinifera)
While the grapevine may have actually originated in southwestern Asia, grapes have been in Greece for millennia.
They’re a deciduous vine with bold summer foliage and fall color that can grow to 40 to 60 feet if unpruned, and they’re great for growing up over pergolas to shelter your patio table from the scorching sun. And yes, they can grow grapes. They are, however, high maintenance and subject to many diseases (less so in dry areas than humid). They can overwinter in USDA Zones 6 to 9.
Jasmine (Jasminum spp.)
If the high maintenance of grapes isn’t your speed, common jasmine’s (Jasminum officinale) climbing vines offer bursts of fragrant white flowers that attract hummingbirds and fill the air with a sweet scent.
If you’re not into fragrance, then winter jasmine (J. nudiflorum) offers unscented trailing vines that can cascade over retaining walls or banks. There are over 200 species of Jasmine. These two jasmines are hardy to USDA Zones 7.
Pelargonium (Pelargonium spp.)
Pelargonium is often mistakenly called geranium or scented geranium, but while it’s related to geraniums, these species aren’t actually geraniums. You’ll find these flowering shrubs in gardens across Greece, offering benefits like boldly colored flowers, drought tolerance, a touch of frost tolerance, and many different scents.
The scent depends on the actual species or hybrid, including rose, nutmeg, apple, lemon, and coconut. These scents can be used for essential oils, but are also frequently used in Greece in fruit preserves, jams, sweet sauces, and liqueurs.
Note: The Mediterranean also offers some iconic but very poisonous plants like Aconite and Oleander. Skip them if you have children or pets.
More Ways To Make Your Garden Look Greek (Greek Garden Features)
Symmetry is key. After all, we have the Ancient Greeks to thank for introducing the concept of symmetry to the Western world. While your garden can still have a very natural look (unlike a formal garden), arrange flower beds and pots to mirror each other with position and similar plants and colors.
Greek gardens are a functional space that lets you enjoy the outdoors no matter the weather. (Except for freezing winters. Sorry, can’t help you there.) And in Greece (and in many semi-arid regions), summer gets hot. Really hot.
The solution? A shaded terrace that’s open on the sides to allow cooling breezes through. While you could go with a fabric awning or pop-up canopy, the best choice is using a pergola covered in ivy (if not invasive), jasmine, grapevines, or a native climbing vine.
Sitting under natural leaf cover just feels cooler than under polyester. That may be subjective, but trees and other plants can slow heat absorption during the day and they cool the air through transpiration – releasing small amounts of water into the air through the stomata on the leaves. Plus, it adds more color and looks amazing.
Most people living in Greece don’t actually have much (or any) space for an in-ground garden. Many houses don’t have front or backyards, but sit directly on the street. Instead, you’ll find potted plants set up against houses.
While normally unglazed clay or terracotta pots lose water too quickly in semi-arid regions, this doesn’t matter so much when you’re growing drought-adapted plants in them. They’re especially good if you’re prone to overwatering your water-wise plants. They also look great.
If you live in a cold winter region, terracotta pots will come in handy for all the Mediterranean perennials that can’t survive the winter outdoors. You can bring the pots inside during the winter.
You can also bury unglazed clay pots or pitchers under the soil to provide efficient irrigation during long dry periods. This technique has been used in arid and semi-arid regions for millennia. You fill the buried pitcher with water, and the water will soak through the clay jar into the soil over the next 24 to 72 hours.
Straight & Curved Paths
While you will find straight paths and symmetry, the Greek garden style isn’t meant to be a formal garden. Incorporate natural curving paths through the garden, while using geometric shapes (like circles) for eating and gathering spaces.
For paths, you could use light stone paving or gravel. Grass is optional (although sometimes used), but if you’re looking for a lawn-type space that’s still drought-hardy, take a look at Buffalo Grass (Bouteloua dactyloides), Bluestem grass (Bouteloua gracilis), or grass alternatives like creeping thyme.
Light Colors & Natural Stone
You won’t find wooden decks or red bricks in a Greek garden. The point is to keep things cool.
You will find a lot of light-colored stone, which provides a neutral backdrop that allows the color to really pop and take focus, reflects the summer heat so the stone remains cooler for longer, and feels soothing to our psyches. Terracotta is probably the darkest material you’ll find, outside of wood for pergolas (although you can paint the pergola white, and the columns will give off an Ancient Greek column vibe).
You can also add stone statues throughout your garden. An old amphora or clay olive jar is very iconic of Greece, and also brings in more terracotta. Use them sparingly, though. They’re best used as accents in a Greek garden, rather than as the focus.
While the flowers themselves will provide much of the color in a Greek garden, you may still end up with long, bland stretches of neutral beiges. Break these up by incorporating colorful mosaics on the walls or pathways. You can also incorporate mosaics on a smaller level, like using a mosaic-topped patio table.
Small Water Features
While a Greek garden is designed to conserve water, Greek gardens still use small bodies of water to cool the air and provide a bit more hydration and humidity for plants. Setting up a small fountain as a bird bath will also bring more bird and beneficial insect species to your garden, as when water is scarce, birds and beneficial insects have trouble finding water to drink.
When creating your own Greek garden, pay attention to symmetry and functional use. Select plants that are drought-hardy. Use neutral backdrops to put the focus on the plants and their gorgeous pops of purple. And remember to design it with a patio to actually sit and enjoy your garden, as that’s the most important feature of all.
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