On a Chalk Hillside June 2019

Published: June 6, 2019

Posted on 06.06.2019 |
Added in Sheila May's Blog

Planting for a Mediterranean Courtyard
Today and in the following couple of months articles whilst describing our planting in the various beds and areas around the courtyard I am going to talk about some of the plants on and around the courtyard that evoke memories of the Mediterranean for my husband and I.  Now they may or may not BE Mediterranean plants originally, but they are ones that we encountered when we spent time there over the years, and which bring back happy memories.  
I'll start with the photo from September 2011 I used last month to re-orient us. If you recall the fig is planted in its root-restricted half water butt, and there is a square bed top left of the Mediterranean Courtyard which I am going to describe the planting of.

courtyard paved bricks fig 47

Most holidays to various Greek Islands in the 90s in particular were during September and October, and we always encountered Fig trees clinging to cliff tops or beside the roads smothered in ripe and juicy figs which were a delight to pick and eat sun-warmed from the tree.  We determined we were going to have one ourselves.
Ficus carica ‘Brown Turkey' is the fig generally recommended for growing in UK gardens as most hardy and suitable for our climate.  We bought it in 2002, and knowing that we would be moving soonish (and that it was supposed to be grown with root restriction) we put it in a very handsome pot.    It stayed in this pot until moved into the planting hole you can see above in September 2011.  As the books recommended restricting lateral root growth but not necessarily tap-root growth we had used half a water butt with no bottom when we planted it in its hole in the courtyard.  The fig did not initially romp away after being released from the pot, though it did gradually make more branches, enough for us to start training it as shown below after two years.  
The fig (Ficus carica ‘Brown Turkey') was being trained as a fan against the wall – you may be able to see from this picture from May 2013 the wires strung across the wall for it to be trained against.  Next to it in this picture is the Olive Tree () in its terracotta pot, (Obviously you have to have an Olive tree on a Mediterranean Courtyard!):-

fig year 2 with olive 21

As the fig (Ficus carica ‘Brown Turkey') grew, we followed the instructions in books we had and in April when the worst frosts were over we pruned it.  To keep the fan shape we cut out all the growth it made which we didn't want.  After four years it had established good roots and romped away, it grew extremely bushily forwards out of its hole, and whilst I cut these stems away if they grew in May, the books said not to cut it after June, so it took up a lot of the space on the courtyard which we had not expected.  The branches of the fan we DID want were tied back in, and we cut back every other branch by a third as recommended.  
This is the sort of growth we expected from a trained fig – here in May 17:-

fig growing in may 23

Yet by September (2016 in this case) the fig is overwhelming the bench, garden visitors and the courtyard:-

fig overgrowing sand 4

(N.B. The benches are moved further and further into the middle of the courtyard during the summer as the figs growth overwhelms them.
However, even with following the culture and pruning regimes recommended in the experts' books to the letter we simply never got an adequate harvest of figs – may be one or two fruits.   Taking up space we wanted for other purposes AND not making figs.  My husband (extremely uncharacteristically) said it HAD TO GO.  We visited a Yellow Book Garden in Hampshire in 2016 which had a magnificent fig tree against a brick wall, and discussed it with the owner.  He said that he pruned his figs in December, (still in the manner we did, just at a different time of year) so we decided to give the fig one more chance, and so that December we followed suit.
After cutting out all the forward growing shoots, we stand back and look at the “fan”, then prune the fan – reducing every other branch by a third.  I always forget to take a picture of the fig before we start, but can you spot the difference between “before tackling the fan” and “after”:-

fig pruning1 39 1
fig pruning2 46

This change to December pruning did not make any difference to our (lack of) fig production.  My husband took the wrecking bar to it.  This is a plant that each time I pruned it in April I took cuttings many of which rooted, and all our friends and family had fig plants from us, so I had some babies so I could replant a fig elsewhere if I wanted.  
Before you ask I did have a plan B for that wall and the climbing wires.  A couple of years after planting the fig (whilst it was still growing weakly) I had put a vine in the square bed at the left hand side of the wall by the window of the old shed to be trained to the right to meet up with the fig.  This was a rooted cutting I had taken of my Vitis vinifera ‘Shiava Grossa' – Black Hamburg (the one from Hampton Court Palace) which I have growing up the pergola by my green house.  Here you can see it in May 16:-

vine on shed 79

Now this bed had had no extra enrichment and apart from a bit of blood fish and bone (more for the Rosa Händel you can see in front of the window) the vine, planted slap up against the wall had been left to get on with it.  As you can see it seemed happy, as does the rose – here flowering away in June 2017 with Vitis vinifera ‘Shiava Grossa' – Black Hamburg leaves all around:-

rosa handel 59

I had been inspired to plant the vine by seeing the local small houses in the hills and villages in Corfu where the inhabitants had a veranda at the front of the house covered in vines which provided shade from the sun. (And lots of pots of plants potted into old oil tins etc).  I had a hankering for a structure to come out onto the courtyard with this vine growing over it to provide shade for me to sit under whilst my husband basked in the sun.  The Vitis vinifera ‘Shiava Grossa' – Black Hamburg has grown well, and as you can see from this picture from November last year is staying closer to the wall allowing the courtyard to be used as a main seating area (no structure for me yet!):-

vine extent nov 1

The heatwave last year certainly suited the Vitis vinifera ‘Shiava Grossa' – Black Hamburg, and it produced very ripe sweet bunches of grapes from August onwards – hardly any of which made it up to the house!

grapes on courtyard 8

As the Courtyard was to be a main seating area I have planted scented shrubs and plants around it as so there is something fragrant for as much of the year as possible.  I also have may pots of non-hardy plants including pots of for evening scent – as in this display from the very end of August 2013:-

courtyard pot display 89

You should be able to see the Mirabilis jalapa on the very left of this pot display – as the photo was taken at mid-day the flowers are not yet out (it is not called the Four o'Clock plant for nothing.)  When we used to holiday on various Greek Islands big bushes of this were planted outside the apartment blocks.  The moths would be buzzing round it as we returned from the taverna after our evening dinner, and the scent was fabulous.  I collect seed from it each year and resow it.  
For daytime scent already in the square bed by the shed when we moved in was a lilac tree.  It seemed to be both a double white, and a “lilac” lilac, and that the lilac part seemed to be winning.  There were also bird sown holly and elder bushes behind it which were competing with it for nutrients and water.  We removed both of these, and cut out the branches of the lilac that were not coming up white flowered as near to the base as possible.   This seems to have done the trick, although the flowers are still very high up!  The lilac – Syringa vulgaris ‘Madame Lemoine' has beautiful flowers and scent in late April, (or last year early May).  Although I said I was only talking about the planting in the square bed, I am going to show you the following picture of the lilac flowering in May last year with the I planted in the next bed to give continuity of white scented flowers both flowering away beautifully:-

lilac and choisia flowering 40

You can also see that the Euphorbia robbiae is in flower at the base of the lilac.  Here is the Euphorbia in March last year with its lovely purple tones:-

euphorbia robbiae 52

I wasn't going to talk about our banana plants as they are not hardy plants, but having just ready Roy Lancaster's article in the Hardy Plant Journal that came in April about buying one for his daughter I thought “If it's good enough for him….”.    Once we cut back the lilac part of the lilac tree and removed the bird sown holly and elder bushes we put some paving stones in the centre of the bed to allow us to stand some of my husband's banana plants on in the summer as it is very sheltered from the wind there, and they grow so tall that the leaves shred if they stand elsewhere on the courtyard.  (You may have noticed the leaves showing in some of the photos above).   The first banana plant (Musa basjoo) was given to us by my cousin's husband who is very green fingered.  As you can see from the picture below from August 17 the bananas live in enormous pots so they can be fleeced up in the winter, and have so far survived for eight winters like that – and they have made offsets that I have potted up and either given away to friends and relations, or kept to extend my husband's banana grove – no actual fruit have been set yet though.  (Musa basjoo is the most ‘hardy' of the banana plants, but it still needs winter protection, particularly round its crown so it doesn't rot.)

banana solidago 93

All the banana leaves you can see (and it grows a leaf a week in early summer) are this year's growth – pretty impressive in pots which are only top-dressed each year.  As you can see from the height of the Syringia vulgaris ‘Madame Lemoine' behind it, and the Solidago beside it, the banana reached well over 2.5 meters tall.   Yet another ‘exotic' plant that isn't strictly “Mediterranean” for our Mediterranean Courtyard! 
Next time, creating a garden between the Mediterranean Courtyard and the Pond.

Sheila May

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