The proper look of paradise

Times Staff Writer

The phrase “Mediterranean gardening” has a calculated romance. It transports us from Sylmar to Sardinia in a sigh. If it sounds like a gimmick to sell airplane tickets and glossy coffee table books (and to a degree it probably is), here in Southern California, the region’s water utilities are trying to make it as American as a lawn and hedge. Their message: Climate-wise, we have more in common with Crete than the Carolinas.

For a century now, we have been able to convert chaparral into lawn. Yet as our population keeps growing, the water supply hasn’t. The bad news: We need to change our ways. The good news: The sacrifice is beautiful. The tricky news: getting the word out.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 24, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 24, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Water runoff -- An article on Mediterranean gardening in Thursday’s Home section said that Santa Monica and part of Brentwood discharge 325,000 gallons of polluted garden runoff into the ocean every day. Santa Monica recycles its dry-season runoff.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 29, 2004 Home Edition Home Part F Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Water runoff -- An article on Mediterranean gardening in last Thursday’s Home section said that Santa Monica and part of Brentwood discharge 325,000 gallons of polluted garden runoff into the ocean every day. Santa Monica recycles its dry-season runoff.

Slowly, slowly this is happening. This year, two dry gardens have opened to the public, funded by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the agency supplying 60% of the water used in the area. In October, the state’s leading horticulturists will gather in Arcadia for a three-day symposium on Mediterranean gardening.


Every movement needs a label. Xeriscaping (from Greek xeri for dry) has strong currency but conjures up images of cactus gardens. Native plants have ardent supporters but only have begun their journey from weed status to nursery plants. The banner “Mediterranean” embraces the broadest palette of plants and styles.

The name, it turns out, is for more than a sea. It is also a climatological term, a unique subset of temperate zone climates, coined after Russian-born botanist Wladimir Koppen, who divided the world’s regions according to temperature and rainfall in the 1920s. California is one of only five regions in the world where the combination of a temperate zone latitude, a west-facing coastline and cold off-shore ocean current produces a climate with winter rainfall and prolonged summer drought. The four others are in southern Australia, central Chile, the western cape of South Africa and around the Mediterranean basin.

Look at a map, and it becomes clear why so few of the Americans who migrated to California grew up gardening Mediterranean style. These regions constitute only 2% of the world’s land mass and have produced a unique school of plants. Typically, the foliage comes in a subtle array of gray, blue and olive hues that best reflects the sun. Rather than winter dormancy, they become dormant in summer, slumbering through the heat. They might even drop leaves to conserve water. No one could miss their aromatics, from the spice of eucalyptus to the perfume of rosemary to the scent of California pines.

Books dedicated to the practice began appearing in 1990, led by Hugo Latymer, a British nurseryman based in Mallorca on Spain’s Balearic Islands. Soon, Californians were in on the act. San Francisco physician Peter Dallman produced the authoritative reference on regional floras, “Plant Life in the World’s Mediterranean Climates,” and Upland author Jan Smithen began selling water conservation as good taste in the 2002 book “Sun-Drenched Gardens: The Mediterranean Style.”

For many houses, the emerging look righted a wrong. A hacienda with a lawn can be like El Sid in a Santa suit. When Doug and Marka Meyer, an architect and businesswoman respectively, bought their 1922 Moroccan-style house in Larchmont six years ago, it was surrounded by lawn, concrete and bonsai trees. They studied the Moorish facade and decided to set it off with a series of symmetrical beds that framed the house. They then chose plants that worked with the Mediterranean style: palms, South African tea trees, agave, lavender, rosemary and a full complement of drought-tolerant herbs, including oregano, thyme and sage. “We cheated on the palm,” Marka says. “It should have been a date palm, but the space wasn’t big enough, so we used a Queen.”

This left the center of the yards front and back. The Meyers chose gravel. It allowed rain to percolate through but didn’t require weeding, mowing or summer irrigation. As cooling elements, they set a bird bath in front and a pond in the rear. The transformation was so striking that the Meyer house was put on the Garden Conservancy Tour.

However, as right as it may be for Southern California, the Mediterranean movement remained elite. Across most of Los Angeles, the lawns remained a bright Irish green. From her French-style garden lined with pears and figs in Upland, Smithen -- a respected teacher of dry gardening -- says she was repeatedly contacted by an appalled homeowner committee when she replaced her own front lawn. To her neighbors in the new development, a flower garden framed by a dainty box hedge and dominated by blue flowering Vitex, or Mediterranean chaste tree, was “weedy.”

In San Francisco, when Richard Turner assumed editorship of Pacific Horticulture magazine in 1997, he says the bias of American horticulture toward Eastern gardening was so strong that the following year he started the “Gardening Under Mediterranean Skies” symposium at Strybing Arboretum. They expected an audience in the dozens, and hundreds arrived. It is now a regular event, with meetings in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

Ironically, the dry movement has done better in the wetter city. The East Bay Municipal Utility District has just published a book, “Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry Climates of the San Francisco Bay Region,” and is offering rebates of up to $2,500 for gardeners to convert to Mediterranean gardens.

In Los Angeles, the city-based Department of Water and Power hasn’t got to gardens, at least to save water. Rather, it is giving away trees to lower air-conditioning bills. However, the regionwide water supplier to which it belongs, the MWD, recently gave a $20,000 grant to the city of Santa Monica to develop a public conservation experiment called “Garden/garden.”

In February, two neighboring front yards of 1940s bungalows (now serving as office space for Santa Monica City College) were converted into test gardens. One is planted with the traditional Eastern-style lawn, azaleas, gardenias and bedding plants. The other is a Mediterranean garden planted with natives, including California lilac, currants, meadow grass, sage and penstemons.

Susanne Jett of the Santa Monica firm Jettscape Landscapes and Bob Galbreath, water resource specialist from the city of Santa Monica, designed the gardens. The Mediterranean garden has drip irrigation and an urn beneath the gutter to collect rain that feeds into a water dispersal system. The conventional garden has sprinklers and water-efficient Marathon grass.

In the first full month of recorded water use from April to May, the conventional garden used 232 gallons a day compared with the 47 gallons in the Mediterranean garden. Eliminating grass in front, Jett says, while keeping lawn in back for family areas could not only save hundreds of gallons of water per day per home, but it also could eliminate a steady flow of fertilizer and pesticides into the Pacific Ocean.

According to Galbreath, even in the height of dry season, Santa Monica and a small wedge of Brentwood alone discharge 325,000 gallons of polluted garden runoff into the ocean every day. Total dry season runoff into L.A.’s four watersheds is estimated at 110 million gallons per day.

Deep in Alta Loma, Calif., another Mediterranean demonstration garden has just opened around the foundation of a Southern California hero of the Western crafts movement, furniture maker Sam Maloof. His wife, Beverly, supported by the MWD and the Inland Empire Utilities Agency, has landscaped the grounds in a way that manages to be modern and historic. She has incorporated abandoned trees from old citrus orchards with sweeping plantings of native and Mediterranean region plants. The upshot is a dry, rural idyll.

Both “Garden/garden” and the arroyo section of the Maloof grounds are potent examples of the beauty that awaits in the native plant palette. But author Smithen urges gardeners just attempting the transition not to deny themselves good plants from this region’s four sister Mediterranean climate zones -- say, South African geraniums, French lavender, Australian eucalyptus and Chilean wine palms. The challenge for California nurserymen, she says, is to breed natives in sizes suited to the scale of small domestic gardens.

Perhaps Jett’s most notable feat in “Garden/garden” was finding well-bred native cultivars in sizes that didn’t dwarf the test bungalows.

Whatever the final label adapted in the quest to educate us to the beauty of arid gardening -- xeriscape, native, Mediterranean -- the message is much the same: We have a rare climate. Our gardens should reflect the ecology of paradise.



To learn more about the look

Upcoming events:

The fourth “Gardening Under Mediterranean Skies: Exploring California Style” symposium, co-sponsored by Pacific Horticulture magazine and the Mediterranean Garden Society, will be held Oct. 1-3 at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden. For more information, contact (626) 821-3232,, or call (866) 633-7543 or e-mail


The Mediterranean Garden Society,, 1344 Hillcrest Ave., Pasadena, CA 91106.

California Native Plant Society, 2707 K St., Suite 1, Sacramento, CA 95816; (916) 447-2677; The Los Angeles Chapter,, has a plant sale every October.

Demonstration gardens:

“Garden/garden” is at 1718 and 1724 Pearl St. in Santa Monica.

The Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation for Arts and Crafts, 5131 Carnelian St., Alta Loma, is open from noon to 4 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays. Free admission. Go to

Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, 1500 N. College Ave., Claremont; (909) 625-8767. Go to

Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, 1212 Mission Canyon Road, Santa Barbara; (805) 682-4726. Go to

S. Mark Taper Foundation Botanical Garden at Pierce College, 6201 Winnetka Ave., Woodland Hills, (818) 719-6465.;