When creating a sustainable garden, we have to bear in mind the need to work with nature and not fight against it; never is this more true than in the height of summer.
In the fashion industry black has always been considered stylish, classy and timeless but periodically, and more so recently, brown has become a very popular alternative. This is because brown sets off any other colour that surrounds it, be it light and subtle or strong and bold.
As spring fades into summer, bird songs become less sonorous during the day and are replaced with the monotonous hum of the cicadas. As humans, we have a natural tendency to recoil from the heat of the day and the bright light, preferring to slow down and find a place in the shade. Shouldn’t we allow our gardens to do the same: let them shut down in the summertime and protect themselves, just as the surrounding landscape does?
Plants have amazing natural defences to cope with the hot Mediterranean summer. Leaves curl inward to reduce the amount of sunlight that they are exposed to; silver-leaved plants reflect the bright sunlight rather than absorbing it; and some plants such as Euphorbia dendroides (Tree Spurge) go into summer dormancy to the extent of losing their leaves. Bulbs draw all the moisture and energy back into the ground away from the heat and roots delve down deeper in search of moisture.
If we were to water these plants during high temperatures, some would die and many would develop mould growth that would be encouraged by heat and moisture.
A brown garden in summer may sound dull but with careful plant selection, a wonderful effect can be created. So what are the “stars” of the brown garden? One excellent example is in the hills above the bay of Girolata in Corsica where in July and August the native Cistus (Rock rose) curl their leaves away from the scorching sun, making the hillsides a deep chocolate brown. This background is punctuated with gold and silver stems of Ferula and Asphodelus standing high above the golden swathes of dried grasses.
This entire landscape is then mottled vivid green with the evergreen shrubs of Arbutus and Pistacia making a rich contrast against the dominant brown. The whole landscape is then lit up by the silver seedpods of the local broom, giving a spectacular ensemble of tones and hues.
A lesson we can learn from this is perhaps to take comfort in these restful colours – the fashionable brown hues – of the natural summer landscape instead of the rich bright colours we sometimes try to force to grow in the peak of summer, colours which in any case dissipate under the bright summer sun.
Just as we like to sit back, relax and slow things down in the heat perhaps we should consider allowing our gardens to follow their natural path and do the same.