In the Garden: The Gardens of Spain… and a Spanish Gardener

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By Charles Kidder

spanish-garden-2
A Spanish Garden

To say that any region “is where East meets West” is a potential cliche, especially now that air travel and electronic communications are blurring boundaries. But thirteen hundred years ago, Eastern culture stormed into the Iberian Peninsula and held sway in some areas for over seven hundred years. The effects are still visible today in the gardens of southern Spain. The north is quite a different story.

When the Moors invaded Spain in 711, they brought with them a gardening tradition that had evolved in the Middle East, one based partly on religious beliefs, but at the same time well suited to deal with a hot, arid climate. Their vision of paradise, a word of Persian origin that also means “garden,” consisted of an enclosed space, often containing water. In some cases, the water would be divided into four symmetrical branches, representing the four rivers that flowed through paradise. This enclosed garden space allowed for a retreat from the harsh landscape that surrounded settlements in the Middle East.

The landscape of Andalusia in southern Spain would have seemed familiar to the Arab conquerors, having a hot, dry summer and a mild winter with some rain. High mountains such as the Sierra Nevada south of Granada would typically receive abundant snowfall, allowing rivers to flow year-round. The Moors were master engineers and were able to bring water from considerable distances, as well as up hills, to water their gardens.

While the walls that enclosed the courtyard would have buffered the worst drying winds, the windows still permitted cross-ventilation and some relief from the searing heat. Water in the courtyard would evaporate, also providing some cooling effect. (This doesn’t work very well in humid climates, so don’t try this at home.)

Moorish gardens were not particularly about a stunning diversity of plants. In some cases, a courtyard might be planted in only one species. For example, a tightly clipped hedge of common myrtle (Myrtus communis, not related at all to Crape Myrtle) frames a rectangular pool in the Patio de los Arrayanes in the Alhambra. Or dozens of orange trees are laid out symmetrically in the Patio de las Naranjas (Court of the Oranges) of the Mezquita (Mosque/Church) in Cordoba, occasionally punctuated by the odd date palm or cypress. Plants were generally not used solely for their visual appeal, but for fragrance and fruit, as well. Orange trees would have provided shade, fragrant flowers and of course, oranges.

Over the hundreds of years that some of these gardens have been in existence, both under the Moors as well as with their Christian conquerors, the plant palette has evolved. If you go to Spain looking for a perfectly preserved example of a thousand-year old garden, you might be disappointed. The New World Southern magnolias and Washington palms now commonly seen would have been unknown in medieval Europe.

Orange tree garden
Orange tree garden

What relevance do the Moorish gardens of southern Spain have to those of Central Virginia? Certainly manicured hedges of boxwood—also much used in Spain—are a familiar element in our formal gardens. Since we generally receive ample precipitation, we’re not as fixated on canals and decorative pools. But a well-placed water feature can provide a pleasant sound, attract birds, and be a home to fish and aquatic life. Our alternative to the courtyard would be the backyard patio or deck, a private space quite different from the front yard with its fixation on “curb appeal.” The ubiquity of air conditioning and Asian Tiger mosquitoes have driven many people from their gardens in summer, but a well-designed courtyard or patio can also be useful on pleasant days in spring and fall, and even during mild weather in winter.

Flying north an hour and a half from Seville puts you in a totally different region of Spain, ethnically, climatically and floristically. The Moors never conquered this area, and the eastern end of this Atlantic strip is Basque. This is the well-watered Green Spain, and were it not for orange tile roofs and occasional date palms, you might think you were in Albemarle County.

But the climate here is more akin to Ireland-combined-with-Oregon. Temperatures are generally moderate, not going much below freezing or rising above 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Precipitation is ample and fairly well distributed throughout the year. Despite what is essentially a dream climate for many gardeners, I wasn’t prepared for what I found in Patxi’s garden.

Patxi (Paht-schee) is the owner of a country house (or casa rural, essentially a B&B) located in Hondarribia, Guipuzkoa province, part of the Basque Country. We had the great luck to end up at the home and garden of a plant collector. In these cloudy, cool conditions I wasn’t surprised to find very happy hydrangeas. But I was totally flummoxed by some large cacti that loomed by the front door. What’s going on here?

Patxi’s English was limited and my Spanish quite rusty, but I was able to ask him if he was the one who had planted the garden. When he realized that I had more than a casual interest, he showed me around, telling me about the plants’ histories—for example, the tall palm that he acquired in Morocco as a tiny plant twenty years ago. As for the cacti, he attributed their success to their placement against a south-facing wall. One, an epiphytic species climbing up the wall by its areal roots, Patxi had brought from Costa Rica. A master of gestures, he clutched the air, demonstrating how it grabbed on to trees in its native haunts.

I was fortunate to have stumbled upon a wonderful garden, not to mention a fascinating gardener. I’m including a picture of Patxi’s place that I took myself. If you would like to see more, search “Casa Rural Iketxe”; Bookings.com has some of the best pictures. If you’re visiting Spain, by all means see the Moorish gardens of the South, but also consider adding the green north to your itinerary.