Garden Travels: Lessons from Spanish Gardens

I’m just wrapping up a three week trip with a Harvard alumni group to Portugal and Spain, and while gardens weren’t the particular focus of this trip, we did see some spectacular landscapes that I thought held valuable lessons for gardeners back home.

This first, from Granada, shows one of the inner courtyards of the Alhambra Palace. While the gardens themselves are relatively recent (they date from the last century or so) the surrounding arcades were built in the 1300’s. What makes this landscape so extraordinary is its tight geometry. In the US, we often shy away from such formality in planting, fearing that it will be too fussy, when in reality, planting in strong geometric lines is the perfect adjunct to the architectural rhythm of the surrounding arcades. Imagine this space a mush of free-flowering annuals, and you’ll immediately see what I mean. The strict organization of the hedged beds with the fountain in the center links indoors and out, and is the ideal situation whenever a garden space is so tightly surrounded by architecture.

This next picture is from the 15th century Casa de Pilatos in Seville, and the lesson here for us is to remember that gardens have three dimensions, not just two, and verticality is very often overlooked when we plant our beds. Here the trained topiary pieces act as verdant signposts, marking the edges of the beds and guiding the eye up from the ground to the extraordinary bougainvillea on the upper porch to the right. One of my favorite plants for such topiary pieces are fushias; pruned to a single stem they make dramatic flowering exclamation points above a line of more mundane annuals. Another trick is to use small stick trellises covered with sweet peas or dwarf clematis – anything to break away from the strictly horizontal.

Here, our take away is not to abandon any area of the garden, thinking it’s too prosaic to decorate. This simple iron railing comes alive with these charming pots, enlivening an otherwise dead area of the facade.

And finally, there’s one last lesson Spanish gardens can teach: humility. Sometimes something comes so close to perfection that you know in your heart of hearts that you will never be able to improve on, much less duplicate, such beauty in your own yard. This wisteria comes as close to perfection as I have ever seen, and all I can say to my Spanish colleagues is “WOW!” This is a little bit of heaven which has drifted down to the Generlife gardens, and my only role is to be thankful to have seen such a sight.


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