Eric, About two hours South of Madrid, in Andalusia, is Cordoba, a city rich in history and tradition, even declared a World Heritage Sight by UNESCO. It was here that I really started to grasp what gardening in a Mediterranean climate can be and the possibilities that exist, beyond the limitation of my two tiny terraces in Madrid. After arriving by train, I dropped my bags off and went to visit the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, which was the residence of the Christian Kings when they stayed in Cordoba. The sun was relentless and as I ducked in to enter, I had no idea of the little paradise which was waiting behind the large doors of the palace. I was about to be transported away from all of the English and Dutch gardens I have seen these past few years and get a lesson in the components of Mediterranean gardening. I know that in Hispano Arabic gardens the important hours are from sunset to midnight, as it is too hot to enjoy during the day, and this later time of day is when night scents and accentuates the darkness of the cypress used throughout. The garden is built in layers and rooms with which you proceed quietly from one retreat to the next.
The tricks employed in these gardens extend beyond flower and plant combinations and are apparent in the permanent structures and the bones throughout the garden. Garden rooms, with some surrounded by arcades, fluctuate between light and dark, such as providing a welcome rest from the blazing sun overhead. Here groves of orange trees were under planted with Aspidistra, Acanthus and Agapanthus. Plants are usually used range from Mandarin, Cypresses and Oleander which are all compatible with the sun and heat of the Spanish climate.
The simplicity of the planning in the garden is obvious, with well cut hedges and through the use of water in large fountains, pools and fountains. Water is considered a major element in the garden, the primary motif used throughout. The water pulses through the garden in rills, a small open topped gulley or water-course (seen in first photo on top, right) or is seen in large pools which also has fountains creating streams of pattern on the water. Even without seeing the water, the sound is enough to create a sense of coolness to the atmosphere, though visually, the blue painted pools are a respite for sun sore eyes.
Large groupings of annuals were planted in the beds which was a great lesson in seeing what can grow well in this climate in the ground. I was tempted to cut and gather large armfuls of the large Celosia seen here, and though the red is a 'hot' color, it was soothing to see one large sweep of one color, restful to the eyes and playing well against the blue.
Beds in other areas also utilized annuals taking advantage of the continuous blooms and hard work they do when perennials can't. Under groves of trees and mixed in with roses were Tagetes and a Zinnia mix which elicited childlike memories and smiles from all who came near them. A bit of unorganized chaos contained and controlled within low hedges. From other gardens I have visited here so far, the maintenance was consistent throughout and you could tell the garden was loved and cared for.
Crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia) were centrally placed in some beds, as well as Oleander and the ever present olive trees. In the full glare of the sun it is so easy for many colors together to look garish and would loved to have had the chance to stroll the gardens in the early evening, but next time, maybe next time. Just the other evening I was sitting in a park with friends talking and the clusters of jasmine planted near us emanated such an intoxicating scent, and I realized that I have slowly started to be seduced and enchanted by Mediterranean gardens. Until next time my friend, I hope this finds you well and smiling... - James