The Geometric Gardens of Andalusia

Athens News

By Jennifer Gay

The planting schemes of southem Spain offer Greek gardeners fresh ideas for relatively small spaces

THIS YEAR the Mediterranean garden society (MGS) held its annual general meeting in Andalusia, southern Spain. Though the MGS was born here in Greece eleven years ago, its membership has spread far and wide and there are now members in most areas of the world with a Mediterranean-type climate.The annual gathering of members takes place over the course of several days in a Mediterranean country each year, giving participants a chance to meet and discuss gardening while experiencing gardens and landscapes in different areas.

The experience of gardening in southern Spain, climatically speaking, is not very far from where we find ourselves here in Greece. Summers are rain-free and the winters relatively mild, short and rainy.

Hedging is a predominant feature in many of the larger patio

The MGS visits were based in and around Cordoba and Carmona on the edge of the Sierra Monera, where the Mediterranean climate reaches an extreme. Humidity is very low; average summer temperatures are around 35-40 degrees Celsius, while the highs often climb to 44-45 degrees Celsius.

It is a flat area, exposed, and only the toughest plants can survive unaided. A farming area, the traditional agricultural holdings are huge estates with suitably large country piles to go with them. As might be expected, impressive gardens have grown up around some of these stately homes.

Though the climate may be similar, the Moorish influence has given and still given Spanish gardens an altogether different feel to the totally informal, eclectic collections of pots and feta tin containers to be found in a Greek backyard.n southern

Spain the emphasis is on formality and geometry, a tradition that can be traced back to the arrival of the Moors (North African converts to Islam) in the 8th century. Apparently one of the first acts of the first Emir of Cordoba, Abd-ar-Rahman I, was the creation of a garden based on what he had seen in Damascus. He is credited with importing plants from India, Turkestan and Syria and also introducing the pomegranate and jasmine to Spain. By the 10th century there were reportedIy many thousands of gardens in the countryside around Cordoba. Laws were passed governing the use of water; baths, aqueducts and systematic irrigation projects were introduced and luxurious vineyards and orchards were planted through Andalusia. The symbolic use of water and a delight in the scents was introduced from Iran, while the enclosed courtyard came from Egypt.

The early gardens in Spain reflected the Muslim tradition of science, geometry and order - the role played by nature was secondary although the gardens were clearly adapted to the climate and terrain in which they were located. This meant the promotion of coolness, shade and seclusion. However the layout of the garden was strictly geometric and defined by walls of masonry or hedge. Tough evergreens which lent themselves well to geometric expression - box, yew, bay, rosemary, Teucrium flavum - were shaped to create formal hedges in combination with paved or gravelled paths.

Noteworthy are the still existent paths of albarro, a local red clay that is laid out in layers and thoroughly compacted. The only maintenance
required is an occasional raking of the hard baked surface to maintain a fresh appearance.

Foliage predominates -cypress, orange, jasmine and iris are typical

Several of the region's great gardens have been continuously maintained with varying degrees of authenticity to the present day and the MGS visits took in both private and public examples. One such is the Palacio de Viano in Cordoba. Also known as the garden of the twelve patios, the Palacio has beautiful examples of the paving patterns typical of Cordoba. Clearly, a dwelling with many patios, each a complete unit in itself, demonstrated the prosperity of the family.

The patio garden was central to Moorish family life, and still is today to the Andalusians. Here a large proportion of family living took place, especially in the evenings, though guests were not usually entertained here - the emphasis was very much on family privacy. The meaning of patio here is something more than the modern sense of a paved outdoor area adjoining a house. The Spanish patio is a roofless inner courtyard - it was, and is, regarded as an outdoor room forming part of the total building concept. High walls of white stuccoed masonry cast a welcome shadow, against which green foliage gave the predominant colour, followed by the purple-blue of the iris (a colour often taken up in the tiles). Accessories such as benches, pots and fountains were placed carefully for maximum effect ­paths as well as steps were also faced with tiles, bricks, coloured earth or smooth pebbles laid in geometric fashion and ranging in colour from deep purple through to grey and white. From the street only an occasionally wrought iron gateway broke the unadorned facade from where a protected but inviting glimpse of a patio with its small pool, fountain and vegetation were revealed

Many such quiet and cloistered patio gardens, shaded by orange and cypress trees may still be found in Andalusia nowadays. Orange trees feature widely - they go back to the earliest gardens - often planted in rows, sometimes. espaliered; in later and larger gardens the maze became popular and was formed of clipped box, cypress, myrtle, juniper or holly, preference being given to aromatic plants. Date palms, pomegranates and grapevines were also planted. Canary palms or pines were often placed in the centre of a courtyard to afford shade, the square or circular surface area around the trunk filled with groundcover such as violets. Nowadays Canary palms are still widely used as well as wild olives, loquat and pomegranate. Flowers were usually chosen for evening fragrance, so white blooms such as jasmine and lilies predominated. Today Cestrum parqui is added to this trio for heady night-time perfume. Myrtle, narcissus, roses, marjoram, carnations and poppies are among flowers recorded in the Arab Moorish gardens, and many are still used today. Acanthus, Qivia and Zimtedeischia all feature significantly - architectural plants suited to the formal style.

Night-scented flowers such as Jasmine combine beautifully with all-important water features

Pots, used as accents, retain a significant role in the Andalusian patio - the geometrical arrangements are carefully arranged to create a succession of seasonal favourites. Plants are brought centre stage and then withdrawn and replaced once their feature of interest has passed - be that bloom, leaf colour or scent. Each plant is shaped and groomed, placed on show and meant to be seen from every angle. In the summer the patios are covered with canvas during the day, and the paving slabs damped down to increase humidity. Foliage becomes predominant at this time ­large pots of ferns supplemented by wispy Asparagus tenuifolius, clipped balls of box and other evergreens guaranteed to withstand the heat.

For further infoImation about membership and activities, contact The Mediterranean Garden Society, PO Box 14, Peania, GR 19002, Greere. Erriail, website

For more infoImation about Islamic influence on the gardens of Spain, read Gardens, Landscapes and Vision in the Places of Islamic Spain by.D Fairchild Ruggles, 2003, ISBN 0-271-02247-7

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