Spanish style gardens

Spanish-style garden
ARTICLE Jason Burgess

Earthy-colours, rustic-finishes and decorative climbing plants offset the formality of manicured hedge lines, columns and arches. Welcoming and personable, a Spanish themed garden is the idea place to say adios to the woes of the outside world.

Where it all began

For millennia, the Iberian Peninsula has soaked up influences and inspiration from conquerors and traders from near and far. The rudiments of modern Spanish garden design can be traced back to Roman times. But it is the medieval Persian and Moorish garden transformations that define their key stylistic elements to this day. Most famously the UNESCO listed Alhambra Palace in Granada showcases this amalgam of ancient influences to its fullest. Exquisite architecture, tiled arcades, pergolas, long ponds and tall groomed hedges frame gardens that were once profuse with roses, oranges, and myrtle, imported from Africa by the Berber Moors. In the Pacific our vision of Spanish gardens is skewed by the looser, slightly eclectic hybrid version of the Americas and particularly, Southern California.

Traditional Spanish themed gardens were to be admired from upper stories as much as from ground level. They were designed and planted for a drier Mediterranean climate with a play of open spaces contrasting with cooler, shady sanctuaries. That said, with good planning and site-specific planting, the fundamentals of a Spanish garden can easily be modified to suit any climate.

Spanish inspired garden with terracotta pots and fountain

Typically, Spanish gardens are walled off and accessed through an entrance court. Where a front yard is present, an entrance court can be created to introduce a transitional zone between the street and your private space. This is the ideal place to initiate visual elements that will set the tone and consistent aesthetic throughout your garden.

The word patio originates in Spain and was used to describe the walled centre court of a house. Gardens are treated as open living rooms to be arranged and ornamented with art and flowers for decoration. Brick, stone, and pastel-stucco walls, tiled paths and floors, and tiered fountains, are all central to the design. By creating archways at the beginning and end of a tiled pathway, you can introduce the notion of moving through different rooms. This can work well at the entrance or down the narrow side of the home with hedging, or green walls framing the path.

Drawing an ancient Persia and still referenced in contemporary Spanish styles, is the ‘paradise garden.’ Customarily, these gardens are divided into four parts, each referencing the four elements – earth, air, water and fire. This rectangular plan is augmented with focal points that are used to draw all the elements of the garden together. Each area of a Spanish garden can be thought of as a mini garden and linked by hedge-lined, tiled paths, steps and terraces. Specific gardens can serve unique functions. Even on a modest site, a well-planned landscape could potentially include vegetable gardens in raised beds, a citrus garden with perpetual flowering lemon trees, a perfumed patch, an eating/entertaining Moorish style area. Make it luscious with tiled floors and walls, and/or a restful siesta zone for taking in the sun or shade.

Azulejos tiles arrange on garden wall

Decorative features

Personalise resting spots or entertaining areas with functional points of interests, like semi-circular sitting benches, freestanding tiered fountains or wall niche water features. Water features are not only therapeutic, they can cool windless areas in summer and help alleviate ambient road noise. Suggest the flow of arches and arcades of old Spain with ornamental mirrors, carved wood features, or perhaps an alcove for a shrine and add your favourite saintly statue. Han rustic lanterns, wind chimes, wrought iron art or window grills to the walls and bring in carved cantera (quarried stone) forms or terracotta pots to delineate floor areas.

For authentic pathway and patio personality, handmade and sunbaked Saltillo floor tiles (traditional Mexican tiles), in varying shades of terracotta, come in a range of shapes that can enhance any space and break hard visual lines.

Create a real feature of fountains, surrounds and entire walls with spectacularly decorative fields of Azulejos mosaic tiles. Azulejos literally means blue tiles, but these distinctive geometric patterned tiles are also available in a broad range of background colours; from black and ivory through to saffron.

Contained decorative excess lies at the heart of a Spanish garden. Eye-popping plant colour is often used as a counterpoint to crown adobe or whitewash perimeter walls, and to highlight the curve architecture. Columns, arches and pergolas festooned in Bougainvillea, fuschias and wisteria vines are not uncommon. This fiesta of twisting tones is visually balanced by groomed topiary, pruned native hedging and citrus.

Dwarf citrus plant in terracotta pot

Tight with space?

Conjure a sense of space to the tightest of spots by varying the heights of the landscaping, through terracing and planting deviating hedge heights. Choisya Mexican Orange Blossom or star Jasmine as a shrub can be employed to frame everything from mass planted carpet rose flowerbeds and pathways to pool and patio areas.

In enclosed gardens, opt for a limited plant pallet and structure to create a more restful feeling. Placed strategically, large planters can help make an enclosed garden feel bigger. A scented feature plant works well in a tight courtyard. Citrus trees offer textural, colourful and fragrant planting options in smaller areas. Try a couple, or, if space allows, perhaps a row of standard dwarf citrus trees with a shallow rooted ground cover. Use ground covers as a carpet.

Feeling open

In open spaces, stay with the geometric, three dimensional textures and create a bed of mass planted Spanish shawl with jewel pink flowers or a groundcover, like thyme or oregano to complement a wall of standard citrus or a freestanding row of architectural, columnar Thuja occidentalis smaragd hedging.

You might be interested in reading: French style gardens.

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*All information is believed to be true at time of publishing and is subject to change.

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