On a visit to Spain, Alice Spenser-Higgs dis­cov­ers that sim­ple bedding plants used with flair can cre­ate a gar­den fit for a king

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Sim­ple bedding plants used with flair can cre­ate a gar­den fit for a king

AS SA was en­ter­ing spring, I took a trip to the south of Spain, where tem­per­a­tures in early au­tumn still hit the late 30s, in search of wa­ter-wise gar­den in­spi­ra­tion.

And there was plenty. If you re­ally want to know what is heatand drought-tol­er­ant visit the gar­dens of An­dalucía with note­book, and cam­era, in hand.

Al­though the gar­dens were at the end of their sea­son, and clearly heat stressed, that didn’t stop them from be­ing full of colour. But what re­ally ap­pealed to me was that the or­di­nary, well-known gar­den flow­ers, or bedding plants as we call them here, are used in abun­dance and with flair.

Where it was called for, there were mass plant­ings of a sin­gle va­ri­ety, but there were also mar­vel­lous com­bi­na­tions of flow­ers, es­pe­cially in the palace gar­dens of Granada and Cór­doba. One doesn’t have to have rare, ex­otic or highly priced plants for an ex­tra­or­di­nary gar­den. Good gar­den de­sign, knowl­edge­able plant use and con­sis­tent care can el­e­vate a gar­den above the or­di­nary.

The first port of call for any gar­dener is Granada’s Al­ham­bra palace and its gar­dens, no­tably Pa­tio de la Ace­quia (Court of the Long Pond), which is the cen­tre piece of El Gen­er­al­ife, a sum­mer re­treat for the sul­tans.

These spec­tac­u­lar gar­dens are a su­perb ex­am­ple of the Moor­ish gar­dens that ex­isted in Spain from the 12th to 14th cen­turies, and they in­cor­po­rate el­e­ments of Ro­man style with the tra­di­tional Is­lamic feel­ing for dé­cor and colour.

The Court of the Long Pond has a mar­ble-clad chan­nel that runs the full length of the court­yard, with arch­ing foun­tains. The long, nar­row beds are densely planted with an­nu­als, roses, herbs, grasses and shrubs. Pome­gran­ate trees in the cen­tre pro­vide height and the en­clos­ing walls are cov­ered by bougainvil­lea, climb­ing roses and creep­ers.

The cool colour scheme was a sur­prise, be­cause of the ap­par­ent fond­ness for red, yel­low, orange and pur­ple in other gar­dens I had seen. In this gar­den, they used shades of blue, mauve, pur­ple, white and yel­low, with hints of sil­very grey, off­set by deep green. This was re­peated through­out the gar­den, and the sub­tle tex­tures and po­si­tion­ing of the plants in terms of their height and spread cre­ated an ex­quis­ite ta­pes­try.

All the plants they used are on the racks in our gar­den cen­tres: Salvia fari­nacea “Vic­to­ria Blue”; white and pur­ple alyssum (“Snow Crys­tals” and “Royal Car­pet”); Gom­phrena glo­bosa (“Las Ve­gas Pur­ple” or “Gnome Pur­ple”); and Bi­dens, a small yel­low daisy. They will be avail­able from Jan­uary.

Al­ter­na­tively, you could use other low grow­ers with daisy-like flow­ers, such as sin­gle marigolds, yel­low daisy chrysan­the­mum (Coleoste­phus mul­ti­caule) or even yel­low gaza­nias. Sil­very grass, cot­ton laven­der (San­tolina) and laven­der were in­ter­spersed among the flow­ers. All the plants are drought-and heat-tol­er­ant and they put up a great show.

Else­where in the Al­ham­bra gar­dens, they used lots of bril­liant red salvia (in shady ar­eas), can­nas, petu­nias, zin­nias, stat­ice, vin­cas, dahlias, cleome, Michael­mas daises and pe­largo­ni­ums.

Aga­pan­thus was also ev­i­dent along walk­ways and on slopes as well as plumbago, re­ferred to there as Cape lead­wort.

In Cór­doba, the ex­ten­sive palace gar­dens of Al­cázar de los Reyes Cris­tianos fea­tured huge pools edged with pow­der-blue ager­a­tum and pur­ple. The taller grow­ing ager­a­tum would be clas­si­fied as an in­va­sive plant here, but one can still use the hy­brid dwarf ager­a­tum such as “Blue Danube” and com­bine it with the com­pact Vinca Cora deep laven­der.

Al­though for­mally laid out, the beds were filled with an abun­dance of sum­mer an­nu­als, in par­tic­u­lar zin­nias and salvias. How­ever, the at­ten­tion-grab­bing plant was Celosia cristata (Cockscomb) with its bril­liant scar­let-red heads that look like the head of a rooster. Celosia is quite an un­der­rated plant in this coun­try.

It is a mem­ber of the Amaran­thaceae fam­ily, which means the leaves and flow­ers can also be used as veg­eta­bles. It orig­i­nates from the trop­ics and grows well in hu­mid and arid con­di­tions. The flow­ers can last for up to eight weeks on the plant.

Al­though it is not in the south, Madrid also records high tem­per­a­tures and a stun­ning ex­am­ple of the mass plant­ing of a sin­gle va­ri­ety was in the city’s Re­tiro Park. One whole sec­tion was planted with just le­mon yel­low marigolds. The sim­plic­ity of it took my breath away. Red or white pe­largo­ni­ums were also massed around ponds and along walk­ways, to equally good ef­fect.

In­side the grounds of the sump­tu­ous Al­ham­brap palace in Granada is the pa­tio in El Gen­er­al­ife, which was a sum­mer re­treat for sul­tans, show­ing the plant­ing scheme and use of colour.

Marigolds in Madrid's Re­tiro Park, above, which dou­bles as the cap­i­tal’s lungs. Left are celosia cristata in the palace gar­dens in Cor­doba.

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