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