Mex­ico’s court­yards: Par­adise be­hind faded walls


The News-Times (Sunday) - - Sunday Arts & Style - By Kim Cur­tis

Step off the dusty cob­ble­stone streets and peek be­hind non­de­script, weath­er­worn, faded, even grimy brick fa­cades, and en­counter the star­tlingly beau­ti­ful court­yard gar­dens of the cen­tral Mex­i­can colo­nial town, San Miguel de Al­lende

These oases of beauty and calm claim their roots in the tra­di­tional Moor­ish gar­dens of an­cient Spain. Those, in turn, were in­spired by Per­sian, Ro­man and Is­lamic gar­dens even ear­lier. The word “par­adise” it­self means “walled gar­den.”

Al­fonso Alar­con, a land­scape ar­chi­tect in San Miguel de Al­lende for nearly 30 years, says monas­ter­ies were among the first to de­sign and plant court­yard gar­dens. Per­haps it was an at­tempt to repli­cate par­adise.

“Life was di­rected in­side” ini­tially for safety rea­sons, he ex­plained. “No one saw you. It looks like noth­ing from the out­side, and then you get into this beau­ti­ful pa­tio.”

Tra­di­tion­ally, such gar­dens are built in a cross-shape with the cor­ners, usu­ally an­chored by large trees, point­ing north, south, east and west. A pond or foun­tain often serves as a cen­tral fo­cal point. Fruit trees and fra­grant plants pro­vide fur­ther respite from the sun, hu­mid­ity, even the noise and dirt from out­side the walls.

In the 16th cen­tury, the con­quer­ing Spa­niards left be­hind their out­door sanc­tu­ar­ies, and they con­tinue to be em­braced in Mex­ico to­day.

Markus Luck has been de­sign­ing gar­dens in San Miguel since 2006. “You want some­thing that looks good year-round,” he ex- plains. “Put in things that aren’t too big, don’t block too much light, aren’t too clut­tered.”

In smaller spa­ces, the en­tire court­yard can even be filled with plants in pots.

Mex­i­can walls are often painted bold reds and yel­lows and or­anges, so trees and plants tend to­ward sim­ple, wide, leafy greens, or crawl­ing ivy and sim­ple white blooms.

Be­cause of its mild, Mediter­ranean cli­mate, just about any­thing can grow — and quickly — in San Miguel. Pop­u­lar choices for court­yard gar­dens in­clude cit­rus trees, in­clud­ing or­anges, limes and kumquats, olive trees, bougainvil­lea, ferns and laven­der.

“I would see some­thing in front of some­one’s house and I’d knock on the door and ask for a cut­ting,” Luck said. “You’d see the ones over time that do well.”

Mod­ern de­sign­ers and prop­erty own­ers also are pay­ing more at­ten­tion to how much wa­ter their gar­dens will use and how much work will be re­quired to main­tain them.

San Miguel uses well wa­ter stored in an­cient aquifers, so it’s chock full of salt and other min­er­als, Luck said.

Jef­fry Weis­man and An­drew Fisher first fell in love with the three jacaranda trees on the prop­erty they bought here in 2011.

“I grew up in L.A. with a jacaranda out­side my win­dow. It was mi­nus­cule com­pared to these that are 110 years old,” Weis­man said. “Noth­ing like an an­cient tree to give scale and sculp­tural qual­ity to a gar­den.”

The main build­ing on the cou­ple’s prop­erty was orig­i­nally built in the 18th cen­tury as a tan­nery, so it’s more open and less claus­tro­pho­bic than most, Weis­man ex­plained. He said they de­signed the court­yard as a se­ries of rooms, each with a theme and pur­pose, from the pool area to the din­ing ter­race to the out­door liv­ing room with fire­place.

“For the plant­ing, it was crit­i­cal that ev­ery­thing be easy to grow and na­tive,” he said.

“In our youth, we spent a lot of time try­ing to grow things that didn’t want to grow, and we’ve learned bet­ter.”

Alar­con said he still meets clients who want what they can’t — or shouldn’t — have.

“Gar­dens work as a dy­namic unit. Ev­ery­thing should work with ev­ery­thing else,” he said, adding that he en­cour­ages prop- erty own­ers to think past their im­me­di­ate en­joy­ment to the mi­dor long-term.

“Gar­dens don’t re­main the same. Even if you try to con­trol it. Plants grow old, they die, they change.” Kim Cur­tis writes for The As­so­ci­ated Press.

Kim Cur­tis / AP

Court­yard gar­dens in San Miguel de Al­lende hide be­hind non­de­script, weath­ered brick fa­cades.

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