Gardens of Spain

Traveling and seeing gardens always brings inspiration. I'm currently immersed in photos of the Alhambra (Grenada) and the Royal Alcazar (Seville), preparing for a talk on the gardens of Spain. I can taste the wine and olives and feel the pull of antiquity - a nice diversion in the middle of winter!

Spain's gardens and courtyards are full of glazed tile - walls, fountains, benches, floors - even doorways have intricate and fanciful designs. Tiles from the 17th-19th centuries predominately feature a rich shade of royal blue that mixes beautifully with pots of orange and lemon trees and cools the eye in hot temperatures. 

Colorful stairway leads to terraced gardens at the Royal Alcazar, Seville 

Colorful stairway leads to terraced gardens at the Royal Alcazar, Seville 

A bench with blue geometric designs, Royal Alcazar, Seville

A bench with blue geometric designs, Royal Alcazar, Seville

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Water is everywhere, bringing tranquillity and sound - small pools, trickling fountains, marble basins. This is the main element in all the outdoor spaces. The Alhambra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was my favorite place to explore. It's the most important of all the royal palace gardens and a must-see for its many rooms spread out over a large complex of palace buildings on a hillside overlooking Granada.

Views over the palace grounds and ramparts, Alhambra, Granada

Views over the palace grounds and ramparts, Alhambra, Granada

These are some of the oldest gardens I've visited (some dating to 11th c.). and I found myself transported through time. Are there design lessons here? Absolutely. The pleasing combination of elements can be reinterpreted easily if you're looking to create a peaceful haven on a patio or backyard.

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Classic Elements

  • walls (enclosure, privacy)
  • water (sound, light, focal point)
  • scented plants (sensory/tactile, mood)

To get the look of a classic Spanish courtyard, use vertical surfaces for climbing vines (roses, clematis, honeysuckle, English ivy) and add a fountain and some glazed blue containers filled with mint and scented geranium (pelargonium), lemon verbena, and colorful marigolds... Tapas anyone?  

Winter Greenery

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I like to keep fresh greens in the house during the winter months and often fill a basket with cuttings from the yard - balsam, fir, and cedar are easy to source, and winterberry branches add a festive touch along with pinecones and red dogwood twigs. 

To make a similar arrangement, line a basket with a plastic bag and add pre-soaked foam. Arrange your branches on a work surface and cut to desired lengths; removing needles from the lower branches will make it easier for you to push into the foam. Combine greens any way you like best, and add the berries and cones as an accent at the end. 

A basket like this looks great on a hallway table or as a centerpiece for a fondue party. Keep the foam moist and the greens will last for a couple weeks. Don't have room? Any container that holds water will work - a cereal bowl, a Mason jar, or even a small teacup.

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What to Use

  • Boxwood
  • Spruce
  • False Cypress 
  • red twig dogwood
  • winterberry holly
  • birch branches

Get creative with evergreens and learn how to identify and use confiers in your home garden in my upcoming hands-on class February 6th - visit the WORKSHOPS page on this site for more information.

Rockin’ Red Winterberry

With a little planning, it’s possible to have bold, beautiful red in the garden year-round. What a difference color makes during the colder months, when there’s little to catch the eye. If you’ve made a New Year’s resolution to improve outdoor spaces or want to design a winter garden, think about adding a group of winterberry shrubs. It's a U.S. native species with several cultivars to choose from, many developed at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. Here are two favorites that grow in my Vermont garden. 

During the summer these multi-stemmed shrubs blend into the background; with mid-green foliage they add bulk to a sunny woodland border edge. I've located several plants just off our driveway against a background of evergreen cedars. It's a pop of color that says "welcome home." 

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Sparkleberry Winterberry
(Ilex ‘Sparkleberry’)
 

Origin: This is the female cultivar of the eastern U.S. native.
Where it will grow: Hardy to -20 degrees Fahrenheit (USDA zones 5 to 9; find your zone)
Water requirement: Medium to wet soil
Light requirement: Full sun to partial shade
Mature size: 5 to 9 feet tall
Benefits and tolerances: Tolerates wet soils; attracts birds

This cultivar produces bright red fruits that attract birds during winter. Plant with Ilex ‘Apollo’ (the male cultivar) for the best fruit set. Use it as a small tree if space is limited.


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Winter Red Winterberry
(Ilex verticillata ‘Winter Red’)

Origin: This is the female cultivar of the eastern U.S. native.
Where it will grow: Hardy to -40 degrees Fahrenheit (zones 3 to 9)
Water requirement: Medium to wet soil
Light requirement: Full sun to partial shade
Mature size: 6 to 8 feet tall
Benefits and tolerances: Adapted to swamps and wetlands; attracts birds

This is a better selection for gardeners in cold regions — and it’s more compact. The male cultivar for this plant is I. ‘Southern Gentleman’. It makes for an eye-catching border and is very low maintenance.

For winter containers branches of winterberry holly look fantastic mixed with pine boughs, fir tips and other evergreens, and they last a long time indoors, too.

In the landscape birds will eat the red berries — watch for robins, cardinals, juncoes, grosbeaks and cedar waxwings.