by Dick Handscombe
Owning a villa or town house in Spain continues to be a lifetime dream and reality for thousands of persons from northern Europe.
Many of us purchase properties as holiday homes often with the view to it becoming a permanent home on retirement from full time economic employment. From day one the vision is of lazy holidays in the sun. However, the reality often becomes a very active holiday, starting a new garden or recovering an emergent garden left some months before and progressing to the next phase of a multiyear project. Our garden was absentee gardening for five years before it became a permanent home. The intention was to have a garden that took up a realistic amount of time both when on holiday and alongside many other interests when retired. As always with enthusiastic gardeners the time spent was sometimes more than planned, but the end result was worth it. However, we learned a few lessons over the years from our own garden and those of friends and neighbours that are worth sharing with you.
1. Be realistic from day one! Recognise that you are buying a house, but if the Spanish weather lives up to its historic reputation you will be living in the garden and not inside the house for much of the year. What you are about to buy or have already purchased is an embryo ‘Garden of Eden’ with a shelter for sleeping and escaping from the hottest July and August midday sun and bad weather. At present what will turn out to be where you spend most of your time relaxing, eating, drinking, playing, taking a siesta and happily pottering in the garden is probably currently a bare, rough, parched, reddish clay or sandy piece of coastal plain or natural rocky hillside; so often decorated with visible and invisible Spanish builders’ rubble and about to become a quagmire after a refreshing welcoming thunderstorm. We are sure we are not the only ones who started that way, but be encouraged; change can be reasonably swift with a little foresight.
2. Decide whether you want to be an active enthusiastic absentee gardener with the courage and patience to conquer the climate and the soils of the Costa, an inland valley or a rocky mountainside.
Conquering on a part time basis of 8-15 weeks a year is very different from being able to potter 365 days a year when resident! If this is not for you, then decide immediately to be an absentee owner and contract a good gardener to design, construct, plant up and maintain your garden to meet your lifestyle needs.
3. Set some clear design objectives before you do anything.
There is much to think about and do before you start to purchase and plant plants. The following list and actions are based on our experiences:
A Develop and maintain the garden without a gardener. Accept the challenge and have enjoyment and satisfaction creating something out of nothing in a totally new climate. Accept that you will have a few setbacks but that you will learn on the way.
B Design for an outdoor lifestyle and a garden that looks good as you relax in various corners as you walk around it even in the early days. A garden that will be fun to work on and live in.
C While an absentee gardener, work on the garden for only 40% of the time spent on holiday visits plus a week’s dedicated garden development each spring and autumn. Remember that you purchased in Spain to enjoy the climate, ambiance, culture and countryside, not to work in a hot slave quarry.
D Develop a simple but interesting layout, retaining and enhancing the natural beauty of old terrace walls and established trees. The latter are important for natural shade.
E Don’t waste time on a lawn! Spanish soil looks much better covered by terraces, paths, plants and ponds which in your absence can look after themselves with the minimum of watering.
F Decide on a sequence for developing the garden. In this respect it makes sense to concentrate first on creating a framework of firm, safe paths and terraces so that eyesores disappear fast and you can move around the garden immediately after storms and not transport red mud into the house. Avoid un-concreted crazy paving with plants in the gaps. They rarely stay level after the first storm!
G For speed, lay terrace and adjacent unplanted areas with rock chippings over plastic sheeting. It looks good, just needing an occasional raking or sweeping to tidy up the surface. The shape can be easily changed several times until you achieve a pleasing effect and when you have more time, some areas can be changed to stone crazy paving or large terracotta tiles and areas for shrub and perennial beds are easily created by raking back the chippings and surrounding the embryo beds with attractive rocks.
H Aim for all areas of the final garden to be covered by closely planted plants, rock slab paths, terraces and areas of chippings laid over plastic sheeting to minimise water evaporation, the need to water, the prevention of floods and erosion during heavy storms and the minimisation of weeds and most importantly make the garden look tidy quickly.
I Plant with trees, shrubs, perennials and bulbs that thrive, not struggle, in the local climate. Ours has ranged from +47º to –15º centigrade and from 5 months total drought to 10 days of continuous ‘gota fria’ rain including 45cms in one hour. While an absentee gardener plant only drought resistant plants and leave more delicate plants until resident. Also plant what will be in flower when you plan to make visits. Start with a selection of perennials such as gazanias, margaritas, mesums and rock roses; summer bulbs such as irises lilies and agapanthus; cacti and aloes; aromatic herbs such as rosemary, lavender and thyme; shrubs such as lantanas, jasmine, oleanders, bignonias, plumbago and bougainvilleas; trees such as palms, tamarisk, olives, almonds, mimosas, almond, fig and citrus. Ensure you plant a Luna or Eureka lemon early which flowers every 6 to 8 weeks and provides a year round supply of fruit.
J Most importantly, mulch all plants as you plant them. At the beginning of each visit, dig holes where you plan to plant in six months’ time and fill with kitchen vegetable and fruit waste. Leave to rot down and enrich the soil while you are away.
K Frame and maximise the benefit of the best mountain views by planting some early easy trees such as olives and acacia.
L Early on plant a hedge to establish a screen from planned new houses and the prevailing wind. We planted cypresses on one side, oleander on another and two purple bougainvilleas on the walled third and fourth sides. Total coverage was not attempted until resident.
M Design to maximise the use of rainwater and minimise the need for watering/irrigation. Slope all paths and terraces towards flower beds and install a basic drip irrigation system with a battery timer. Before you depart at the end of each holiday soak the garden thoroughly and then irrigate for say 5 minutes a day.
Above all ‘garden for tomorrow’ which is where you will spend the rest of your lives, not only in terms of enhancing your lifestyle, but also for ease of maintenance as you eventually age!
© Dick Handscombe