by Dick Handscombe, practical gardener and author living in Spain for 25 years.

Patio Gardens have been popular in Spain for over a thousand years and continue to be so to this day. Many expatriates incorporate the concept and best of their features into the inner courtyards of town houses, the back yard of village houses, the back terraces of terraced houses or use the concept for a series of several mini gardens within their overall garden design and roof top terraces.

The evolution of Patio Gardens over the centuries:

  1. Patio Gardens were developed by the Arabs within the walled defensive houses they built. The remains of some can still be seen, especially in Cordoba, Seville, Granada and Ubeda. All are within Andalusia.
  2. Cloister Gardens designed for serenity, meditation and exercise within monasteries and convents.
  3. Inner Courtyard Gardens of the palaces of the royalty and aristocrats, both in the cities and in the country; the best example perhaps being the Alcazar in Seville.
  4. Walled Kitchen Gardens designed to produce the fruit and vegetables for the adjacent castle, palace or estate house.
  5. Inner Courtyard Gardens developed behind village terraced houses, in what was originally the corral for the animals and poultry with wonderful plants growing in the well-fertilized soil or in pots on newly tiled floors.
  6. Small Walled Gardens built behind or in front of modern terraced town houses and maisonettes.
  7. Small Courtyard Mini-Garden incorporated as a special feature within an overall garden design for a larger open garden, or a garden created as one of a series of interconnecting mini-gardens for seasonal interest and separation of activities.

Patios can be of the Open Courtyard type often kept generally bare except for a few potted plants and a central palm as the colourful garden is beyond the house, or the plant and artefact-packed patios where the patio is the only open space the dwelling has.

Developing A Great Patio Garden Today
Having visited numerous patio gardens I suggest that the essential ingredients are as follows.

  • Shade – Provided by trees in the centre or one or more corners. Popular trees being Palms, Ficus, Fig, Olives, Jacaranda, Judas Tree, Galan De Noche, and Cordylines Some also had an architectural Citrus Tree.
  • The Sound Of Water – From fountains in the middle of ponds, fountains against the wall and in some cases cascades between both.
  • Colourful and Perfumed Walls – Firstly, from window boxes and climbers such as Bougainvillea, Bignonias, Jasmine, Roses, Honey Suckles, Passion Flower, Clematis and Plumbago, but with none or very few wall pots of Geraniums. Secondly, from tasteful displays of decorated plates, plaques, murals and memorabilia.
  • Cool Evergreen Plants – Ferns, Aspidistras, Spider Plants, Spathiphyllum, Pothos, Bread Plants, Mother-In-Law’s Tongue, were all popular and from their size survived well in the semi-shade and at times deep shade of the patios. There were also Succulents, Cacti, Bamboos and Bonsais of various types.
  • Collections of Flowering Plants In Pots – Bulbs such as Clivias, Cyclamen, Freesias, Irises, Lilies and Agapanthus.

Plants such as Kalanchoa, Begonias, Fuchsias, Pansies, Busy Lizzies, Azaleas, some spectacular Hydrangeas and a Water Lily in the pond.

  • Interesting and Aesthetic Artefacts – Collections of interesting old or new pots, agricultural and city artefacts.
  • Comfortable and Aesthetic Furniture – For relaxing or dining alone or with company. Only once did we see a canopied swing chair. A few had trellis screens to create private corners and covered pergolas for shade when the sun reached down into the well of the patio.
  • Soft Music – Light music of your choice for relaxing. In Cordoba, Guitar and Flamenco Music was generally played quietly for effect.
  • Subtle Lighting – A mix of spot lights, wall lights and standard lamps suitable for outside use on the patio.
  • A Sun Blind – Most patios were open to the elements; others had a convenient motorized cover that could be used for shelter from the midday sun or storms.
  • The Family Pet – A cat, budgerigar, fish in the pond or an ancient turtle adds ambience to the patio.

If you decide to purchase a house with a patio-style terrace there are many possibilities to enhance it, but before you go into action consider:
a. To what extent will the patio be important to your daily life style?
b. What will be the maximum and minimum annual temperatures? The walls of the patio may raise the temperature just those few degrees required to prevent winter frost damage, but in the summer the south facing wall can become scorching rather than warm and turn the courtyard into a furnace.
c. Where is the natural shade? Recognize that the larger the courtyard the lower the percentage of shade and the greater exposure to the sun in the summer and swirling cold winds in the winter.
d. The levels of natural humidity and where the water from the roof and floor can run to. Decide whether it can be usefully harnessed, or whether you have a serious drainage problem to deal with before you tackle the patio layout.

Dick Handscombe’s series of gardening and lifestyle boos are easily accessed and purchased by doing a search for ‘Dick Handscombe’ on Amazone Books UK or ES.

© Dick Handscombe