This guest post is the second in a series on planting design by Giacomo Guzzon, an Italian landscape architect working in central London for Gillespies, a large, international landscape design firm. Unlike most landscape architects, Giacomo has an extensive knowledge of plants not common in the profession. He believes landscape architects need to be much more knowledgeable in planting design so that they are able to create characterful, living landscapes that meet the needs of users and reflect existing ecological conditions and sense of place. He is a visiting tutor in planting design at Sheffield University and a visiting lecturer in planting design at Greenwich University School of Landscape Architecture in London. He travels widely to meet designers from all over the world, observe planting projects in different climates and environments and share his passion with other professionals.
While a movement toward a more naturalistic look in planting design has been widely adopted in many parts of the world over the past several decades, garden designers in the Mediterranean region have mostly kept to clipped evergreens and a limited range of plants naturally adapted to a hot, dry climate and lean soil. Seeking to broaden the palettes in which they work, some Spanish designers are breaking new ground and beginning to use grasses and herbaceous perennials with light, delicate structures, the ability to sway and move in the wind, to “perform” in all seasons, and to evoke a wider range of emotional responses throughout the year. It is surprising how resilient and sustainable such designs are proving to be, largely owing to the willingness of some designers to experiment with plants from other parts of the world as well as plants usually associated with more northerly latitudes.
A few years ago while reading Gardens Illustrated, I by chance came across an article featuring a residential project by Fernando Martos. At the time I didn’t know much about Fernando’s work but I was immediately drawn to the beauty of his design and surprised by how well his experimental planting fit the Spanish countryside. The plantings looked different and unusual, but at the same time appropriate to their context. I think this was the first time I’d seen such a light and airy herbaceous planting in a Mediterranean climate.
I was curious to find out what perennials and grasses, many of which are commonly used in Northern Europe, were thriving in Spain. I eventually contacted him and asked to visit some of his projects.
Fernando kindly agreed and last summer I flew to Madrid and spent a weekend with him visiting gardens. My timing wasn’t good (or perhaps it was perfect); I managed to visit Madrid during one of the worst heat waves of the summer; temperatures were around 36C (97F). So armed with big water bottles, we started the tour.
Finca las Tendas
The first garden we visited after my arrival in Madrid was Finca las Tendas. This project is in a rural area with vineyards north of the capital, designed around several newly refurbished one-story buildings used as a venue for weddings and events.
The building layout creates a central rectangular space, surrounded by the venue on three sides and open to the carpark on one side. Fernando divided this large central space and created two main garden rooms by planting tall evergreen hedges, which also separate the garden from the carpark.
The larger garden room has a central area, which lies lower than the surrounding buildings and is planted with Gleditsia triacanthos ‘Skyline’ trees. These light canopy trees are evenly spaced and planted on a grid, to filter the light and provide some shade while still maintaining an open character. This place, surfaced with self-binding gravel, is used for gatherings and buffets.
The geometrical pattern of trees is completely appropriate to its utilitarian uses, and visually links it with rows of grape vines planted in the fields outside.
Between the central area and the venue, generous planting beds wrap around the open area, creating a transparent buffer. These beds are planted with Salix purpurea pruned in cloud forms and intermingled with colourful perennials. Salix purpurea is a very robust shrub that thrives in exposed and coastal sites, and it responds very well to regular pruning. While Fernando uses some elements typical of Mediterranean gardens, like the pruned shrubs, he puts them to a new use, for example by juxtaposing topiary with perennials and grasses unexpected in a Spanish setting.
The perennial plant species Fernando uses are unusual for the area. He selects species that can cope with the heat and the challenging growing conditions. These species, although not typical or indigenous to central Spain, give a pleasantly fresh, airy and colourful feeling to the composition and surprisingly don’t conflict visually with the surrounding landscapes. A plant like Panicum virgatum, an American native, is a very drought tolerant species (in fact, I have seen it growing in pure sand in a very hot valley within the Walking Dunes on the east end of Long Island in New York). Verbena bonariensis, Calamagrostis, Hemerocallis spp., Iris barbata, Veronicastrum, Sedum, Agapanthus, Stipa tenuissima, Calamintha nepeta and Echinacea can all cope with the hot temperatures and were thriving with the help of some irrigation during the hottest months. All these exotic perennials, combined with native plants, such as Laurus nobilis, Quercus ilex, Morus alba and Olea europea, create a new and unexpected atmosphere and help to connect this project with its rural Spanish location.
The two rectangular pools, one in each garden, mirror the sky and the adjacent planting and at the same time unconsciously convey to the visitors a feeling of freshness, a much welcomed illusion in the torrid summer. Moreover, the shapes of the pools recall the long irrigation ditches that one can see in the countryside, another subtle element that anchors this garden in the wider landscape.
The second garden we visited near Guadalajara had a more rural setting; it is immersed in gently sloping hills planted with olive trees located roughly 60 km north-east of Madrid. The garden is surrounded by a rolling landscape, and the approach drive from the main road to the house on a country road creates a feeling of anticipation as you near the house and garden.
The private house, a weekend retreat of a couple from Madrid, is a modern white finca, or country home. The entrance garden at the top of the driveway echoes the building’s linear, low, simple character. Fernando decided that this area needed a simple and formal approach to feel appropriate next to the modern house. The entrance landscape features a large block of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Ferner Osten’ and another one of Escallonia spp. gently pruned into a rectangular form.
After arriving we quickly walked around the corner of the house where we encountered a completely different atmosphere. The back garden has a central lawn area for the children’s activities, surrounded by large planting beds that frame the garden and blend it with the surrounding landscapes.
The planting is colourful and lively, and gives a varied, exciting character to the place.
To the right of the main house and in front of the guest house, a large perennial meadow stretches into the surrounding fields and blurs the garden’s boundary. Fernando here designed a plant community that is able to withstand dry soils and torrid heat. Lavandula is intermingled with Perovskia, Stachys byzantina, Iris germanica, Stipa tenuissima, Phlomis russeliana, Achillea and some evergreen shrubs pruned in cloud form. These shrubs link this meadow with the other part of the garden around the pool.
An essential element of the planting is the use of dark blocks of clipped Escallonia whose mass and stillness contrast dramatically with the lively, light-filled wands of Stipa gigantea. “For me,” Fernando said, “that effect is very important and a key of the project.”
Fernando’s remark is certainly revealing. It clearly tells us that he is seeking subtle effects that are something new in Mediterranean planting design. He is experimenting and pushing the boundaries to find plants that can thrive in his local conditions.
The pool area lies below the grade of the surrounding garden and it is planted almost exclusively with evergreen shrubs, though, as noted above, given a lively sparkle by interplanted Stipa. These shrubs resemble the native vegetation that can be seen all around the property, helping integrate the garden with the wider landscape.
Because the pool has no edge and no fence is visible, it seems to be immersed in the Mediterranean vegetation.
Fernando Martos’ work represents an important part of a new movement in Mediterranean landscape design, especially in the Madrid area. It combines the botanical richness, eclecticism and abundance of plants from other parts of the world with the evergreen forms and prominent structural plants typically present in Mediterranean gardens.
It will be interesting to see how these new design approaches develop in Spain, and how they evolve and influence planting design in other parts of the Mediterranean region.