Mediterranean Garden Society

Making a Garden in Andalusia: Part 1

by Sibylle Mattern
photos by Sibylle Mattern

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No. 116, April 2024

The photo at the top of this page shows part of the Blue Patio (Photo Sibylle Mattern)

In the first part of this article in TMG 115 Sibylle Mattern described the garden’s beginnings, the ideas behind it and the planting of large specimens such as palms. She writes:

Once the major plants were settled in, the garden took shape and decisions about what to plant became easier. I read many books, studying Jaqueline Tyrwhitt’s Making a Garden on a Greek Hillside with its very helpful plant list on the last pages.

We had long discussions on how to improve the soil and whether or not to use mulch, and if so which, and where. We did not want a fresh new layer of good topsoil on ground compacted by the heavy building machinery and full of concrete and rubble but chose to dig in organic topsoil deep into the native soil. Mulch was more difficult as the only kind commercially available in our area is very coarse and ugly large bits of pine bark, so after a longish trial and error period we decided to make our own by chopping up all materials from the garden with a cheap but very efficient electric shredder which now gives us a lot of good mulch and a very good basis for compost.

The garden slowly took shape, area by area. I made many mistakes. At the beginning I did not realise that plants do not like to sit alone in a vast stretch of empty soil in the heat with just a little drip watering. Many plants did not grow upwards as I wanted them to, they remained small and thirsty and pale, looked unhappy and sunburnt, and we were wondering what was wrong – the soil? Water? Sun? Wind? Did they need more food? It was a steep learning curve.

View towards the north one morning in August 2022

A walk through the garden
As one enters the garden from the north the view leads towards the mountains with their local macchia. We wanted to keep the effect of a wild Mediterranean landscape with the eye only slowly adjusting to a more “civilised” flora as one walks up towards the house. We planted a few cypress trees for that effect, but also Medicago arborea Lavandula stoechas, Phlomis purpurea and P. chrysophylla,various Teucrium and Cistus species, Thymbra capitata, Narcissus papyraceus, a few small almond trees, and the beautiful white grass Muhlenbergia capillaris ‘White Cloud’ which we ordered from Italy because we couldn’t find it anywhere else. Often I brought souvenirs from garden visits such as Euphorbia acanthothamnos and Ptilostemom chamaepeuce from Sparoza which I hope will survive the summer. I also added from seed the local Moroccan sweet pea Lathyrus tingitanus, but we soon had to pull it out as it is quite rampant and was covering everything else in a short time but flowering only sparsely. Luckily it is an annual but self-seeds plentifully. We tried several echiums but they don’t like it here. We are not sure why – possibly they prefer a more humid atmosphere, as there are so many beautiful examples in Portugal on the coast or in Cornwall (seen on Instagram). I have collected seeds from the asphodels in the neighbourhood but they have not germinated. This northern slope is a challenging environment with cold wet soil in winter, receiving hardly any direct sun, while in summer it dries out completely because of hot westerly winds from the mountains and because in summer only it is fully exposed to the strong afternoon sun. We give it a little summer water and plan to reduce this even more once the bare soil is covered. Many plants here enter a summer dormant phase when they fold up or shed their leaves and look quite dead.

Engelmannia peristenia on the northern slope (October 2022)

Closer to the house we added many groups of blue Iris unguicularis. In early summer the friendly yellow Engelmannia peristenia thrives well over several months and has self-seeded nicely in the driest places. A fig has grown to an impressive width in a year with hundreds of fruits that I harvested for jam, chutney and cake.

Further up towards the house is an open patio. This area on top of the hill open to the north turned out to be difficult. The previous owner had two old olive trees here, Erigeron and a pittosporum hedge, for “nothing else grows here”. I, of course, was more ambitious and wanted an “Asian” feel because of the name of the house, “Kailas”, which signifies a holy mountain in Tibet. It is not as cold or hot as Tibet here, but still… I wanted greens, yellow and white. Many plants foundered, a Spathodea was knocked over by high winds and didn’t make it (but it would have been flowering red anyway). We planted myrtle as a hedge around this area and after two years it has grown from 20 cm to 1.60 m and has proved to give efficient protection to the more tender plants. Thus things began to improve

Michelia ‘Gail’s Favourite’

Roystonea regia sits in a corner and represents the “House Palm” and can be seen from a distance, a camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora) is next to it with its scented leaves. A white Bauhinia is growing slowly. Three wonderful Melianthus major make a dominant display, yellow Salvia madrensis, Tagetes lemmonii and Kniphofia rooperi which I had seen in combination with Melianthus in Great Dixter flower late in the year for many months, through the winter. An evergreen magnolia bush, Magnolia laevifolia ‘Gail’s Favourite’, sometimes called Michelia, sits in a corner with fine white saucer- shaped flowers in winter, Alpinia galanga and A. zerumbet ‘Variegata’ give the “Asian” ginger feel, and in between Cestrum aurantiacum and Freylinia lanceolata is Lilium regale. A Senna spectabilis (syn. Cassia spectabilis)is trained up a cypress. The ground is covered with invasive white Oenothera speciosa and nasturtiums.

Front patio pond with lotus

We created a small pond in the middle where a rectangular hole of 3 by 4 m had existed but was filled with pots of neglected pittosporum and had never held water. This was my chance for a sunken lily pond… We fortified this hole, dug it deeper and, in an ingenious stroke of planning, Paul told the builder how to make the surface of the pond look level in spite of the fact that it actually sits on a slight slope.

In the first year we tried Eichhornia crassipes which I had seen in Cambodia when visiting Angkor Wat and which was available but it did not survive the winter – I believe it does not like the wind or cannot cope with the temperature swings in such a small pond. The second year I found white water lilies, which I think may be Nymphaea ‘Virginia’, in a nearby nursery. They have grown well and multiplied and flower, and they have survived two winters now. The second year I also got a lotus, Nelumbo nucifera. I had it sent from Germany because I wasn’t able to find one in our Spanish neighbourhood. It is growing well, has produced offspring and is now covering a second pot. It has flowered the second year, but I feel the pots are too small and I must search for larger ones to keep it happy.  Furthermore, when visiting the Alhambra in Granada, I had seen in their ponds beautiful thin filament structures. I picked some out, brought them home and threw them in my pond. I think it is actually a weed and only looks nice in flowing water. It is growing very well in our pond and making large very green sheets of fibre of a fleecy sort of nature that I collect every now and then with a stick and transfer to the compost. I guess we have to live with it now. The frogs like it: as soon as the pond held water we saw frogs sitting on the sides and they multiply. How did they know and where did they come from so quickly?

Washingtonia palms clad with Rose 'Senateur LaFollette' in April 2023

On the eastern side of the house I wanted a “jungle garden”. We thought it most suitable for shade-loving plants with high water needs because here we had pine and large palm trees giving shade and a high wall offering protection from the midday sun and hot westerly winds. The area was covered with gravel and the ground full of roots so we created irregularly shaped low raised beds filled with good garden soil to give the more sensitive plants a head start before the old palm tree roots detected the fresh food and grew upwards and into the area.

We planted several trees: Jacaranda mimosifolia, Ficus benghalensis, Ficus lyrata, Erythrina caffra and Erythrina crista-galli and Cinnamomum camphora;we also added some small palms like Phoenix roebelenii, Caryota mitis and Rhapis excelsa. I brought cuttings from all my indoor plants in Germany: a Hibiscus rosa-sinensis ‘Variegata’that I have had since 1982 when I made a cutting from my aunt’s plant, Monstera deliciosa in green and variegated forms, severalphilodendrons, and as groundcover Pilea microphylla which I had brought back from a vacation in Jamaica. We also planted several shrubs that have grown immensely: Dombeya × cayeuxii, Odontonema strictum, Megaskepasma erythrochlamys, Salvia gesneriflora, Heliconia schiedeana and many more. It may be a bit of a “mixed bag” and three years on we see that the area is slightly too cold for some of the palms; there are very strong winds from the east in winter and once the temperature went down to 3° C but mostly it doesn’t fall below 8° and is cool in summer. We are working on a protective hedge. This area has another water feature: one of our builders heard us talking about fountains for the garden and offered to build a “cascada”. So we got another little pond, this one against the high wall, made from some of the left-over local stone, waterproofed inside to a very low 30 cm with a back wall and a slit in the upper area where a hose comes up from a little pump in the bottom to a hidden rectangular basin, where the water is spilled out and cascades down the boulders.

Frog in the patio pond

The Ficus repens I planted next to it was happy from the start and has overgrown the top within a year. The frogs detected this new habitat quickly and sometimes they sit on the top level and dive down a metre when they hear me coming. On very windy days I have to turn it off because all the water is blown away before it reaches the small pool and it empties quickly, but the humidity is heightened, and the neighbouring plants enjoy it. It is my “jungle area”, green and humid and full of freshness in the hot summer months. It attracts many different birds and I even heard a nightingale one evening.

'Australia' in early morning sun, December 2021

The area furthest south we called “Australia” not only because it is far from the house and we keep it mostly dry, but mainly because my daughter had brought me a few cuttings from the small shop in Sydney’s botanical garden when she went to university there: Hakea laurina and Acacia iteaphylla have quickly outgrown their spaces into huge bushes and had no water in summer. Statuesque Kalanchoe beharensis seems to flower constantly.  Banksia integrifolia and Templetonia retusa receive very little water. There are acacias, aloes and agaves some of which I grew from seed, Furcraea and other succulents. One bush is especially worth mentioning: Calothamnus quadrifidus. It has no water whatsoever unless someone comes with a hose which is rare as it is situated far from the nearest tap. It has the softest grey-green needle-like leaves and beautiful red flowers hidden deep on the old wooden stems. Alyogyne huegelii had to be moved a few times and now has a shady situation with a little water which she likes much better and flowers well.

Blue Patio - Scilla hyacinthoides and Limonium perezii, April 2023

The Blue Court
For a flat area in the west I imagined a blue ethereal zone looking out towards the setting sun over the mountains, blue earthly plants against the orange setting sun. This is the part of the garden with some formal structures, a rectangular area with gravel and a rectangular bed in the middle (see also the phot at the top of this page). We planted the borders with long rows of Agapanthus. Two Seville oranges make up for my “Plaza de los Naranjos”, a Grevillea robusta, Aloe ferox, a loquat tree (Eriobotrya japonica) – one of those fruits that I never knew in Germany and now make wonderful jam from. A Montanoa bipinnatifida grows up high against a Dypsis decaryii, Salvia canariensis makes a huge clump and Salvia gravida behind we have trained to look over with her long racemes At the side are Vitex agnus-castus, Vitex trifolia ‘Purpurea’ and Ceanothus ‘Concha’, while a huge white bougainvillea covers a structure where the heat pumps are situated. Many Verbena bonariensis have self-seeded, a few Gladiolus ‘Milka’ are for cutting. In the middle there is a formal bed of sandy soil with Westringia and Teucrium clipped into balls and in between bulbs like Scilla hyacinthoides and Hymenocallis festalis ‘Zwanenburg’ are planted.

Paul calls it “Little Tresco” – I am not sure why. Having read Lucinda Willan’s article on Tresco in TMG 112 I still don’t know why, but I guess he has been there and everyone has very different memories of places.

The Red Corner in July 2022

The Red Corner
Behind the house, true to the “joyful” motto, I had planned the colour red. There are so few bright red flowers in a German garden once the poppy season is over, so I collected whatever I could find. One by one I planted these plants where I thought each would fit in the long run. One part of this corner has a particularly outrageously wild combination growing around an Albizia julibrissin, the centre of which is Erythrina × ‘Kylian Julien’, a cross between Erythrina crista-galli and E. herbacea. It was supposed to grow as a low bush but, as both parents are small trees, it is no wonder that it has not yet decided quite what to be. It grows in the Erythrina fashion with long slender arms flowering at the end but develops a strong woody irregular base. It is a bit complicated to control but by careful cutting Paul is managing to keep it within the border. Abutilon megapotamicum (syn, Callianthe megapotamica) and the shrub rose ‘Cornelia’ grow through its long arms. Next to them Cestrum newellii is trying to cope with the dry soil. Smaller fry such as Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ and Penstemon digitalis ‘Red Husker’ sit somewhere in between. A pink-orange bougainvillea and the rampant vine Antigonon leptopus with very coarse leaves but beautiful flowers in summer add wild pink-orange joy.

Salvia sessei between Metrosideros and a Bismarckia palm in October 2022

A second layer of red is made up of Salvia sessei which came as a tiny cutting in a large batch of different salvias from Le Essenze di Lea in Italy and grew so quickly in the dry stony slope that it toppled over after its first winter in full flower and we had to cut it down completely and thought “so that was that”. But it has come back strongly and makes a wonderful bright red splash together with Melaleuca (formerly Callistemon) and a little later Metrosideros excelsa. From spring on large clumps of Canna indica (syn. C. purpurea) give a bit of calm to this scene. A small red Salvia, possibly S. greggii ‘Royal Bumble’, which seeds itself profusely, adds lots of little red dots from spring on and through the year. 
There are other areas that we enjoy and always look forward to returning to when we are back in Germany. Behind the pool overflow at the foot of the large Washingtonia palm Paul planted a Tithonia diversifolia. This bush has grown four metres high and wide and in late summer its overhanging branches dip into the pool and give it a wonderful feeling of swimming in a primeval mangrove forest. Once a year we cut it back by half; so far it has returned vigorously.

The Rose Garden, May 2022

Our little rose garden has its best time from Christmas until the start of the heat in May. The low white tea roses that came with the garden are always in flower. I wanted pink and crimson shrub roses and looked through all lists of roses suitable for the mediterranean climate. We had some failures or burnt flowers but ‘Rose de Resht’, ‘Boufarik, ‘Félicité Parmentier’, ‘Marie Ducher’ and ‘Munstead Wood’ have all proved to like our climate. This area is full of swallowtail butterflies in late winter which flit between the roses and the flowering erythrinas.

A garden is said to be a healing agent – one never knows whether and when one needs healing or just a little caressing; combining all my dreams from childhood, adapting them to family commitments and needs, from evoking memories of foreign travels together, citations from religion to feeding family – all these have definitely made this journey a healing one full of joy. May it continue to be so for a long time.

THE MEDITERRANEAN GARDEN is the registered trademark of The Mediterranean Garden Society in the European Union, Australia, and the United States of America

Data Protection Consent

website designed and maintained
by Hereford Web Design