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An Englishman's Garden in Spain

Clinging to the sides of the mountainous region surrounding the tiny white village of Monda in Southern Spain nestled an old olive grove, forgotten and forsaken as a profitable way to make money many years before the turmoil of the Spanish civil war. What better an idea with the property boom of the new millennium than to split the grove into individual plots of land accessed by a narrow unmade road and build a few remote homes or "fincas" as small rural properties are known as in the beautiful Andalucia region of Europeís most southerly point.

And so in 2008 finca Nandu, balanced on a ledge on the mountain side was completed and I was invited to look at the prospect of making some sort of usable and attractive garden within the near perpendicular 5000 sq metres that represented its private land. "Do you think you could submit some sort of design?" I was asked. "No" I replied, "gravity and the forbidden use of high explosive is against the principal of submitting any sort of pre-conceived design. The steepness of the land, the crumbling olive grove terraces and the thickness of the bedrock will dictate any attempt to turn it into a garden."

"Just do what you can with it but we havenít really got much of a budget for plants and building materials" was the ownersí response and so, developing a liking for extreme sports at that moment in time, I said OK.

A more in-depth survey of the land seemed to suggest that the basic principles of good gardening were going to be turned right around on their head. There was no top soil, just small pockets of shallow dust and stones caught between the crevices of the rock. The provision of adequate watering facilities was impossible with the meagre supply to the property pumped from further down the mountain side making potential water pressure requirements somewhat limp. No rainwater would collect or soak through the sloping ground surface particularly during the searing heat of the summer months and the nature of the surrounding terrain at approximately 2000 feet above sea level meant the indigenous shrubs and weeds would have roots similar to a body-builders biceps.

On the positive side the views were to die for, the ancient olive trees magnificent and the minerals from the pockets of ground-up rock dust suggested they might just contain something that plants would find tasty!

And so work began. Working alone, I prefer it that way when I know my language may deteriorate, I cleared the small levelled area to the front of the house with a rake, spade and wheel-barrow. I wanted to establish a usable area with a large raised bed feature for colour, surrounded by a hard-standing patio and flanked with a small lawn that allowed itís users to relax and enjoy the views to the village below and mountain ranges beyond. Sand and cement was imported but rocks for small support features were in plentiful supply within the grove itself. And I do mean plentiful supply! Using Newtonís Law of gravity I selected large rocks from the land above the property and simply gave them a push. Those that missed the property landed neatly on my levelled area and construction began with the aid of cheap electric cement mixer and a rubber builders bucket.

A locally purchased pallet of broken grey slate pieces were now progressively sunk into a wet 100mm. thick bed of hand-poured concrete to form a patio to the front and side of the house which was 200 sq meters total size. The rate of completion of this particular bit of permanent infrastructure turned out to be 5 months mainly due to the restrictive capacity of the rubber builders bucket and my own ability to lift and carry it. During this process the months of June to August provided additional difficulties as each poured bucket of wet concrete dried off in minutes allowing little time to sink the grey slate pieces into the surface. But we finally made it!

Now the clearing of the slope to the side of the house began and rock and soil was scraped from one side to the other in an attempt to give shape and form to the area. A small retaining wall was built at the bottom of the slope to hold things in place and an area of immovable bedrock contained within the slope was cleared and cleaned to enable this outcrop itself to become a feature. The sheer beauty of a natural outcrop of rock such as this is a worthy feature for any garden, particularly one with the ochre staining within it of hundreds of years worth of weathering.

With the budgetary embargo on expensive plants remaining a major factor, the months of October and November presented a wonderful opportunity to collect usable pieces of freshly pruned samples of yucca, agave and other woody stemmed plants from the garden re-cycling bins of the local towns and villages. Hammering, chiselling and crowbarring small holes into the surface of the cleared slopes now began and 30cm. pieces of reclaimed Yucca were buried up to half of their length with any dead leaves first removed. Alongside the planted yucca pieces small lengths of 5cm.diameter plastic pipe were inserted to be used as watering conduits. This process has proven invaluable on sloping rocky ground enabling both water and occasionally plant food pellets to reach the roots of propagated offcuts, offshoots or new plants.

By now it was clear that the route to take with the garden generally was to establish a series of walkways, pathways and patios at different levels connected by various steps and navigable slopes. They were all lined with the types of plant that offered good drought resistance, easy propagation and culminated with good profile rather than intense colour. Any concept of establishing an English garden with its massed borders and intense colour was wholly alien to the environment of the chosen location and doomed to failure. Hardy pampas grass offshoots, grown from the seeds of mature plants, courtesy of spring nesting of the local bird population, with the help of prevailing mountain winds provided the grace and elegance to harmonise with the sculptured form and colour of various agave species through the use of offshoots. Cuttings from oleander, lantana with cheaply purchased woody-stemmed geraniums and lions claw provided colourful and aesthetically pleasing ground cover in places. All these were planted and the growth rate was simply stunning! Whether it was the minerals from the rock, the accumulation of years of fallen olives or the occasional use of universal plant food pellets Iíll never know.

Watering was minimised, not by choice but by necessity, and three years on the garden has flourished as plantings rooted, grew and flourished to provide a little miracle on the mountain that should further flourish for years to come as it matures and further establishes itself. The home grown rocky infrastructure doing its job superbly well and making the property a home and garden to be proud of. Gardening is not generally a popular pastime of the indigenous population of Andalucia, but for us Brits, with a bit of reverse garden thinking sometimes anything is possible!

By Phil Thompson


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