Spanish Gardens – A mosaic of change

By Clodagh and Dick Handscombe practical gardeners, authors and broadcasters who have gardened in Spain for twenty five years both on the Mediterranean Costas and in inland valleys.


Travelling around Spain on study trips and to give talks we are amazed at the numerous changes that have taken place in Spanish gardens since Spain joined the EU. We consider ten of them in this reflective article.

There has been a phenomenal increase in the number of both local authority gardens and private gardens . Firstly local governments have larger budgets due to population growth and have started to take an interest in improving the number and quality of parks.
Unfortunately budgets for their upkeep have not always been provided for.

Secondly there has been the enormous investment in villas for permanent of part time residency by non – Spaniards from Northern and Central/ Eastern European Countries and Spaniards as a result of inheritances , sale of houses at home and higher salaries than in previous decades. Many of the Spanish owners are taking to flower gardening for the first time as in their youth the land around their parents and parents houses was largely for food production including livestock.

For the non Spaniards used to the temperate climates of Northern Europe the Spanish climate brings some unexpected challenges as commented on in previous articles and in detail in our books.

However non Spaniards including ourselves bring decades of hobby and professional gardening experience with them that adds to the ideas brought into Spain by earlier settlers particularly the Romans, Arabs and Moors . Luckily some of the Arab/Moorish inspired gardens are still preserved to provide inspiration for today’s gardeners in what is still a wonderful country to garden in.

To support this growth the setting up of garden centres become a growth industry although many are now being affected by home owners not spending as much on their gardens. When we first came to Spain the number of varieties of plants in garden centres were less than in the UK, Ireland and Holland for instance – but they were very much less expensive mainly because the garden centres grew much of their own stock and most plants were the traditional ones used for centuries that could cope with hottest and lowest temperatures experienced over the decades.

Then from the early nineties more and more plants including trees were imported by pantechnicons from Europe and by air also from Europe and also from North Africa, South Africa and South America.
As a result many gardeners new to Spain were tempted to plant too many tropical/subtropical varieties particularly in gardens exposed to winter frosts. Gradually inexperienced gardeners realised that one needs to create a more benign microclimate before planting the more tender of native plants even on the coastal plain

Then there were the record breaking air frosts of February 2005 which wiped out the entire stock of some nurseries and seriously damaged others and both public and private gardens including our own.

In our book ‘Your Garden in Spain’ we have described and illustrated some 400 plants selected as being among the most practical for most practical for gardens on the coastal plain and inland from the south to the north of Spain. The information on frost resistances reflect the 2005 experiences.

Although it was initially difficult to locate ecological insecticides and fungicides this is now becoming relatively easy with more and more companies such as Trabe and Seipasa/Neudorff produce small packs of the products sold in sacks to the agriculturalists producing organic vegetables for export. In each of our books we indicate the many home made solutions that are also possible.

Unfortunately the importation of plants have brought new previously unknown pest problems. Notably the geranium moth (Mosca Africana) that arrived with shipments of hothouse bred plants in the mid 1990’s and soon wiped out the wonderful banks of geraniums that we saw and had in our early years in Spain and more recently since the late 1990’s the red rhinoceros palm weevil (Curculionido Ferruginosa) that arrived in shipments of inexpensive imported palms destined for golf courses and mega urbanisations which are now killing off many young and mature Phoenix and Washingtonia palm trees.

When we first arrived in Spain it was possible to buy a wide range of inexpensive locally produced artisan terracotta pots. Within a few years these were being replaced by imported factory pressed pots with little aesthetic appeal and in recent years many of these themselves are replaced by imports from China. Many are unfortunately not really for Mediterranean styled gardens.

Inexpensive compost has become available in some areas from Local Government sponsored composting companies who compost garden, green hotel and household waste and seaweed collected from the beaches after storms. It is possible to first sell ones own garden prunings/weeds prior to buying finished compost. Although not that high in nutrients it is excellent for inclusion in soil mixes for raised beds and improving the humus content of flower beds and vegetable plots.

The original ring of active agricultural lands around many towns and villages is now decimated as a result of major building projects and the low prices paid to producers.
More and more non-Spaniards and Spaniards are therefore starting/expanding the growing of vegetables in raised beds, vegetable plots and containers and using fruit trees as flowering trees within their new generation gardens. As a result there is a good demand for our books ‘Growing Healthy Vegetables in Spain’ and ‘Growing Healthy Fruit in Spain’.

More and more gardeners are recognising the wide ranging culinary and medicinal benefits of having a collection of native herbs in the garden. For those that have purchased properties on unspoilt or abandoned hillsides the wild native plants wisely become the soul of their gardens. More and more public gardens are also being planted up with native herbs and other endemic plants. Some nurseries such as Celtidelta now specialise in the growing of several hundred varieties of such plants.

There are two major things that expatriate gardeners miss in Spain. Very rarely is it possible to purchase plug/mini plantlets for flowers or vegetables and seed catalogues such as those of Thompson and Morgan, Suttons, Chiltern seeds and Plant World for instance don’t exist but luckily it is possible to buy from such catalogues from the UK, France and Holland.

We hope you found this matrix of issues affecting gardeners here in Spain of interest.

Descriptions of our gardening books will be found on ‘Our books about gardening in Spain‘. At the end of each description you can click to enter the internet shop of our publishers Santana Books in order to make an immediate purchase. Naturally they can be purchased from high street bookshops and other internet shops.

© Clodagh and Dick Handscombe February 2009.