Spanish Holiday Villas – The Challenges Faced by the Absentee Gardener
By Clodagh and Dick Handscombe, authors of four books related to gardening in Spain, who were themselves once absentee gardeners.
More and more persons are purchasing villas for personal use only 6 to 12 weeks a year with no intention to let. Many of the villas they purchase are on new developments with no laid out garden or properties which have been empty for some time and any garden that existed is now very overgrown and neglected. The keen gardeners resist the temptation to employ a landscaping company or gardener and, as Dick did initially, progress the design and development of the garden step by step during holiday visits over a number of years.
The Challenges for the Holiday Gardener
There are four basic challenges.
- The time that can be allocated to developing a garden to suit your planed lifestyle while in Spain is limited.
- Visits may not be when the most spectacular plants are in flower or in fruit.
- As the garden evolves the extent of maintenance required during the first few days of each visit increases.
- If thirsty plants are selected the water bill will be relatively large in relation to the weeks in which the garden is enjoyed even with a timer controlled irrigation system.
So from day one gardens need to be designed for minimum maintenance and water bills, to be Spanish in character and with maximum colour, perfume and fruit crops at the times of year the owner plans to be in residence.
Practical Guidelines for the Absentee Gardener
If you are in the above situation, or intend to be within a year or two, we suggest you follow the following practical guidelines to ensure that you enjoy your holidays as well as progressing the garden at a steady pace.
- Aim initially for a simple design that can be laid out fairly quickly and within your capabilities. More complex features can be added later especially if you plan to retire to the property within a few years when you will have much more time to progress the garden.
- Don’t waste effort trying to dig over and de-rubble the total site. This is not necessary where you plan to lay down paths and terraces, or build raised beds or a rockery.
- Aim to lay a safe network of paths and terrace areas as soon as possible. Recognise that a heavy storm can soon change rock hard soil into quick sands of clinging red clay. For speedy safe clean paths and terraces lay stone chippings over black plastic to stabilise areas for eating out and taking siestas. Areas of stone chippings are an excellent short or long term alternative to a lawn .
- Divide the garden into a number of areas and first complete those areas most seen and best for summer shade and winter sun.
- Limit early plantings to hedges, trees for shade, a perpetual lemon tree for gin and tonics and some of the more drought and frost resistant plants.
- Recognise that pots, aesthetic ornaments and fountains can be as pleasing, stimulating and restful as plants and require less maintenance.
- Very early on provide for al fresco cooking and eating so as to enjoy an open air life style from day one. A barbecue is often the first choice but also consider the versatility of a mexican oven and paella pan and stand.
- Before you plant anything improve the soil in areas intended for flower beds, trees and eventually a vegetable garden. Work in copious amounts of animal manures, bagged organic manures, composts from a local eco park or the outputs from an early compost heap.
- When you get round to planting things dig large planting holes and work a little water absorbing/retaining gel such as ‘ TerraCottem’ into the earth/compost at the bottom of planting holes.
- Mulch around all plants with stone chippings or wood chippings laid over woven plastic sheeting to deter weeds.
- Install a simple irrigation system operated by a battery timer. But do change the battery half yearly!
- Don’t work on the garden every hour of each visit. Better to take a couple a couple of years longer and start to enjoy the delights of living in Spain as soon as possible.
- A well thought out garden will help you become acclimatised to and enjoy the wonderful Spanish climate rather than escaping the hottest and coldest days by retreating to air-conditioned or centrally heated rooms.
Spain is really enjoyed when the garden becomes the most used room of the property!