Spanish style patio gardens

By Clodagh and Dick Handscombe Practical gardeners and gardening authors living in Spain for 25 years.

Spanish patio gardens and world wide expansion.

Patio gardens have been popular in Spain for over a thousand years and continue to be so to this day. Many expatriates incorporating the concept and best of their features into the inner courtyards of town houses, the back yard of village houses, the back terraces of terraced houses, one of several mini gardens within their overall garden design and roof top terraces.

Patio gardens are also becoming popular in other Mediterranean climate and other situations worldwide as they aid privacy, have lower maintenance than open gardens, offer shade and protection from hot suns and winds and cold winds and thereby create an micro climate suitable for an enviable collection of plants.


The step by step evolution of patios can be summarised as follows .

1. The patio gardens developed by the Arabs within the walled defensive houses they built. The remains of some can still be seen especially in Cordoba , Seville, Granada and Ubeda. All within Andalusia.

2 .The cloister gardens designed for serenity , meditation and exercise within monasteries and convents.

3. The inner  courtyard gardens of the palaces of the royalty and aristocrats both in the cities and in the country. The best example perhaps being the Alcazar in Seville.

4. The walled kitchen gardens designed to produce the fruit and vegetables for the adjacent castle, palace or estate house .

5. The inner courtyard gardens developed behind village terraced houses , in what was originally the corral for the animals and poultry. Wonderful plants growing in the well fertilized soil or in pots on newly tiled floors.

6. The small walled gardens built behind or in front of modern terraced town houses and maisonettes.

7. The small courtyard mini-garden incorporated as a special features within an overall garden design for a larger open garden or a garden created as one of a series of interconnecting mini gardens for seasonal interest and separation of activities.

Patios can be of the open courtyard type often kept generally bare except for a few potted plants and a central palm as the colourful garden is beyond the house, or the plant and artefact packed patios where the patio is the only open space the dwelling has.

The Cordoba patio festival held each May


We have visited the Patio Festival in Cordoba on a number of occasions and suggest that readers do likewise next spring. For two weeks in May more than sixty patios of all types are open to the public. In general patios maintained all year round by the inhabitants and some specially adorned for the festival and to compete in the annual competition run by the Department of Tourism.

Between them they highlighted the following types benefits and problems.


Types of patio gardens


Try and imagine the impact of a thousand geraniums planted in wall pots on all four walls of a high walled patio, with others perched on the top of the wall.  Plants up to eight metres above the ground. Each needing watering every two days to keep them at their best in the spring. The only way of watering to ensure  a consistent watering, not to wash out any of the limited soil in the flower pots and not to foul the pristine white walls was a tipping half litre can on the end of a long extendable pole! A good daily exercise for five hours a day in the most densely planted patio. Plus of course climbing up a ladder to constantly deadhead and remove dead leaves. We asked several of the generally elderly owners how they coped, as this type of patio was not for us however much we like geraniums. We were not totally ready for the answer. ‘ We don’t. We planted up the pots with new plants at the end of March, bring them to perfection for the Festival, and then let them go. By August they are decimated by the oven like heat of the patio and the geranium moths that love the Cordoban climate’ for the sun reached into parts of these patios during the day.


Not far away were patios with a mix of coloured plants. Still many geraniums, but also petunias, fuchsias, carnations, vincas and nasturtiums in wall pots or window boxes and hanging baskets. Also in floor pots margaritas and other daisy flowered plants, succulents and a whole range of evergreen plants that most of us would have used as house plants in the UK. Wonderful displays but the geraniums were not as full of flowers or as compact as in the previous patios. We discovered that the owners kept the geraniums from year to year, propagated new ones from cuttings each year and were constantly spraying to fend of the geranium moth. Some using geranium oil as we do. Most importantly they were not planting the upright zonal geraniums but ivy leafed trailing geraniums. In fact botanically all are pelargoniums.


The patios designed not for tourists but to be used all year round by the inhabitants.


The essential ingredients of great patios for daily living.


Provided by trees in the centre or one or more corners. Popular trees being palms, ficus, fig, olives, jacaranda, judas tree, galan de noche, and cordylines Some also had an architectural citrus tree.


From fountains in the middle of ponds, fountains against the wall and in some cases cascades between both.


Firstly from window boxes and climbers such as bougainvillea, bignonias, jasmine, roses, honey suckles, passion flower, clematis and plumbago but with none or very few wall pots of geraniums. Secondly from tasteful displays of decorated plates, plaques , murals and memorabilia.


Ferns, aspidistras, spider plants, spathiphyllum, pothos, bread plants, mother-in-laws tongue, were all popular and from their size survived well in the semi shade and at times deep shade of the patios. There were also succulents, cacti, bamboos and bonsais of various types.


Bulbs such as clivias, cyclamen, freesias, irises, lilies and agapanthus.

Plants such as kalanchoa, begonias, fuchsias, pansies, busy lizzies, azaleas , some spectacular hydrangeas and a water lily in the pond..


Collections of interesting old or new pots, agricultural and city artefacts.


For relaxing or dining alone or with company. Only once did we see a canopied swing chair. A few had trellis screens to crate private corners and covered pergolas for shade when the sun reached down into the well of the patio.


Light music of your choice for relaxing. In Cordoba guitar and flamenco music was generally played quietly for effect.SUBTLE LIGHTING.

A mix of spot lights, wall lights and standard lamps suitable for outside use when it rains down into the patio.


Most were open to the elements others had a convenient motorized cover that could be used for shelter from the mid day sun or storms.


A cat, budgerigar, fish in the pond or an ancient turtle.

Decision criteria

So if you decide to purchase a house with a patio style terrace there are many possibilities. But before you go into action consider:

a. To what extent will the patio be important to your daily life style?

b.   What will be the maximum and minimum annual temperatures? The walls of the patio may raise the temperature just those few degrees required to prevent winter frost damage but in the summer the south facing wall can become scorching rather than warm and turn the courtyard into a furnace .

c. Where is the natural shade ?  Recognize that the larger the courtyard the lower the percentage of shade and the greater exposure to the sun in the summer and swirling cold winds in the winter.

d. The levels of natural humidity and where the water from the roof and floor can run to. Decide whether it can be usefully harnessed or whether you have a serious drainage problem to deal with before you tackle the patio layout.

Decisions on plants

Finally when you get round to thinking about plants there are plenty to chose from in our boos ‘Your Garden in Spain – From planning to planting and maintenance’ and ‘Apartment gardening Mediterranean style’.

©Clodagh and Dick Handscombe August 2012.