Absentee Gardening – Some Practical Thoughts

By Clodagh and Dick Handscombe, Active gardeners, authors and broadcasters living in Spain for over twenty years, Dick initially as an absentee gardener.

The Challenge of Gardening Abroad

Absentee gardeners are starting to arrive for their one, two or three month summer visit. Those retired for the full period and some others perhaps commuting each fortnight to keep a business ticking over at home. While in Spain creating and maintaining a garden as a part time gardener can be tough as Dick found out in his first five years of owning a house in Spain. It still makes sense to aim at designing or redesigning your garden to suit your planned lifestyle in Spain but inevitably that lifestyle for most will be focussed on switching off during the valuable holiday weeks in Spain. So the garden plan needs to recognise that constraint unless you envisage paying for an instant garden and a maintenance gardener for the many months that you are not in Spain.

Some Practical Guidelines for Absentee Gardeners

Assuming that you are keen gardeners we suggest the following basic guidelines.

  • Initially aim 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. First lay down safe paths connecting the various doorways and one or two areas of 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 . Two of the most important benefits are that chippings are relatively inexpensive and that you can quickly change the shapes of paths, terraces etc by raking and cutting/adding to the plastic underlay as many times as you like on a trial and error basis.
  • Divide the garden into a number of areas and first complete those areas most seen and best for summer shade and winter sun first.
  • Limit early plantings to hedges, trees for shade and some of the more drought and resistant plants. If inland also ensuring that they are frost resistant. –see Part Four of ‘Your garden in Spain’ which lists some 400 of the easiest plants to use..
  • Recognise that pots, aesthetic ornaments and fountains can be as pleasing, stimulating and restful as plants and require less maintenance.
  • Early on install several possibilities for al fresco eating to get used to the idea of a very outdoor life. A mexican oven, tajine and charcoal burner, and paella ring and stand would be our first choices. They offer a greater variety of dishes than a barbecue.
  • 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, composts from a local eco park and 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 ‘ Terracotem’ into the earth/compost mix used to fill the 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!
  • Get used to rising with the sun to garden in the cool early hours. Sleep can be caught up on during a sunbathe or siesta in the shade later in the day.
  • 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.

You will find a longer list of do’s and don’ts for absentee gardeners in Section 1.5 of our book ‘Your Garden in Spain’ – From planning to planting and maintenance’ ISBN 978-84-89954-670. This book is priced at 19.90 euros so a minor investment for peace of mind compared with cost of just a few plants that might die before the Christmas visit.

You will now find it in Bookworld España, Bargain Books and other bookshops. If you live inland the book can be purchased from the publishers by mail order via the website or by phone on 952-485838. In the UK the book is available by mail order or personal visit available from The Royal Horticultural Society Bookshop on 0845-2604505 and naturally high street and online bookshops.

© Clodagh and Dick Handscombe July 2008.