Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Travels in Iberia

Its at least a month since we got back from a trip to Spain and Portugal, but better late than never. Basically a holiday but also an opportunity to explore central Portugal, where we are thinking of moving to. One of the things that attracts me about living in Iberia (i.e. Spain/Portugal) is the very high level of biodiversity. It is thought that there are approximately 8,000 species of flowering plant, compared to 1500 in Britain. Many of these have never been seriously evaluated for cultivation, and the possibility of being involved in some pioneering work on this front is an exciting one. A more contemporary approach to garden design is beginning to take off in Spain, and there is the enticing possibility of doing some genuinely pioneering work which might have some fruit. 

One groovy biennial umbellifer - Thapsi villosa, would make  a very dramatic garden plant.
Having got off the ferry in Bilbao in our rather elderly camper van we crossed the Cantabrian region to spend a few days in the Picos de Europa, a region which is deservedly legendary for the richness of its wild flora. How many plants can you think of with the specific name cantabrica? Mostly 'rockery' plants. Much of the region is limestone, which means that it has a particularly rich flora – for some reason, which no-one has yet been able to explain, European wildflower diversity is at its richest on limestone – which does not necessarily apply elsewhere in the world. 

Walking through what is basically a fairly rocky countryside, the richness of the flora is soon apparent, with old walls and rock faces being particularly richly varied habitats. A lot of nice looking plants which are too small for borders or perennial plantings but which you could grow on …. well, rockeries. Which begs a question. Who now has a rockery? They were all the rage in the early 20th century and slowly fell out of fashion. They were still popular when I was growing up in the 1970s; I remember my father was particularly good at building them, and filling them with a wide range of plants. I am not quite sure why they have fallen out of fashion. Maybe it is because so many of them were so downright bad, and once they have gotten out of control, with weeds and rather over-vigorous plants, like the infamous 'silver strangler' Cerastium tomentosum. they were just an embarrassing mess which was singularly difficult to clean up, or remove. Perhaps it is time we took a new look at the concept and develop the neo-rockery, the post-modernist alpine garden and look at using second-hand construction materials instead of rocks. Some Dutch growers have started on this route – ideal for the urban environment. Northern Spain has certainly got a wide range of species which would be perfect.

The Picos de Europa has some fantastic meadows, and what looks like just about enough small-scale agriculture to support them. Most remarkable was a wet cliff face we found on a walk which we did when we had to leave the poor old camper van to cool down after it over-heated on a particularly steep mountain road. Here, on a jumble of limestone was an extraordinary mix of species from a wide range of habitats all growing together: woodland Anemone hepatica, peat bog Pinguicula vulgaris, dry meadow Eryngium bourgatii, alpine Erinus alpinus, woodland Helleborus foetidus and tall-herb flora Aconitum sp..
Erinus alpinus and Pinguicula vulgaris

Presumably this mix was growing the way it was because of the almost unique combination of circumstances: plenty of water (enough to flush excess calcium out), perfect drainage (or at least highly oxygenated water), and a reasonable amount of nutrients. I was reminded of another gardening concept which looks like it is going the way of the not-much-lamented rockeries of old - the living wall. Killed off by Patrick Blanc's absurdly expensive and over-ambitious creations and a whole run of appallingly designed systems sold, or built, by many others, the living wall is a great idea which needs to be recovered, perhaps by amateur growers who have the time, the plant knowledge and the enthusiasm to really make something of it. 

This little charmer is Hispidela hispanica - an annual with garden promise.
Driving across the increasingly hot an sunny plains of northern Spain in April, it is the annuals that grow on patches of waste ground that seize the botanical attention, mostly daisy family, or species of Silene. Plenty of things here which might belong in annual seed mixes, if only someone would get around to trialling them. On that front, I am glad to hear that there is a chap in Madrid, Miguel Garcia Ovejero, who is working with the Sheffield annual mixes in some Madrid parks and now some perennial mixes too. There is plenty of biodiversity here which could potentially be included.
Somebody asked me recently about new developments in Spain (maybe Portugal too). They should check out Miguel Urquijo and Fernando Martos as designers

I haven't seen much sign of innovative garden design in Portugal yet, though there is a Chaumont-style garden festival at Ponte de Lima, and a lot of the new small urban landscape projects you see around are stunningly good, the hardscaping and concepts at least – I am seriously impressed.