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My Spanish Garden

A practical and painstaking article about gardening where the main problems seem to be too much sun and too little rain. We should all have such problems.
Dr Neil Butler, 27 Widworthy Drive, Broadstone, Dorset, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 16, published online 23-08-2002

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Cycas revoluta in the Spanish garden:
Top left: A two leaf seedling after 6 years.
Top right: A sucker of approx. 6cm diameter after 6 years.
Below: An off-shoot of approximately 9cm in diameter after 2 years. The 2 longer leaves on the bottom right are the originals, the remainder have grown in just 2 years.

How can one describe a ten-year love affair in a few pages? Spain is such an immense and varied country that my title is meaningless without qualification. My comments have emerged from my experience of two gardens over ten years in the Costa Blanca, the coastal zone of the Valencia Region.

It all started with my wife and I choosing a small plot in an empty and gently sloping hillside inland from Torrevieja but with a view to the distant sea. The land had probably never been cultivated and was covered with scattered low shrubs (garigue) but following each rainy season an incredible array of wild flowers developed. Although our one small bungalow did not have an impact on the wild life, when five thousand developed behind us it was decimated.

It was at this point after five years of developing our first garden and with retirement on the horizon that we decided to move to a larger garden and went north to midway between Alicante and Valencia.

There has been much written about Mediterranean gardening but none of it adequately prepares one for the reality of starting a garden there. The classic year starts with a mild winter where plants are either dormant or developing slowly. Spring rains follow and with warming, growth proceeds at an alarming rate. As the heat of summer develops, everything becomes parched, and the growth of many plants stops and many gardener's plants shrivel and die. There are some plants, both Mediterranean and exotic, that love this hot dry period and when the autumn rains come there is another flush of growth which slows down as winter develops. This seems a very simple and straightforward pattern but all too frequently the rains do not materialise at the right times. The one consistent factor is the intense hot/dry cycle. When the rains come out of sequence it plays havoc with many plants.

Mediterranean gardens are fashionable in the UK at the moment but there is no substitute for the real thing. Mine is certainly not a Mediterranean garden; it is MY garden in the Mediterranean.

Let me tell you how it developed and how it compares with our garden on the Dorset coast in the south of England.

Before embarking on such a project there are practical matters to consider such as availability of water, provision of care and maintenance, supply of money and willingness to work. With careful selection of plants and layout it is possible to create a self-supporting garden that will survive anything the Mediterranean climate will throw up and still be pleasant and in harmony with the surroundings. That, however, is another story as I chose the opposite end of the spectrum, which can be very frustrating but also very rewarding. Harmony with the surroundings is very important so one should start by being bold and try to define what makes a Spanish garden. Climate and the collection of plants used are over-riding factors. The country farmhouse with a single large tree in the centre of a terrace and with a few scattered pots, a village square with a few trees and palms, the exquisite patios of southern mansions of the fabulous gardens of large estates all have one thing in common. They are places of colour, fragrance and tranquillity and much of life centres around them be it for the family meal or a place of sanctuary from the outside world.

Into this scene has come a new dimension that of bungalows built for foreigners from the cold north. These houses with their obligatory swimming pools and flamboyant barbecues have brought a wider interest in gardens and are resulting in a renaissance of horticulture in Spain.

The casual passer-by may well look and think 'another typical Spanish garden'. True there is a solid framework of typical plants like Nerium oleander, Bougainvillea, Ficus carica, Phoenix canariensis, Hibiscus rosa-sinensis and syriacus, Jacaranda mimosifolia, Citrus spp and many more. Blended into this mini-paradise are my own private little gardens, which are a reflection of fifty years of botanical interests.

In the virgin fertile soil of Torrevieja it was only necessary to put a plant in, add water, and it would grow at an alarming rate. The only limitations to total success were windburn, sunburn and the winter minimum temperature for delicate more tropical plants. My new garden is a typically Mediterranean limestone hillside with a miserable layer of low quality soil. This meant it was necessary to create a variety of different environments for different types of plants. Pots and larger container beds were necessary for acid-loving plants but large holes filled with soil and organic matter were useful for others and periodic treatment with iron chelates were sufficient for some. Coupled with these it was necessary to have a supply of rainwater for the whole of the garden but storage capacity is limited and I am dependent on the vagaries of the weather. I regard my first garden as a learning ground and will for the most part concentrate on my present garden. The learning continues but the most important early lessons learnt were a respect for the summer and an understanding of what to water and when. Early mistakes set some of my projects back up to five years.

Many plants in garden centres have been raised under protected conditions and die within days of exposure to the summer sun. Seedlings which I had nurtured of cycads, one palm (Rhopalostylis), a number of Protaceae and various other Australian plants all frizzled before my eyes. So much for enthusiasm. Seedlings are now grown on to a suitable size under protection and then gradually hardened off before planting out, and this is restricted to autumn and early spring. All very difficult to organise when one is only there half the time.

Although I had seedlings coming on I wanted a reasonable specimen plant of Cycas revoluta. Some beautiful specimens were available but at a horrendous price. I decided to try the travelling plantsman in the local market. I took a list along for eight plants, which was fine until Cycas. He had no idea what that was so after drawing in the air and on paper he suggested what I wanted was a Pygmy palm. This sounded reasonable enough and I eagerly returned a week later to collect my plants. All were fine except the Pygmy palm, which turned out to be just that, a very miserable seedling of some palm. I thought it might have been a Chamaerops but it turned out to he a Washingtonia, which grew upwards, and outwards at a tremendous rate and in a matter of four years dominated our small garden. Cycas revoluta is now available in all sizes and prices but is it much more fun growing you own as I will discuss later.

When it came to moving we decided to go for an existing house with a garden that had to be broken in. After weeks of searching we came across our new house by chance. We were standing on the balcony admiring the view. My wife was transfixed by the beautiful view across the distant sea and said 'This is so beautiful, we must have it'. My gaze was centred on a beautiful twenty year-old specimen of Cycas revoluta as I replied 'we must'. And so it was that the 'Casa De Las Flores' became our new Spanish home.

This area is under extensive cultivation both on the valley floors and up the hillsides by terracing. Some time ago the higher terraces and those on particularly poor soil were abandoned and it is on such ground that the new houses are growing.

When cultivation of this poor ground ceased it reverted towards maquis but this altered some thirty or forty years back when much of it was planted with Pinus halepensis, which is now self-regenerating on vacant land. An interesting component of the calcareous shrubland is Erica multiflora, which produces masses of pink flowers in November. Although the local botany is fascinating and my indulgences in the Proteaceae and Myrtaceae and certain tropical groups are of great interest to me I will concentrate on the Palms and Cycads.


The local climate is warmer than the Riviera but near the coast we have the occasional frost, which is short-lived, and we are exposed to severe winter and summer winds both of which scorch or kill exposed plants. The number of palms grown is very large. Most gardens have only the hardy types and these are for the most part all that are available in local garden centres. The most common are Phoenix canariensis, Washingtonia filifera and Chamaerops humilis in that order. Others include Phoenix dactylifera, Trachycarpus and Livistona. Some others are starting to appear but it is too early to assess how they will survive in general cultivation.

We inherited two ten year old Phoenix canariensis which have doubled in size in five years and are now almost large enough to sagely work under, and will provide a large area of shade for sun-tender plants. Apart from the vicious spines, the other disadvantage of this palm is the prolific production of fruit, which always seems to fall and germinate while we are in the UK.

We also inherited three rather stunted plants of Trachycarpus under which I decided to plant a number of cycads. Previously these palms received no watering but they are now benefiting from the watering the young cycads receive and are growing at a pace. They were originally planted too close together but as they receive different watering and are on slightly different levels it may work out alright.

Butia capitata, Jubaea chilensis and Rhopalostylis sapida were planted as seedlings five years ago and after a slow start are now flourishing in their positions and I regard them as permanent. Another seedling planted at that time was Rhapis excelsa, which started off well, but this summer was badly scorched. It is now in intensive care and will be planted out next year in a more protected position.

Additions this year are Brahea armata, Phoenix roebelenii and Chamaerops humilis.

Chamaerops humilis does grow wild locally in some areas of maquis where it is very stunted and often trunkless but it does however make a beautiful garden plant when grown in a clump. Phoenix dactylifera is more frequent in the area south of Alicante. The palm grove in Elche, which is said to date back to Phoenician times, is well worth a visit for anyone but is obligatory for a palm enthusiast.

There are still many dates grown on private land along with cereals and other crops but these are diminishing, as the tradition of planting for the children and grandchildren is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Perhaps an EC subsidy would reverse this trend - unfortunately many mature date palms are now becoming part of the instant gardens designed for the North Europeans.


Cycas revoluta has been cultivated in Spain over a long period. There are, in the courtyard gardens of the Casa de Pilatos (16th century) in Seville, a number of beautiful specimens with trunks up to 3 metres high. At a nursery in Javea is a field of approximately half an acre full of plants with approximately 30 cm trunks. Other cycads are rare in gardens in this area. Occasional plants of Zamia furfuracea and Cycas circinalis are seen in garden centres. Once I saw another, which might have been, Zamia floridiana but when I returned to have another look it had gone. I have been fascinated by cycads since I was a young botany student and enjoy being able to grow a few and study them first hand. Beautiful specimens are to be seen at Kew and in many botanical gardens and it is still possible to see wild communities. It is still great to grow your own.

I have one specimen of Cycas revoluta, which I estimate to be twenty-five years old. It is growing in the open and is in full sun for most of the day and is protected from the winter winds. It is currently fruiting. The leaf growth in years 22 and 24 comprised two tight whorls but in previous years only single whorls were formed. The leaf growth in year 24 comprised 53 leaves with a total span of two metres. Over the last five years the average trunk increment has been 5cm per year. The trunk height to die base of the current crown is 75 cm and the trunk diameter is 30 cm. This is a female plant and the few seeds produced in year 23 were sterile. The nearest mature male plant I have found is 10 miles away. It has a female companion and those two fruit in harmony but so far have been out of sequence with mine. I am hopeful that one year they will fruit together and I will be able to get some pollen. I have two small plants from other sources so hopefully one day there may be a young male companion.

At year 21 suckers and basal offshoots started to appear. These were left until the autumn of year 23 when seven were removed arid planted out. Two produced leaves after one year and the remainder after two years. The larger seemed to do better and it would appear the speed of growth was related to the strength of root development.

Although the general procedure for propagation is often quoted, there is usually little mention of the difficulty that can be encountered in separating suckers or offshoots. Mother plants that are regularly cropped usually only produce a few at a time. I had a mat of 36 around the base that were more or less confluent and those I refer to, as basal offshoots were a continuum of the main trunk. The tissue is very hard and I found a large chisel helpful for cutting them out. All damaged parts of the trunk were sealed with a pruning compound to which Benlate had been added. The best specimens were selected and the cut surfaces trimmed. These surfaces were smeared with a rooting gel to which Benlate had been added and then left for two days to dry off. These were then potted up in a mixture of equal parts of peat, sand and volcanic ash, left outside and given periodic water. During the first year or so they were in shade under a tree but for the second year they were placed out in full sun.

Growing cycads from seed is a slow business but from good-sized suckers you can save many years. See the three photographs for graphic illustration of this.

My other star cycad is a plant of Zamia furfuracea, which I obtained as an unrooted offshoot. This was planted in the ground with some shade. This started growing almost immediately and is now five years old. It is a male plant and has been producing cones for three years. In its fourth year, the trunk started to divide and a cone was produced on both branches. I have two healthy plants, which were planted as seedlings, and hopefully one of these will turn out to be a female.

My big mistake was planting out seedlings too soon. At four years progress was so poor that I started remedial action. The worst were transferred in pots and put under intensive care and protective covers were made for the others, which gave some protection from wind and scorching sun. The new leaves that formed tinder these protective covers were approximately double the size of those formed when the plants were exposed.

Bowenia was killed off in the second winter but other Cycads were responding well - these are Macrozamia moorei, Dioon edule, Encephalartos natalensis and Encephalartos lebomboensis. A Lepidozamia is surviving. A poorly specimen of Macrozamia communis with three browny yellow leaves has produced four healthy leaves after just three months of intensive care. I have a new crop of seedlings coming on but they have to pass the five-year test yet.

The highlights of the last five years have been the first fruiting and successful propagation of Cycas, the first flowering of Banksia, Protea, Strelitzia, Dombeya and Plumeria. I now have Plumeria rubra (Frangipani) flowering from June though till September.

The most serious problems centre around heat and water, followed closely by wind, leaf-eating insects and snails. A particular problem with the cycads is infestation with scale insects.

There are many similarities between our Spanish garden and our Dorset garden. The Dorset site was heathland with stands of Pinus sylvestris and under planted with Rhododendron ponticum. Apart from the surface humus from heathers, Rhododendrons and pine there is no soil, only sand and stones. The location is on high ground with sight of the distant sea, which exposes us to fierce gales. There is no natural water retention and everything dries out within a week of rain and the local water is rich in mineral and lime. We started with a massive planting of heathers, which thrived through the first winter but then as the dry summer came all died except the lime tolerant winter flowering types. The annual casualties resulted either from lack of water or the winter gales. We persevered and have had some pleasing successes. The early seventies were balmy days and the climate along the Dorset coast was truly Mediterranean. After seven years we had a freeze up and many plants died including beautiful flowering specimens of Acacia dealbata, Cordyline australis, Phormium tenax, Metrosideros excelsa, Sophora tetraptera, Clianthus puniceus and several Eucalyptus spp. We have beautiful specimens of most of these in Spain. The Sophora and Clianthus have problems with the sun. The majestic flower stalks of Phormium are a sight to behold.

Our experiences in Spain have prompted us to be more adventurous again in our Dorset garden and we are now planting a few palms and of course Cycas revoluta. The next five years are going to be interesting.

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