April in Spain can be hot and so it was when five European designers came to sample the delights of Madrid.  Maria and I hosted the weekend and whilst of course we enjoyed the local gastronomy we all met to experience Spanish landscape architecture and see at first hand how design has evolved in the dry city which has searing summer temperatures – 40 is not uncommon but it is generally mid-30s.  The winters are cooler but rarely below zero.  Our group was made up of Maria Morera, Spain, Merilen Mentaal MSGD, Estonia, Caroline Thomas and Angela Warmerdam, Netherlands, Rebecca Lammers, Germany and Elodie Pradon, Portugal – a wide variety of climates from which to draw knowledge and differing experiences.

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I am the SGD International Coordinator and through our monthly meetings I have come to know all the designers.  Whilst I am English and work for a UK studio, I have lived in Spain for 12 years so my reference point for garden design is Yorkshire, not all that like Madrid!

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Meeting designers from other parts of Europe is fascinating, on arrival into Madrid mid evening they were all surprised at the temperature and keen to understand how this affects what can be grown and what design principles need to be applied to counteract these climactic affects.

“Getting acquainted with Spanish garden design was a treat in itself. But being able to do so in the company of an international group of designers sharing the same passion and discussing design differences and  analogies added so much extra value.

It was inspiration squared.” Angela Warmerdam

Our first visit took in the former garden of a duchess (Jardín El Capricho) used purely for entertaining in the late 18th and early 19th Century.  The flowers on display, blooming so early in the year was the first impression, with beds of colourful tulips bobbing in the sun by the gate.  The large garden showcased formal design of the period and offered an insight into the use of water to cool the environment, provide irrigation and give movement.  The bee house (yes really!) had a moat around it for its cooling properties, to prevent ants entering and to give the illusion that it was built on level ground – the eye sees this and not the slightly sloping ground.  The three different ways it benefitted the bees and the landscape was of interest to all of us and provided one of our first take aways.
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There was a period after the civil war until about the eighties when the garden fell into decline, it has been managed carefully ever since and we were enthralled by a tour given by the Conservation Director who has overseen the work since the garden was taken into public hands.  Whilst a lot of plants, notably shrubs and undergrowth were removed, many of the self-seeded Cercidiphyllum japonicum were retained both for their stunning spring blossom and the shade they give in the long summer months.

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Joaquín Sorolla created his garden alongside his new home at the turn of the last century and is another garden where water is prevalent with no less than three water features in a space which is about 5000sqm.  The layout and plants were largely chosen to be painted, much like at Giverney, Monet’s garden in France, but here flowers weren’t the main protagonists, evergreen plants yet again providing form and texture with roses giving colour.  Roses are ubiquitous across Spain in both public and private spaces and they bloom for so long it is quite unlike the UK.  Perhaps this is a sign of what UK based designers have in store.

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Further use of evergreens and tall shade giving trees was observed at the garden by the royal palace (Jardines de Sabatini), along with cooling fountains.  The newly redeveloped Plaza de España alongside has continued some of these themes, although for me it is a space with not enough shade, this is possibly a compromise as it is a space used for events such as concerts, outdoor cinema etc.  However, with the city heat it’s not a pleasant space to walk through and we were there in spring.

“Experiencing Spanish garden design, historic and contemporary, and learning about how shade and the incorporation of water can create refuges from the busy and hot city has been invaluable. Especially so as these topics become increasingly relevant in Germany with each summer.” Rebecca Lammers

Finally, we explored the river Manzanares and the successful rewilding project of the last decade.  The river is not navigable and for many years was not enjoyed by Madrileños, most notably from the seventies when an orbital motorway encased it.  There have long been a series of dams which regulated the flow.  The rewilding project meant leaving these open so the river could flow freely and cease to be dammed.  The water’s surface area was reduced, sediment islands were created, riverside vegetation appeared and, with it, the fauna of this type of ecosystem.  It has been highly successful in its aim and furthermore the landscaping of the riverbanks carried out ten years previously meant that the Madrid river park is a hive of activity at the weekends and in the evenings.  Again, water has been used to provide shallow pools and water jets in which to immerse yourself, and children too, when the temperature in the city gets too unbearable.  Those living in central Madrid don’t generally have gardens so access to green space and areas for sports and play are essential.  Once more block planting of evergreens and trees is successfully interspersed with rose beds.

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The enjoyment of spending a weekend with fellow designers and furthermore those from across Europe was inspiring and highly recommended.  We finished the weekend wondering where we would travel to next, to experience local landscapes different from our own.

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This article has been reproduced following it being published in the Garden Design Journal, the journal of the Society of Garden Designers  of which we are all pre-registered members.