It’s gray, it’s raining, and a stealthy sheet of ice is hiding just under a layer of slushy wet snow daring you to try and walk too quickly. January in the Catskills and I am faced with the daunting task of writing a garden column. As I gaze out to my beautiful (but decidedly gray) mountain views looking for witty and creative words, I realize that there exist a finite number of times that one can wax on about winter interest and branch structures. Yes, I need my muse.
Luckily I often have a chirpy one (and editor) in the room, happily ready to prattle off a seemingly endless array of esoteric delights. Why is she the eternal optimistic gardener and I the well…realistic one? This remains a mystery. Yes, I want to find my own inspiration, yet the muse already planted a seed!
Peggy (wife, optimistic one and muse) and I were in Mexico over the holidays and visited quite a few small villages, towns and one decidedly big Mexico City. Yet whether large or small, our plan of action was to find El Zócalo, the central square. Mexican villages are organized around a central square. This is an oasis, made so by a central garden and a church. There are generally cafés, other local businesses and public buildings on the perimeter. Certainly from a design standpoint it makes sense to use the central garden as an organizing principal, a center of gravity and known (hopefully safe) place to go. But add in the presence of a church, bustling cafes… you get the picture. It is the heartbeat of a village.
While I am not a scholar of Mexican landscape design and my travel experience is limited there, in the villages we did see there was a sense of order and grace in the Zócalo. Typically the squares are filled with beautifully maintained trees. Even you, a weary traveler, can find comfort, enclosure and shade offering a therapeutic environment to gather and charge your batteries (I refer to the spiritual battery though nowadays WiFi is often available). In the mid-size and small towns these spaces were beautifully planted and maintained and were obviously “gardens”.
In Mexico City, however, El Zócalo is more architecturally driven. The “square” is a huge public area of stone, benches and sculptures, and when we were there, an over-the-top Christmas Ice extravaganza complete with a tobogganing course. The excitement was such that families lined up for several kilometers waiting to enter. Beautiful – without question. Grand and architectural – yes. But I wondered, should this Zócalo and the piazzas of Italy (also mostly without plantings) be considered a garden as well? Well, according to Miriam Webster it fits the bill!
MW’s definitions of garden (the second definition), is
a: a public recreation area or park usually ornamented with plants and trees
b: an open-air eating or drinking place
c: a large hall for public entertainment
This made me think. Yes, I love the idea of a garden as a gathering place, a central place, a place for hanging out, interaction and repose. This principle fits my philosophy of garden/landscape design to a T. I love to feel like I am IN a garden, that I am surrounded by it, in a comfortable place designed to live in, not just to look at.
In Mexico, and in many urban/clustered populations around the world, homes are created within a walled area or around a courtyard garden. When you enter these enclosed garden spaces, it is as if you are in on a sweet secret. You feel special, safe, included and cozy. Parties, dinners, love affairs, and lazy naps happen here, away from the hubbub of the world around, but still in the outdoors. When I pass an open gate in the French Quarter in New Orleans or door in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, I can’t help but try to sneak peeks into the seemingly magical world inside. Having a courtyard garden is like having an extension of the living area of the house. It is another room, only outdoors. This is immensely appealing to me.
The courtyard garden is particularly applicable to the enclosed backyards in New York City, “garden” apartments, roof gardens, village gardens and even those in suburban homes with smallish yards with close neighbors. Somehow, it is not so obvious how to incorporate the concept into our rural areas with large expanses and views to preserve. However, it is very effective to consider the concept when developing a seating, dining or hanging out area near the house or even as a destination a bit away from the house.
A patio area, deck or just a garden room can have a courtyard feel by incorporating some vertical structure like a seating wall, trellis, arbor, etc… Shrubs or small trees can create a sense of protection or enclosure. And, of course, in our setting, I love to incorporate the big boulders.
Without obscuring a view or creating total “privacy”, the sense of being slightly away from the grand expanse is comfortable and seductive. I once had a wonderful teacher liken this feeling to the same experience as being seated at a table in a restaurant that is behind a half wall or in a corner with a large plant on one side. There used to be a table in Cantina, the now much missed Mexican restaurant in Andes, that was in the northeast corner of the building with a partial wall around it. Remember it? I think it was everyone’s favorite spot in the restaurant.~
Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.