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Courting Spanish Roots

Mission-style gardens and patios reflect California's history and enhance a home's environment. A fountain, tile or cozy pathway can add an air of Old World elegance.


CALIFORNIA GARDENS BEGAN AS AN hommage to native flora and fauna and have evolved into a diverse and complex tapestry.

"The whole Mediterranean region was distilled into garden design and exploration by the Spanish," says Russell Beatty, landscape architect and senior lecturer emeritus at UC Berkeley. "You have this wonderful amalgamation of cultures in both plants and garden form. . . . Enclosed gardens came from the Islamic influence, while other forms, such as fountains in the center and the four-square garden, evolved from Persian heritage."

Our rich botanical heritage burgeoned when Franciscan missionaries arrived in Alta California in the late 1700s to lay claim to the land for the Spanish crown.

"Mission gardens were originally created for their utilitarian value," says Alana Jolley of Mission San Juan Capistrano. "The beginning plantings were vegetable gardens, beds of medicinal herbs and grain fields."

Vineyards for Communion wine and beds of flowers to fill mission altars were introduced later.

Here are suggestions for creating a courtyard:

* El Patio

Spanish courtyards were traditionally walled enclosures created from three sides of a building or house. Unpretentious, they extended the main living space and, shaded by olive or pepper trees, offered a refuge from the summer heat.

A courtyard should fit the distinct character of the house and a family's needs. The patio structure can be created with stone, wood or adobe-covered walls, or clipped hedges planted around the borders (cactus walls were used in the missions).

Arched tops above wooden entry gates with dichos (proverbs or sayings) inscribed in the wood add another layer of detail.

"We use materials in courtyard floors and walls that have that worn look, as if they've always been there," says Kerry Snyder of Snyder & Associates, a landscape design and consulting firm in Orange.

Tile-type surfaces give floors a soft look similar to traditional clay pavers baked in the sun. They come smooth or salted, brushed or rough-cut, for more interesting textures. Pavers cut into traditional squares, octagons or hexagons can also be used as either floor or accent tiles.

* El Alma del Jardin

Fountains are often a courtyard's focal point, exuding romance and serenity. Tiered fountains with fluted edges, roughly paved water troughs or massive stone vessels make a strong architectural statement.

Canterra stone and washed concrete give fountains a natural look and require little surface maintenance.

Mission fountains often had utilitarian as well as visual purposes, such as the one at La Purisima Mission in Lompoc.

"These types of fountains were based on crude adaptations of the Roman, Islamic and Spanish systems," says Beatty. "Connected to several larger water systems, they supplied drinking water, filled the lavenderia [outdoor washbasin] for washing clothes, then flowed through a settling basin to separate out the soap, before being routed into the garden" in the same way gray water is now used.

However, courtyard fountains require maintenance. "A fountain has to be cleaned and the motor kept in running condition to circulate and filtrate water so you don't have algae problems," Snyder said.

It is best to wire a fountain before installing the tile. Then simply plug in the fountain and fill with water.

* La Tierra y la Piedra

"Functional dirt pathways were designed by the mission fathers for contemplation and prayer," says Jolley.

Pathways draw you in, carrying you beyond spaces and plantings toward unexpected discovery. Materials such as dirt, shredded bark, pine, paving stones, pavers, fine rock and decomposed granite lend an informal feel to meandering ways, while offering visual and tactile pleasure.

"Decomposed granite is a very fine, gravelly material that when mixed with concrete looks like a compacted dirt path," Snyder said. "It is used for walkways because it has an exceptionally natural feel to it and softens up the look of the landscape."

Flank both sides of a pathway with drought-tolerant plants such as Indian blanket (Gaillardia spp.), wildflowers and ornamental grasses to soften edges, allowing paths to appear as part of the natural landscape.

* Tesoros Artesanos

Stylish Spanish gardens incorporate elements such as granite water bowls, statues, tesserae tabletops (glass mosaics), urns, pulque pots (traditionally for fermenting agave) and tinted or terra-cotta ("cooked earth") tiles on courtyard floors.

"In Mexico, courtyards are often used as a gathering place," says Lupe Andrade of Snyder & Associates. "Walls are made from native materials like river rock, pavers or irregular pieces of the same stone laid in squares. Blocks of concrete are made into walls and covered with adobe, creating a natural rustic look. Wrought iron is used for ornamentation, adding perhaps a statue, small palm tree, bougainvillea, a few plants and flowers."

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