Tuesday’s Terrace

Pittosporum, Cordoba- J.McGrath/Plinth et al.

In a true blend of art and horticulture, this weeks Tuesday’s Terrace come with a Pittosporum tobira that’s all dressed up with nowhere to go. Seen in Cordoba, Spain, this otherwise bland planting that would be lost and ignored in any environment but is spruced up here with a colorful assemblage containing multiple tiers of tiles. The color palette accentuates the dark and handsome foliage see on this plant. Never before have I ever wanted to take a Pittosporum home… – James



Frosty Nights and Tropical Warmth

Dear Jimmy,

It has been a while since we last corresponded through letters, and your last letter on Cordoba had me longing for warmth again. However, yesterday was the winter solstice, which means that the days only become longer in tiny increments, giving me hope for the new year’s spring. I took a day off two weeks ago to plant all the bulbs in the ground, and the anticipation of their shoots breaking through the soil later always make me smile. It is miraculous to believe that the unremarkable bulbs can proffer promise of color, although one needs the foresight to plant them in autumn. Inside the greenhouses, the South African bulbs are waking up to spread their cheer as I see specialist plant blogs with exciting news of the latest Nerine or Lachenalia in flower. However, we need the darkness to appreciate the brightness of plants escaping dormancy because neither dark nor light are exclusive. Peresphone’s abduction by Hades into the Underworld and her mother Demeter’s joyous embrace of Peresphone upon her earthly return is an ancient acknowledgement of the highs and lows that define human lives, not to mention the natural world. No one wishes for a long winter, but on the other hand no one desires a perpetual spring because we cannot appreciate the changes essential for the cycle of life.


Frosty days have been rare, and while frost is a destructive element in the garden, its crystalline beauty is undeniably photogenic. This year’s December has been mild, compared to last year’s forceful and frigid winter, giving me little reason to complain. Instead, the days have been like those of the British Isles, darkly damp that perennials left uncut look sodden, not structural. Only the woody plants, especially broad-leafed evergreens, look magnificent. I always envied those in milder climates, especially Mediterranean ones, for their choices of evergreens – in Australian gardens, I loved the bay laurels (Laurus nobilis), rosemary, and myrtles (Myrtus communis), all contributing their resinous aromas with the native eucalyptus, while in English gardens, camellias, cherry laurels (Prunus laurocerasus), rhododendrons, boxwood, and mahonias come to the fore after the thunderous colors of annuals and herbaceous perennials. To see the green foliage lustrous, healthy, and cold resilient is a continual reminder that not all plants recoil from winter.  You may feel more comfortable in the north European gardens, but the trip to Cordoba appeared to be an eye opener in the joy of fragrant and evergreen plants.


I look back to our posts we had painstakingly written, edited, photographed, and shared with our readers in 2014. It is remarkable how that fateful day in February 2012 led to Plinth et al. Doing this blog has acquainted me with interesting individuals and gardens, as well as cementing our friendship and love for all things horticultural and artistic. The hard part is opening up because privacy is an endangered species now, and rare is the time when we are not parked in front of brightly lit screens. It will be the last letter of 2014 as we welcome 2015 in a matter of a week. I’ll be visiting family in Taiwan, and the subtropical weather will be welcomed. Stay tuned for the terraces of Taipei!

Happy Holidays!


The Courtyards of Cordoba



There are tradeoffs for a gardener when one decides to live in either the city or the countryside. It is possible to have a garden in either situation, regardless of what one might choose, but most likely the country gardener has it a bit easier with being able to plant directly in the soil. The city gardener on the other hand needs to be a bit more creative with space and the execution of a plan to create an enjoyable green space. With my experience in New York City and London as an urban gardener I relish the challenge that comes with designing an urban garden, but a recent visit to Cordoba helped tip me off on how the Spaniards adorn their spaces with plants while successfully creating that desired sense of calm in a city.

I visited the Courtyards of Viana,  a stately home originally owned by a single family, which had many types of courtyards with each serving a different purpose. There were a mix of terraces, gardens and courtyards, with the latter having actual soil beds to plant into, an ideal situation amidst the chaos and noise of the surrounding city environment. The courtyards were considerably cooler than the street and had a quietness to them, feeling further from the activity that lay just on the other side of the walls.  The amount of pots and containers used in abundance was surprising because since majority of the year is dry and hot here, I couldn’t help but wonder how they stayed on top of watering, and with the act of watering, how were there no signs of watered pots dribbling down the sides of pristine white walls. A combination of Asparagus densiflorus, Monstera deliciosa, Acanthus mollis, Bergenia, Clivia miniata palms, ferns and Plumbago capensis set the mood for the rest of the courtyards.


The grouping of pots of asparagus fern couldn’t be more simple or effective, creating a cascade of texture which stood out in contrast to its stark background, which was also the perfect background to highlight some of the more interesting leaf silhouettes, such as the monstera leaf we all love.

IMG_3400                           The intimate ambiance of the next courtyard  played host to a planting of bitter orange trees that were over 100 years old.


Through the use of water and plants an oasis was created, where the scents and sounds of water helped relax its original owners, taking one’s mind away from the surrounding dry and arid climate. This courtyard is a good example of a Hispanic-Muslim garden, noted in its design, using high walls to enclose it, creating an intimate atmosphere and putting the focus on the combination of water, flowers and fruit trees.

Geraniums sit ready to go on the gallery in one corner of the courtyard.



A serene color palette of teal, white and tan work harmoniously together, with  simple plants  and mixed with a few chosen architectural details to enhance it further. Plants seen here were pots of miniature Pomegranate trees and Centaurea candidissima with more Plumbago capensis present, which completely covered one wall of this enclosed garden.

IMG_3453A clever way they created depth in a corner planting was to plant two of the same plant, seen here with Bougainvillea spectabilis with its purple flowers and B. glabra variety with its orange flowers, which we really know are just bracts. The simplicity is pulled together by white walls and anchored by the weight of wooden and teal painted doors. The Centaurea candidissima are used in pots throughout, and upon close inspection, one understands why.




Grow from seed in a glasshouse, the Centaurea are then potted up and left to grow, often remaining in the same pot for years, until the base of the plants take on a thick short woody trunk.  Due to the weight of the leaves, it begins draping its velvety foliage over the sides of the terracotta pot, creating a beautiful living sculptural addition to the courtyard.


A common sight in Cordoba are the potted plant lined walls and the Courtyard of the Columns was no different. Pot after pot of Geraniums and Ivy-leaf Geraniums added much color to the stark walls with the long shadows in constant change as the sun made its trek through the sky.  I wish there was a gardener to speak with to hear more about how maintenance was carried out, but no one was seen while I was there.





IMG_3469IMG_3507IMG_3555Each room and garden was different than the next, teaching me so much along the way of how the Spaniards view their gardens. If I have learned anything about their courtyards, it is that there must be a delicate balance between plants, water, simple colors and architectural details. There is a simplicity that I understand is much nicer in the heat than having the eyes met with a barrage of plantings and color which could easily overwhelm.  The Spaniards know how to play it cool when putting these beautiful little paradise’s together.. – James

Tuesday’s Terrace


IMG_3376 Tuesday’s Terrace is a foliage lover’s delight, proving that when using potted plants correctly in the right environment, flowers need not be necessary. Using textures and silhouettes as the focus , these groupings of plants such as Asparagus densiflorus, Monstera deliciosa, Palm, Bergenia, Clivia miniata and ferns create a serene environment in this Spanish courtyard. This ensemble cast is just a teaser of what lies inside some of the homes and terraces in Cordoba, which will be shown later this week.  – James

Captivating Cordoba


About two hours South of Madrid, in Andalusia, is Cordoba, a city rich in history and tradition, even declared a World Heritage Sight by UNESCO. It was here that I really started to grasp what gardening in a Mediterranean climate can be and the possibilities that exist, beyond the limitation of my two tiny terraces in Madrid.  After arriving by train, I dropped my bags off and went to visit the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, which was the residence of the Christian Kings when they stayed in Cordoba.  The sun was relentless and as I ducked in to enter, I had no idea of the little paradise which was waiting behind the large doors of the palace.  I was about to be transported away from all of the English and Dutch gardens I have seen these past few years and get a lesson in the components of Mediterranean gardening. I know that in Hispano Arabic gardens the important hours are from sunset to midnight, as it is too hot to enjoy during the day, and this later time of day is when night scents and accentuates the darkness of the cypress used throughout. The garden is built in layers and rooms with which you proceed quietly from one retreat to the next.

IMG_3022The tricks employed in these gardens extend beyond flower and plant combinations and are apparent in the permanent structures and the bones throughout the garden. Garden rooms,  with some surrounded by arcades, fluctuate between light and dark, such as providing a welcome rest from the blazing sun overhead. Here groves of orange trees were under planted with Aspidistra, Acanthus and Agapanthus.  Plants are usually used range from Mandarin, Cypresses and Oleander which are all compatible with the sun and heat of the Spanish climate.



The simplicity of the planning in the garden is obvious, with well cut hedges and through the use of water in large fountains, pools and fountains. Water is considered a major element in the garden, the primary motif used throughout.  The water pulses through the garden in rills, a small open topped gulley or water-course (seen in first photo on top, right) or is seen in large pools which also has fountains creating streams of pattern on the water.  Even without seeing the water, the sound is enough to create a sense of coolness to the atmosphere, though visually, the blue painted pools are a respite for sun sore eyes.

IMG_3070Large groupings of annuals were planted in the beds which was a great lesson in seeing what can grow well in this climate in the ground. I was tempted to cut and gather large armfuls of the large Celosia seen here, and though the red is a ‘hot’ color, it was soothing to see one large sweep of one color, restful to the eyes and playing well against the blue.

Two large plantings of Cyperus were plunged into large cold pools on the terrace
Allees of Cypress create a longer sense of length when placed alongside the serene pools and fountains


Beds in other areas also utilized annuals taking advantage of the continuous blooms and hard work they do when perennials can’t. Under groves of trees and mixed in with roses were Tagetes and a Zinnia mix which elicited childlike memories and smiles from all who came near them.  A bit of unorganized chaos contained and controlled within low hedges.  From other gardens I have visited here so far, the maintenance was consistent throughout and you could tell the garden was loved and cared for.

the cool white blooms of Euphorbia marginata were the palette cleanser to the playful mix of Zinnia blooms


IMG_3092 2

Crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia) were centrally placed in some beds, as well as Oleander and the ever present olive trees.  In the full glare of the sun it is so easy for many colors together to look garish and would loved to have had the chance to stroll the gardens in the early evening, but next time, maybe next time. Just the other evening I was sitting in a park with friends talking and the clusters of  jasmine planted near us emanated such an intoxicating scent, and I realized that I have slowly started to be seduced and enchanted by Mediterranean gardens. Until next time my friend, I hope this finds you well and smiling… – James