(Photo: San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, iStock)
Step off the dusty cobblestone streets and peek behind nondescript, weather-worn, faded, even grimy brick facades, and encounter the startlingly beautiful courtyard gardens of this central Mexican colonial town.
These oases of beauty and calm claim their roots in the traditional Moorish gardens of ancient Spain. Those, in turn, were inspired by Persian, Roman and Islamic gardens even earlier. The word "paradise" itself means "walled garden."
Alfonso Alarcon, a landscape architect in San Miguel de Allende for nearly 30 years, says monasteries were among the first to design and plant courtyard gardens. Perhaps it was an attempt to replicate paradise.
"Life was directed inside" initially for safety reasons, he explained. "No one saw you. It looks like nothing from the outside, and then you get into this beautiful patio."
Traditionally, such gardens are built in a cross-shape with the corners, usually anchored by large trees, pointing north, south, east and west. A pond or fountain often serves as a central focal point. Fruit trees and fragrant plants provide further respite from the sun, humidity, even the noise and dirt from outside the walls.
In the 16th century, the conquering Spaniards left behind their outdoor sanctuaries, and they continue to be embraced in Mexico today.SEE: Why tourism is on the rise in remote cities like Kaikoura, Xiamen, Puebla
Markus Luck has been designing gardens in San Miguel since 2006. "You want something that looks good year-round," he explains. "Put in things that aren't too big, don't block too much light, aren't too cluttered."
In smaller spaces, the entire courtyard can even be filled with plants in pots.
Mexican walls are often painted bold reds and yellows and oranges, so trees and plants tend toward simple, wide, leafy greens, or crawling ivy and simple white blooms.
Because of its mild, Mediterranean climate, just about anything can grow — and quickly — in San Miguel. Popular choices for courtyard gardens include citrus trees, including oranges, limes and kumquats, olive trees, bougainvillea, ferns and lavender.
"I would see something in front of someone's house and I'd knock on the door and ask for a cutting," Luck said. "You'd see the ones over time that do well."
Modern designers and property owners also are paying more attention to how much water their gardens will use and how much work will be required to maintain them.
San Miguel uses well water stored in ancient aquifers, so it's chock full of salt and other minerals, Luck said.
Jeffry Weisman and Andrew Fisher first fell in love with the three jacaranda trees on the property they bought here in 2011.
"I grew up in LA with a jacaranda outside my window. It was minuscule compared to these that are 110 years old," Weisman said. "Nothing like an ancient tree to give scale and sculptural quality to a garden."WATCH: Leaf your worries behind at this eco-friendly Italian apartment complex
The main building on the couple's property was originally built in the 18th century as a tannery, so it's more open and less claustrophobic than most, Weisman explained. He said they designed the courtyard as a series of rooms, each with a theme and purpose, from the pool area to the dining terrace to the outdoor living room with fireplace.
"For the planting, it was critical that everything be easy to grow and native," he said.
"In our youth, we spent a lot of time trying to grow things that didn't want to grow, and we've learned better."
Alarcon said he still meets clients who want what they can't — or shouldn't — have.
"Gardens work as a dynamic unit. Everything should work with everything else," he said, adding that he encourages property owners to think past their immediate enjoyment to the mid- or long-term.
"Gardens don't remain the same. Even if you try to control it. Plants grow old, they die, they change."
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