This was our first visit to Los Frailes, a sprawling development past La Comer on the way to Celaya. Begun some 45 years ago and, then, most popular with Mexican weekenders, it is now a mixed community with the feel of the country where houses are located on larger lots many of which include lovely gardens. As we drove through the winding streets of Los Frailes, I thought that here there are many private gardens some quite old…a fertile area for future paintings.
Some people use a blank canvas to create a work of art, Chip Swab, like many gardeners, saw the possibilities in a vacant lot for a spectacular garden. Chip and Lucy Swab’s house and garden occupy 1020 square meters which is about ¼ of an acre and eight years ago was a vacant lot on a moderate slope. Chip and landscape architect, Alfonso Alarcon, have turned dirt and weeds into an inviting and blooming green space with three terraces which can be viewed and enjoyed from all levels of the house.
The Mexican connection for Chip began almost 50 years ago when he as a young Marine he was stationed in Mexico City at the American embassy and during this time met, fell in love, and married Lucy. It would be some 40 years before the couple returned permanently to Mexico. In those intervening decades they lived in Virginia where they created and enjoyed a large garden on 1½ acres featuring many roses (and a few too many deer).
I chose a spot to paint in the shade with a view following the sinuous curve of the retaining wall between the first and second terraces. Plants were chosen for this garden so there would be bloom during all seasons of the year and in my view (it’s August) you can see lavender, Mexican bush sage, daylilies, Lantana, and Hebe….all in abundant bloom. The multiple greens, lavenders, and orange blend well in a painting using secondary colors.
Linda painted from the patio with a view of the colorfully blooming Bougainvillea and Distictis climbing the corner of the house as well as other flowers in pots and on the lower terraces. (Remember this garden has been designed and planted for bloom.)
The tree in her painting is a large and rapidly growing Jacaranda that in the spring mounts a lavish display of lavender bloom. Beyond the Swab’s garden out of the views in our paintings are several trees all sporting nesting egrets which many consider somewhat of a pest with their excessive squawking and messy droppings. There are no egrets in the jacaranda tree or any other tree in Chip’s garden and we learned from him that the egrets won’t nest in the jacaranda trees preferring the neighbor’s eucalyptus and pine trees.
While we both concentrated on the bloom in the garden, this is also a mini-orchard with fruit trees planted here and there…peach, olive, pineapple guayaba, Persian lime, tequila lime, apricot, and two plums. Chip showed us a photo of a plate of peaches from his garden…peaches that the squirrels didn’t get to first. It seems that squirrels can be a pest here in San Miguel. It’s always something…in Virginia, it was the deer.
One needs to water for abundant bloom and for fruit trees and the 10,000 liter cistern under the large patio is used for watering the plantings in the upper two terraces. Only occasionally do the native Mexican plants in the third and lowest terrace need watering as this terrace is essentially a xeriscape garden featuring a magnificent, sculptural agave. I thought briefly about painting the agave; it is so spectacular.
I have come to feel that gardening should be considered an art form. Chip and Lucy have taken the blank canvas of a dirt lot and created a beautiful landscape with changing color and fragrances. This is art that one can walk through, touch, smell, eat, paint, and remember.
We are most appreciative of the opportunity to visit and paint in the Swab’s garden. With music being played on a piano equipped with an iPad controlled player floating in the air, perfect weather, shade in which to paint…this plein air outing was good for the soul.