Marianne Binetti

Finding outdoor inspiration in colorful Portugal gardens

The end of December and the start of the New Year means it is time to consider change and resolutions. A recent trip to Portugal inspired our garden travel group to add more color to outdoor spaces using tile.

The streets of Lisbon and the other towns of Portugal are alive with not just blooming plants on balconies but also on walls that shine with colorful ceramic tiles. One of our favorite discoveries down a side street in the walled city of Faro was a warehouse full of building salvage, including old tiles that once covered the outside of homes and businesses.

Inside the old warehouse sat a bearded, elderly gentleman at a table with a large, open book and stacks of dusty tiles. He was patiently dating and cataloging hundreds of hand-painted tiles recovered from 17th-century churches, monasteries and villas. Many of the blue, yellow and white tiles revealed simple drawings of patterns and animals: dogs, sheep and cats surrounded by stars, dots and dashes.

These antique tiles were painted by the children left orphaned after the great earthquake of 1755. The quake, and the waves and fires that followed, left much of Lisbon in rubble.

The positive outcome of this tragic event is that a prime minister (Pombal) took control of the city restoration and used urban planning skills to rebuild Lisbon, while providing shelter and jobs for the displaced children of the disaster. The Marquis of Pombal set up tile-making workshops where the children were encouraged to paint patterns and animals onto the ceramic tiles that would be used for reconstruction.

Now here’s the clever law that helped finance the Lisbon reconstruction: All newly-built structures were required to use the locally painted tiles. To ignore the law labeled you unpatriotic, and during this turbulent time such a label might cost you your head.

So more than 300 years later, Portugal still blooms with tile-covered walls, fountains, ledges and stairways, many still showcasing the handiwork of “work-fare” social programs set up for the earthquake survivors. Today these “pombalino” tiles are being sold as salvage material when old buildings are repaired or replaced.

So yes, I had to buy a 17th-century tile in Portugal and, like some of my fellow travelers, I am still trying to find a special place for this treasure in my garden.

Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of several books. Reach her at

Tile in translation

Here are some tips for using tile in your own Western Washington landscape:

▪ Our wet weather makes tiles underfoot slippery, so chose a vertical wall, fence or post to display your tile collection.

▪ You don’t need to travel far to find a diverse collection of tiles. Home-improvement stores have aisles of different tiles in all colors and sizes. You can glue small, one-inch-square glass tiles around the edge of a pot, or display large one-foot-square ceramic tiles as trivets on outdoor tables.

▪ It is easy to hang and display art tiles using plate wall holders. These use metal springs and hooks to secure the tile. You can find these holders at local craft stores. Now you can hang your tile on fences and outdoor walls.

▪ If a tile does crack or break from either the trip home or a hard winter, don’t despair. Broken bits of tile, china and ceramic plates can be used to create colorful garden mosaics on top of tables, stone benches or garden stepping stones.