In the Zen Garden

“When it comes to gardening Mexicans do two things zealously,” announces architect Diego Villaseñor with a grin, “we cut and we sweep.” In Mexico I’ve seen the obsession for myself, close up in the eyes of gardeners as they square-off box hedges using spirit levels and clippers. It’s present in the daily order brought to the streets by armies of homeowners, cleaners and garbage collectors who fight off leaf fall with the quick to-fro action of handmade brooms.

In parks you might come across plots of beheaded snake plants resembling a family all lopped by the same pair of scissors. None of this precision makes it past the gate into Diego and Ana Maria Maldonado’s garden, however, which is a wild place hidden in the heart of Mexico City.

Diego and Ana Maria live in an inner city suburb called San Miguel Chapultepec, with their daughter Valentina and two pugs, Miro and Teo. Their property is located on an elbow bend where two streets meet and is a work base and home for the pair of architects. Diego is the founder of Mexican design firm DVA, whose modern, light-driven hotels and residences are to be showcased in a book set for release by Rizzoli in April this year. Ana Maria is a consultant architect, author and thinker specialising in urban green spaces in Mexico. Put the two together with a bundle of plants and the possibilities are endless.

The garden they’ve created is a gently curated wilderness where the tips of bamboo reach towards centuries-old trees and avocados spring up from seed amid a litter of ivy. Diego and Ana Maria mostly leave nature to its own devices.

“We let the leaves fall in the garden and – unlike most of our neighbours – we try not to sweep them up too often,” says Diego, standing in the bamboo grove, which serves as a pathway between the house and the main garden. “I really like to walk through the yard and feel the leaves crunch underfoot.”

Image © DVA

There’s plenty of room for strolling and even to achieve a sense of solitude in the garden, a remarkable thing considering that just outside looms a city of 22 million. The property occupies three good-sized blocks and the garden accounts for around two thirds of that space. Given the size, Diego and Ana Maria have a gardener, Roberto, who helps them with weekly pruning, weeding and – perhaps too keenly – with the leaves. “I try to convince him to sweep lightly,” says Diego, “but always end up feeling like a character in a Zen tale.”

Dressed in his own Zen-like robe, Diego tells me of the master who asks a young monk to sweep the pathway to the temple. The monk sweeps all the fallen leaves and returns to the master, who says the work is unfinished. The monk repeats his task and again the master shakes his head. With a tap of his walking stick against one of the trees, the master sends leaves scattering across the pathway. “And there you have a perfectly swept path,” laughs Diego.

The bamboo grove with its towering height and changeable colours through the day seems another sort of Zen presence in the garden. “A friend of ours is a Japanese photographer who has long worked in Mexico. On his first visit to the house he stood for 20 minutes in the middle of the bamboo,” recalls Ana Maria. “We were convinced he’d gotten lost on the way to the door, but he was actually caught in a daydream. He said he had the strange feeling of being home.” Ana Maria’s grandparents migrated to Mexico from Japan in 1925 and the planting, in its own way, is a nod to her heritage.

Diego Villaseñor. Image © DVA

An open doorway in a wall of dark, volcanic stone leads on from the grove to the next part of the garden where chiles tangle their way through tall walls of ivy. Here you can ascend low stone stairways, which tend towards infinity with the help of Escher-like mirror tricks. Smaller mirrors tied to long lengths of string hang from tree branches and spiral now and then, catching and reflecting brief glimpses of the canopy layers just beyond reach. Diego points out three avocado trees and explains to me that they grew from seeds brought into the garden by local squirrels. Date palms and fig trees have likewise popped up thanks to visiting birds.

This is a living space,” says Ana Maria. “We have the garden at a stage where we can intervene only minimally and still encounter surprises.” Diego agrees: “We don’t irrigate, we don’t use pesticides and we don’t bring new plantings into the garden now, rather we selectively keep or remove what emerges – whether courtesy of animals, wind-carried seeds or the soil itself.”

Their garden is both ancient and constantly evolving. Diego guesses that some of the trees are more than 250 years old and historically formed part of Chapultepec Park, a massive urban forest regarded as the lungs of Mexico City. One of the heirlooms that sits within Diego and Ana Maria’s property is a staggering arbol de las manitas (literally, tree of little hands), thought to be the largest specimen of its type in the Valley of Mexico. The tree reaches upwards of 25 metres and flowers each summer with bright red blooms that resemble outstretched human hands. “Scientists from the university come to test its health yearly,” says Diego. “We’re very happy for their visits but I do wonder how much help it does for the tree. I tend to think that nature has a way of looking after itself, at least in this context.”

Behind the DVA office is another secluded part of the garden that can only be accessed from the studio or via a locked gate beyond the avocado trees. The family pugs enjoy a mostly free-range existence, but they’re not allowed here. On entry you discover a world that time lost. A dozen or so cold climate banana palms are rooted like the hind legs of dinosaurs into a moss-covered earth. Their huge leaves create a mid-height canopy and fragment the midday light. Here and there wild strawberries spot the mossy ground underfoot, along with some juvenile date palms that Diego swiftly uproots as an example of his low interventionist philosophy of gardening.

We move inside the house at this point, which reveals more dizzying greenery. A courtyard of ferns frames the living room and a floor-to-ceiling glass wall keeps the outside very much within. Over pastries we discuss the way people react to the garden in all its non-conventional beauty.

There’s a sense of mystery surrounding it, I think,” says Ana Maria with a smile. “Our neighbours are certainly curious and I often notice people peeking inside the gate when I leave the house. When they realise that I live here they share the same look of disappointment because they’ve imagined fairies or pixies – or a recluse – in my place.”

You get the impression that Diego and Ana Maria regard their role as being caretakers, rather than landscapers, of this extraordinary garden. The shade provided by overhanging trees and ivy on the street attracts a variety of people throughout the day, from police officers eating their lunches to lovers tangling limbs. And then there are the neighbours who shake their heads, forever complaining about the leaves.

This story was produced by Blair Richardson. Blair is a graphic designer based in Mexico City. Her company, Little Mule Studio, specialises in identity, print, environmental graphics, and digital design projects for clients worldwide. She can regularly be found wandering the printing neighborhoods or food markets of Mexico City, looking for unexpected inspiration.