Bring Italy Home

Transport garden design elements from the Old Country into your own backyard.
Imagine a garden that doubles as a public living room, where families walk a promenade flanked with boxwood, cypress and juniper that form living walls along geometric paths. Children reach into water shooting out of a grand, circular stone fountain. Couples sneak away to talk, their conversations shielded by trailing vines and clematis that cling to pergola covers.

“In Italy, public parks are just the fabric of life,” says Joyce Mariani, executive director of Cleveland’s Italian Cultural Garden Foundation, which is renovating and restoring the garden’s notable Renaissance features, including a fountain based on the Villa Medici in Rome.

“[The garden] is a living entertainment area,” Mariani continues, recalling a 12-year period when she lived in Rome. “It is an extension of your living space, so Italians made these spaces very ornate with fountains and mythological figures for fantasy.”

A tamed topiary tree may provide a focal point among plant masses arranged in tidy beds shaped as rectangles, triangles and squares. “The Italians didn’t like curvy lines in their gardens,” observes Charles Burroughs, professor in the Department of Art History and Art at Case Western Reserve University.

Vistas of rolling hillsides or the sea served as a backdrop for many gardens in Italy. Formal statuary of classic antiquity and heroes also serve as focal points or destinations accessed by stone walkways.

Always, there is a center of activity, perhaps marked by an elaborate fountain.

“But there are surprises,” Burroughs notes, referring to crossing paths that tempt an unassuming wanderer to explore different views of a garden. The grotto, an artificial cave often filled with sculpture and perhaps stalagmites taken from nearby mountains, was also important. “These were very cool places where you could sit and drink wine,” he says.

Today, a gazebo might serve as a modern grotto, and an array of water features provide options that challenge the old standard circle-shaped fountain.

Still, a symmetrical layout is the hallmark of any Italian garden.

To care for a true Italian garden and its cleanly trimmed hedges requires a commitment to regular maintenance and constant pruning and preening.

A modern interpretation of the traditional Italian garden draws in these themes of structure and form, spinning them to appeal to today’s homeowners. You can create a taste of Tuscany in your own backyard by including some or all of these Italian landscape elements.

Symmetry ties together an Italian garden design. Unlike more varied English cottage gardens, Italians aim for balance, formality, order. Its intentional linear design demonstrates “man’s power over nature,” says Ken Kushmider, president of Landscape Design Associates in Mantua.

In a modern garden, tall and lean plants such as juniper or cypress provide vertical interest, while trimmed hedges that serve as borders to a patio space or garden area define a formal space.

For example, a fountain in the middle of a garden might be the central access point, Burroughs says. From this, pathways might divide the space into equal sections containing plants, herbs or a “surprise” such as a bench for resting. Directly behind the fountain along the same sight linemight be statuary or another focal point denoting the garden’s “vista.”

*Bring it home:
1. Incorporate hedges as living walls.
2. Think in shapes: rectangles, triangles, squares, circles.
3. Choose a central focal point for your garden, such as a fountain, sculpture or central seating area.


Italy’s rocky landscape and arid climate aren’t turf friendly. Instead, hardscape dominates the Italian garden as walkways, patio spaces and walls.

Consider color and material before ordering a ton of stone. Brad Thimke of Don Mould’s Plantation in North Ridgeville says hardscape surfaces lend a rugged look. Since many of Italy’s gardens are set in the countryside, you can adopt a similar feel by using exposed aggregate concrete, which will be displayed at this year’s Home & Garden Show entry garden.

Stonework may mirror colors found in Italian marble, including beiges and gray-white hues. Rich Kanary, president of Kanary’s Landscaping, in Sheffield, suggests a combination of stucco and stonework. Try travertine or flagstone, and choose larger pieces.

“Stone is usually arranged in some type of pattern, and every once in a while you’ll find a decorative mosaic in it,” Kanary says. “The more rustic the better.”
*Bring it home:
1. Consider a walkway made of travertine, a popular material that weathers well.
2. Utilize stonework design in retaining walls, which will accomplish a pseudo-hillside environment similar to the country regions of Italy.
3. Lay out walkway patterns in advance and aim for geometrical designs.
Green architecture

Cozy urban backyards are often no larger than an oversize patio. Make them private with walls, trellises or boxwoods. “Growing up” is the best way to involve green. Climbing vines and roses that cling to features such as stucco walls or pergola entryways add interest to hardscape.

“Italians like to do green architecture, using trellises to create [foliage] covered walls,” Burroughs says. He dates this concept back to the 16th century, which he considers the most creative period of Italian garden design.

Potted plants, both hanging and stationed on patio surfaces, offer splashes of green without using much surface area, Kanary says.

*Bring it home:
1. Herbs perform well in containers. They also provide splashes of color and produce tasty foliage to season Italian dishes.
2. Traditional Italians love their lemon trees. You can grow yours in an oversize container on the patio; bring it indoors to winter.
3. Climbing plants and vines soften harsh hardscape. Roses offer a colorful focal point.

Tame, trim plants

Italian gardens aren’t known for their rainbow of colors. In fact, landscapes in the Old Country generally rely on foliage to deliver interest through texture and various shades of green.

“Plants are primarily evergreens, though more recently people want to bring in color,” Kushmider says. Enjoy the best of old and new by planting bright annuals by the front door or patio entrance; but stick to mainly greens such as cypress, juniper, catnip and topiary in the main garden area.

“Flowers can add sizzle to landscape areas that are focal points,” Kushmider says.

*Bring it home:
1. Want Italian-style curb appeal? Choose topiary plants for your home’s front porch.
2. Plants in groups add impact. Arrange plants in beds, grouping them in odd numbers.
3. A single topiary serves as a focal point.
Water works

Fountains initially served as a means of cooling a hot garden, Kushmider says. Today, water features are mainly aesthetic. Because many Italian gardens sit on hillsides, gravity provides natural hydraulics to pump water through pipe-shaped fountains, he explains.

In old Italy, water tricks were planted on garden paths. These triggers, when stepped on, sent water shooting out from a hidden pipe, Burroughs describes.

At home today, options for adding water to the landscape range from electric fountains to cascading water walls and spitting statuary.

*Bring it home:
1. A large fountain is the center of attention, while smaller water features such as urns with bubblers provide tranquil background music.
2. Decorative pots double as creative water features when converted. Consult with your local garden center for supplies to do it yourself.
3. Wall fountains are ideal for courtyards and look formal in a garden.
Outdoor rooms

Creating several outdoor rooms in a landscape is not exclusive to Italian garden design. By dedicating spaces for resting, gathering, reading and dining, a landscape becomes an extension of the home.

Kushmider says formal Italian gardens typically incorporate these three elements: a promenade for “being seen,” a secret garden retreat and cascades that contain water. Today’s version of a promenade is a patio entrance, the secret garden may be a hammock or gazebo, and modern water features add the water component.
*Bring it home:
1. Designate your patio dining area as the focal point, the central access. Build out from this main area — the gathering space to “be seen.”
2. Create walkways that lead to each room.
3. Incorporate a focal point — a fountain, bench, dining table — in each room.
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