What Is an Italian Garden?

Large water fountain set in formal landscape.
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Viewing an authentic Italian garden can be one of the greatest pleasures for gardeners with an eye for design and an interest in history. Not everyone, though, would choose to implement this design in their own yards, even if they could afford it. The hallmark of the Italian garden is order, as expressed by symmetry and an ultra-manicured look.

What Is an Italian Garden?

An Italian garden is a type of formal garden style perfected in Renaissance Italy. It is marked by a heavy reliance on hardscape features, manicured evergreens, and Mediterranean plants.

Many people prefer the seemingly wild abandon of the cottage garden, but if you admire a garden design based on order, don't be afraid to adapt the classic Italian garden style to your own circumstances. Here's how you can make use of the characteristics of this classic style to enjoy a taste of Italy in the home garden.

Origins of the Italian Garden

The Italian garden has its roots in ancient Rome. Wealthy Romans complemented their majestic villas with equally impressive outdoor rooms. These rooms were divided from each other by boxwood hedges and masonry walls, and the eye was further delighted by the use of topiaries. Pliny the Younger describes his own Tuscan estate in such terms, speaking of trimmed boxwood hedges and other boxwoods sculpted into topiaries depicting animals.

Such formal gardens made a comeback in Italy during the Renaissance, giving us "the Italian garden" as we know it today. Like their Roman ancestors, well-to-do Italians flaunted their wealth with imposing villas surrounded by outdoor living spaces that allowed them to fully enjoy the warm Italian climate. Water features such as fountains were installed to mitigate excessive warmth, along with shady pergolas. The Italian garden would be terraced if the property rested on a hillside.

Characteristics of the Italian Garden

Whereas medieval walled gardens, reflecting the relative poverty of the times, had been practical (i.e., meant to produce food), Italian Renaissance gardens were ornamental. The walls of the medieval garden had been built high to keep out animals and trespassers. No such concerns existed on the great Italian estates of the Renaissance. Shorter walls and hedges were employed to separate outdoor rooms for aesthetic reasons; but people were supposed to be able to look into the Italian garden to appreciate its beauty from without, as well as being able to look out from it to the wider landscape. Private nooks, however, could exist within one of the outdoor rooms, where you could rest on a bench, perhaps, in the shade of a pergola.

The focus in the Italian garden is on hardscape, evergreen shrubs (often termed the "bones" of the garden), and Mediterranean herbs, not on flowers. While flowers are, indeed, planted, their function is as an accent. One of the most important characteristics of this style is the use of evergreen shrubs meticulously sheared into short hedges. Such hedges typically line a hardscape walkway, serving as its edging.

Creating an Italian Garden at Home

Since the classic Italian garden was a function of wealth and the Mediterranean climate, today's homeowner is immediately confronted by two limitations in trying to recreate an Italian garden: cost and climate.

Cost comes in the form both of creating one and of maintaining one (shearing multiple hedges involves much labor).

Moreover, the classic style is suitable only for large properties. If you have a smaller yard, you could, however, create a courtyard that at least has an "Italian garden" feel to it. Either way, if you wish to create your own Italian garden, you must familiarize yourself with its three basic components: hardscape, evergreen shrubs, and Mediterranean plants.

Hardscape

Since "hardscape" refers to all of the non-living elements in a garden, the term covers a great diversity of objects. For example, while water isn't a solid object, a water feature that includes a fountain or exists in a hard container can still be considered hardscape, as can high-quality pots used for container gardens. For example, terracotta pots are, in a sense, movable hardscape; large terracotta pots planted with lemon trees or herbs and arranged symmetrically are very characteristic of Italian gardens. So are statues carved in the classic Greco-Roman style.

Tip

You may be asking yourself if you need to install statues to make an Italian garden. Skip the statuary unless you can afford sculpture of high quality. Italian gardens are all about elegance, so installing low-quality statues would defeat the purpose.

A classic component of the Italian garden that is definitely achievable in the modern landscape is the hardscape walkway. On large properties, multiple walkways should connect the various outdoor rooms in your garden. For smaller properties, where a courtyard style is sought, a single walkway can cut through the garden. Alternatively, use a hardscape patio. Either way, install hedges around the perimeter to encase your courtyard.

Again, while creating a full-blown Italian garden will be challenging for many modern homeowners, it's certainly possible to suggest the look of such a design by installing an arbor or a pergola. These structures also have two practical functions: to provide shade and to provide support for lovely climbing plants. Use one of these structures to work in a floral accent by growing climbing plants on them.

Evergreen Shrubs and Mediterranean Plants

Evergreen shrubs and plants native to the Mediterranean are must-have components in an Italian garden. Evergreen shrubs furnish the plant material for the hedges that will edge your walkways or surround your courtyard. Use them in topiaries to create accents. Two classic choices are:

Italian cypress shrub (Cupressus sempervirens) is a great choice for a vertical accent. But since it is suited to zones 8 to 10, Northern gardeners will have to substitute with a tall, slim arborvitae (Thuja spp.) or another columnar shrub.

For the Mediterranean feel so essential to Italian gardens, there are a number of herbs to choose from (they look great in terra-cotta pots), including: