What Is an Italian Garden?

Large water fountain set in formal landscape.
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Viewing an authentic Italian garden is appealing to gardeners with an eye for classic design and an interest in history. The hallmark of the Italian garden is order, as expressed by symmetry and an ultra-manicured look. With its use of hardscape, formal lines, and extensive maintenance, most homeowners cannot afford to implement the design. However, some characteristics and components can translate to the home garden for Italian flair.

What Is an Italian Garden?

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

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 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

Medieval walled gardens, reflecting the relative poverty of the times, had been practical and kept for food production. 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, 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 one could rest on a bench 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 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 showcased wealth and the Mediterranean climate, today's homeowner is immediately confronted by two limitations in trying to recreate an Italian garden: cost and climate.

Costs comes in the form both of creating and maintaining the garden. 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. 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 sidewalks, fountains, classic Greco-Roman statuary, containers, and seating. Most gardens have a water feature and high-quality pots for container plants. Lemon trees or herbs arranged symmetrically in terracotta pots are very characteristic of Italian gardens.

A classic component of the Italian garden is the hardscape walkway. On large properties, multiple walkways should connect the various outdoor rooms of your garden. For smaller properties, where a courtyard style is sought, a single walkway or patio can fit the garden. Install hedges around the perimeter to encase your courtyard.

Suggest the look of an Italian garden by installing an arbor or a pergola. These structures also have two practical functions: to provide shade and to provide support for 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 create the hedges to edge walkways or surround the 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 a Mediterranean feel so essential to Italian gardens, there are several herbs for pots or planting beds to choose from including:

Article Sources
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  1. Pliny, Letters on the Tuscan Villa (1st century). Bard Graduate Center