Tuscan landscaping is often characterized as fairytale-like, and its profile has been raised in part because it's been featured in films such as Room with a View (1985), Stealing Beauty (1996), and Under the Tuscan Sun (2003), and many others, featuring sumptuous gardens that are part of rural villas or grand palazzo estates. Thanks to many images shared on social media sites like Instagram and Pinterest, American gardeners have been further inspired to emulate this unique garden style.
What Is Tuscan Landscaping?
Tuscan landscaping is considered some of the most beautiful and distinctive in the world. This style combines formal garden design elements with a rustic sensibility and warm Mediterranean aesthetic. While grand formal gardens are seen throughout Europe, Italian gardens are unique for their emphasis on fruits and herbs integrated into the plantings, whether in pots, beds or along stone walls, or, famously, in grape arbors, a staple in Italian garden design.
The sunny temperate climate of Tuscany means perfect weather for growing grapes, citrus fruits and many nuts and berries, all of which are often seen in gardens large and small. Italian wines and cuisine rely upon local crops and some Italian wineries have been in operation for centuries.
Steeped in History
During the Renaissance, opulent gardens in Tuscany, where the temperate climate and rolling landscape permitted uniquely fecund gardening possibilities, were funded by wealthy patrons. The most talented and skilled craftsmen and artists were employed to design and build them. One of the most famous examples is the gardens of the Medici family, located slightly north of Florence, but there are many such gardens still remaining, lovingly maintained and in some cases open to visitors and tourists. Some of these gardens are part of estates that still function as wineries, many of which are open to the public for tastings and tours.
Tuscan gardens were often built around stone structures such as walls, walkways, fountains and labyrinths, and time-tested methods of design, quarrying, stone cutting, and building have ensured their longevity. Statues and sculptures, commissioned by patrons, as well as unique furniture for seating, are also commonly found in Tuscan gardens. Indeed, one of the main characters in Stealing Beauty was a sculptor who created new works of art within the grounds and buildings of an ancient Tuscan villa.
In contrast to Tuscany's curvy landscape of hills, Tuscan garden design is often quite formal. Hedges are usually clipped into boxy shapes, and symmetry is a guidepost for the overall design of plantings and structures. But other common design elements of Tuscan landscaping allow a large amount of creativity and whimsy also. Some of these include:
- Seating areas, both open and "hidden"
- Dining areas, both open and sheltered
- Water features, including fountains or small ponds
- Herb gardens
- Fruit trees and shrubs, including orchards and vineyards
- Natural color schemes, mainly earth tones
- Designing to take advantage of natural scenic vistas
Water features need not be antique fixtures to look authentic. It's possible to use new and salvaged materials to create a rustic looking fountain or pool feature. Ivy is definitely a good way to create the illusion of antiquity. Create a simple water feature with an old copper or aluminum washtub and a small electric fountain pump; surround it with potted plants, rocks, moss and ivy: instant rustic charm!
Tuscan landscaping often has one or more elements related to culinary plants such as orchard fruits, berries, nut trees, grapes, and especially, herb gardens, which are used for both cooking and medicinal purposes. These specific food-related elements are unique to Tuscan landscaping and convey the importance of Italian cuisine in the lifestyles of all Italians, from urban to rural and rich to poor. Smaller properties might have kitchen gardens, while larger ones might have orchards of peaches, apricots, apples, or hazelnuts, as well as olive groves (like the one featured in Stealing Beauty), vineyards or various ornamental edible plants. If your yard doesn't have room for a micro orchard, consider growing dwarf fruit trees suitable to your local climate.
Pergolas and Arbors
Pergolas and arbors are perhaps the most common design aspects of Italian landscaping seen in the United States, in part because so many Italian immigrants built them in their own backyards throughout the Northeast, especially in parts of New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. They provide beauty, vertical interest, shade, and structure for climbing vines.
A pergola is built to have a sort of "roof" that provides a source of shade, while an arbor functions more as an entryway or canopy. These structures can be made to fit into small areas, so it's relatively easy to integrate the flavor of Tuscany into your garden design. Arbors or pergolas are most commonly built of wood, but metal can also be used.
Outdoor Dining Areas
Outdoor dining is popular in the sunny Mediterranean and a well-loved past time in Italy. Creating a rustic, comfortable dining area can impart the look and feel of a Tuscan garden. Searching Pinterest for "rustic outdoor dining Tuscany" yields plenty of visual inspiration for creating your space. Some elements to consider including:
- Rustic wood table with benches or chairs
- Earth tone colors, including terra cotta pots
- Vines trailing on walls or from containers
- Herbs planted nearby for use in cooking or garnish
- small lights or candles for supper served after nightfall
In fair weather, having folding wooden tables and chairs that can be set up almost anywhere in an impromptu way (under a tree, on the patio, on the grass) lets you create a dining area with linens, flowers, and crockery suitable for the season. It needn't be fancy: the Mediterranean style is all about an effortless, leisurely vibe.
Creative Imitation of Tuscan Style
It's possible to spend a great deal of money trying to recreate a Tuscan garden (think of those wealthy patrons the Medicis and the artists and builders they employed). But there are many ways to emulate Tuscan garden designs by simply using vintage or salvaged materials (like those discarded but perfectly good weathered terra cotta pots your neighbors leave out on the curb in spring), and getting creative.
Grow some ivy in a pot (since some ivy can be invasive) and let it drape over a rock wall. Plant dwarf fruit trees in barrels or large clay pots. Get some earth toned gravel and lay it around your outdoor dining area. Plant herbs in pots of varying sizes and heights to surround an outdoor seating area (this is both visually pleasing and fragrant). Remember that for all their formal grandeur, Tuscan gardens are also functional, and places of peaceful beauty.
Bassenian, Aram, and Laura Hurst. Brown. Tuscan & Andalusian Reflections: 20 Beautiful Homes Inspired by Old World Architecture. Bassenian/Lagoni Architects, 2005