In late 15th-century and early 16th-century Italy, wealthy families like the Medicis merged art and nature by establishing formal, ornamental gardens around their villas. These symmetrical, architectural masterpieces featured topiaries, fountains, hedges, terraces, and sculptures, requiring perpetual — and costly — maintenance.
A full-blown Italian garden may require too much time, space, and investment for the average household’s outdoor spaces. Yet, home gardeners can still incorporate many of these gardens’ features to create their own beautiful version.
The water feature is one of the most beloved components of an Italian garden. Lush greenery often surrounds fish-filled ponds or large fountains. The soothing blue-green palette and relaxing sounds of the water complement the mood of the space.
Aquatic items don’t have to be elaborate to add appeal. Freestanding or wall fountains are fairly easy. Create a smaller pond using supplies you’ll find online or from your local home improvement store. Add fish, which will control mosquito populations, along with aquatic or bog plants to complete your water oasis. It'll require upkeep, but it's worth it.
Natural stone, masonry, and other rustic features boost the Old World feel. Rustic or reclaimed rock or brick walls in warmer, neutral shades like tan-rose, blue-gray, and ecru enhance the green shades of the garden and establish specific borders.
Attach old shutters to hardscape structures for more drama. Stone walkways and patios form clean, geometric lines, but can also be used to section off areas, or “rooms”, which are classic features of the Italian garden.
Pergolas, fences, and gates constructed from wrought iron are established elements of the Italian garden. The sturdy metal makes an excellent base for climbing vines or for creating shaded areas, focal points, or sectioned-off, almost hidden areas of the garden.
Construct stairs or terraces from stone slabs, adding wrought iron rails for a classic effect.
In an Italian garden, the focus is on greenery, rather than florals, which are usually just accents. Evergreen shrubs that thrive in the Mediterranean climate are common and include boxwood and Italian cypress, succulents, and herbs, like rosemary and lavender.
You may need to swap in similar plants that match your growing zone. Beautifully scented citrus trees are an authentic option. But if you live outside of USDA growing zones 8 to 11, try substituting lemon balm to bring a similar scented effect.
You’ve likely spotted those giant, terracotta stone planters in photos of beautiful gardens. Not only do these ornamental containers enhance the various shades of green, but they also provide a healthy, affordable home for plants and trees.
Additionally, they make maintenance a much easier task. You can move your plants where you need to, arrange them in groups for unique focal points, or line them up to develop distinctive borders, the signature of true Italian gardens. Choose lighter colored clay for a more Mediterranean feel.
Another prominent hardscape found in Italian gardens is statuary. Sculptures of gods, goddesses, legendary heroes, animals, or interesting shapes were important to the overall theme.
Not all pieces need to make a grand statement or serve as a focal point, however. Incorporating other structures, like topiaries, alongside the sculptures, can lead to eye-catching results.
Creators of those early Italian gardens determined that a shady seating area, to take a break from the hot Mediterranean midday sun, was essential. Wrought iron or wood furniture pieces should blend with the garden’s aesthetic, rather than grabbing all the attention.
Try placing chairs and benches in shaded areas or along the walkways, providing opportunities for you or your guests to relax and enjoy the splendor of your garden.
A stroll through the most famous Italian gardens reveals not only a vast array of shrubs and trees but also vines. Traditionally, blooming plants of any kind were few and far between. But it wasn’t uncommon for these early greenskeepers to plant blooming climbers with strong scents so that they’d grow on the pergolas and other structures.
Try the evergreen clematis, which explodes with clusters of star-like, elegant flowers in the spring for pops of subtle color. If you seek something bolder, consider wisteria and its cascades of blue to purple flowers.
One of the most ancient plants, mosses are non-flowering and extremely hardy. They grow on rocks, trees, and stone surfaces, including concrete, and thrive in shady areas.
Planting the right type helps prevent both soil erosion and weeds, not to mention adding greenery that requires little to no maintenance.
Many types of gardens rely on vast lawns to add to a green space’s splendor. Italian gardens usually incorporate grass areas between other plant features, hedgerows, and hardscape items. A perfectly manicured lawn is seldom the star of the show.
Growing smaller-scale versions of these gardens created by Renaissance landscapers means you can use hardy, drought-resistant plants and ground cover instead of grass to cut back on water use for an aesthetically pleasing and environmentally friendly outdoor space.