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10 Garden Ideas to Steal from the Italian Coast

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10 Garden Ideas to Steal from the Italian Coast

September 21, 2017

Few gardens and landscapes conjure a more heightened sense of drama and intrigue than the lush and orderly gardens of the Italian Riviera from the north at Liguria down to the evocative villas of the Amalfi coast. With a style informed by the Renaissance and further embellished by waves of Italophile gardeners on horticultural grand tours, these gardens are a heavenly fusion of classical order and theatrical flourish. Here are 10 ideas to steal from the Italian coast.

Make an Entrance

Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista. See more of this garden in our Gardenista book.
Above: Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista. See more of this garden in our Gardenista book.

Source reclaimed or antique metal gates for the most dazzling doorways. Heavy ironwork gates are often used at the entrance to the stately villas that are dotted along the Riviera, adding to the grandeur, but also providing security and privacy.

Scent the Air with Citrus

An established orange tree. Photograph by Gabe Hanway. See more of this Low Country Kitchen Garden in our 2017 Considered Design Awards.
Above: An established orange tree. Photograph by Gabe Hanway. See more of this Low Country Kitchen Garden in our 2017 Considered Design Awards.

The gardens of the Italian coast, have in part been shaped by the generations of expats and Brits who flocked there in successive waves from the early 19th century. When Sir Thomas Hanbury bought a palazzo and 18 hectares of grounds at Mortola in 1867 on the northern tip of Liguria, he began to plant what would become one of the most diverse botanical gardens in Italy. There were already citrus groves growing on the land but Hanbury increased the diversity and now the site is home to more than 60 different types of sweet oranges as well as bitter oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit, bergamot and shaddock. They not only look beautiful with glossy green foliage but they will fill the air with a heavenly aroma.

Build a Pergola

Two garden benches face one another in a shady spot beneath a pergola at Torrecchia Vecchia, designed by Dan Pearson. Photograph by Huw Morgan. See more of this garden at Paradise Found: Designer Dan Pearson’s Modern Garden for a Medieval Castle.
Above: Two garden benches face one another in a shady spot beneath a pergola at Torrecchia Vecchia, designed by Dan Pearson. Photograph by Huw Morgan. See more of this garden at Paradise Found: Designer Dan Pearson’s Modern Garden for a Medieval Castle.

Leafy canopies from palms, tree ferns and pines are a must in the sun-scorched Mediterranean but a densely covered pergola is another consistent sight in some of the grandest gardens. At La Cervara, near Portofino, a vast pergola overlooking the coast is entirely covered with purple wisteria and the roofs of balconies at the nearby hotel, La Splendido, are adorned with ancient wisteria plants that transform the hotel in spring and scent the air.

Invest in Planters

Mismatched pots adds charm. For more of this garden, see 10 Ideas to Steal from the Romantic Gardens at Kiftsgate Court. Photograph by Clare Coulson.
Above: Mismatched pots adds charm. For more of this garden, see 10 Ideas to Steal from the Romantic Gardens at Kiftsgate Court. Photograph by Clare Coulson.

Almost any Italianate garden boasts collections of terra cotta plants overflowing with colorful geraniums in summer. Invest in statuesque pots (Italian Terrace sells some of the best in the UK) arranged sporadically along a path or cluster together mismatched pots (as they do on the Italianate terrace at Kiftsgate Court) for a more eclectic look.

Line Up the Statuary

Above: Photograph by Britt Willoughby Dyer. For more of this garden, see Garden Visit: A Modern Garden for a Gothic Estate in the Cotswolds.
Above: Above: Photograph by Britt Willoughby Dyer. For more of this garden, see Garden Visit: A Modern Garden for a Gothic Estate in the Cotswolds.

Italian gardens would be unimaginable without the evocative statuary that recalls the country’s classical and romantic past. Use single pieces as a focal point at the end of a walk or to draw the eye to a view, or line up smaller busts as punctuation points between lush evergreen planting.

 Plant a Pine Grove

Photograph by Marianne Majerus courtesy of Harris Bugg Studio. See more of this garden in our 2017 Gardenista Considered Design Awards.
Above: Photograph by Marianne Majerus courtesy of Harris Bugg Studio. See more of this garden in our 2017 Gardenista Considered Design Awards.

For anyone who has visited the stunning Maremma coast of Tuscany it’s the heady fragrance and the beautiful silhouettes of umbrella pines that remain in the memory. The sculptural Pinus pinea is fully hardy and can be grown almost anywhere with free draining soil. But to get the beautiful rounded shape you need to judiciously prune out the lower branches.

Select Tough Plants

Silvery gray-green clouds of artemisia and feathery grasses soften the edge of a planting bed. Photography by Dario Fusaro courtesy of Cristiana Ruspa. For more, see Landscape Architect Visit: A Hazy Dreamscape in Northern Italy by Cristiana Ruspa.
Above: Silvery gray-green clouds of artemisia and feathery grasses soften the edge of a planting bed. Photography by Dario Fusaro courtesy of Cristiana Ruspa. For more, see Landscape Architect Visit: A Hazy Dreamscape in Northern Italy by Cristiana Ruspa.

For really exposed sites where wind, sun, and salt can batter less hardy plants, you need to choose the toughest plants that can cope with the weather. There’s a good reason why gardens on the south coast of Italy are punctuated with thriving bushes of rosemary, Cistus, and myrtle. They are all sturdy plants built to survive the conditions.

Think Symmetrically

See more at Villa Lena: A New Creative Hub (and Hotel) in Tuscany. Photograph courtesy of Villa Lena.
Above: See more at Villa Lena: A New Creative Hub (and Hotel) in Tuscany. Photograph courtesy of Villa Lena.

The best-known Italian gardens are all about rigorous symmetry which is normally achieved with tightly clipped evergreens—a style inherited from the Renaissance, which was in turn influenced by the orderly and grand style of Roman gardens. Although horizontals are always punctuated with vertical sentinels, in the form of clipped evergreens or, most notably, cypress trees.

Plant Climbing Roses

‘Pierre de Ronsard’. Photograph by Anne Arnould via Flickr.
Above: ‘Pierre de Ronsard’. Photograph by Anne Arnould via Flickr.

At Villa Rosmarino – a gorgeous boutique hotel with views to Mount Portofino – a long stairway pergola is swathed with the ‘Eden’ rose, or ‘Pierre de Ronsard’ as it’s also known. These enormous pink flowers will flower from early summer through to early autumn and the vigorous plants have glossy deep green foliage.

Enjoy the View

The view from the Villa Astor in Sorrento. Photograph via The Heritage Collection.
Above: The view from the Villa Astor in Sorrento. Photograph via The Heritage Collection.

Unsurprisingly it’s the sea views that are the star attraction of many of the significant villas that dot the Italian coastline but that doesn’t mean that garden designers leave it all on show. At the incredible Villa Astor— or Villa Tritone, as it was originally known—William Waldorf Astor commissioned a long stone wall that blocked out much of the incredible seascape beyond. But dotted along the wall are small arched windows that not only frame the views but heighten their effect exponentially. Sometimes a fleeting view of what lies beyond is more powerful than being shown everything all at once.

N.B.: See more of our favorite Italian (and Italy-inspired) gardens:

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