Plants for Italian Gardens – The Right Plant for an Italian Garden

Ecologica wild flower meadows

Ecologica wild flower meadows © Jonathan Radford

What is the right plant for the Italian garden?

What is the best type of plant for the Italian garden style?

These are two questions that I am asked frequently asked as a garden designer here in Italy. The range of plants and garden styles in Italy is as rich and as varied as the assortment of different styles of cuisine that can be found in every region up and down the Italian Peninsula. In the mountains of the north of Italy one can find acid-loving plants (Calcifuges) like rhododendrons and azaleasgrowing happily around the gardens of Lake Como, whereas in the by the coast one can find plants that prefer an alkaline soil (these are called Calcicole plants).

Agave ferox © Jonathan Radford

Agave ferox © Jonathan Radford

Therefore the choice of plants for an Italian garden is clearly just as vast as the choice of Italian cuisine, as Italy’s cuisine is also influenced by the local agriculture that any given area sustains. However, the secret to gardening well in Italy is that of gaining a good understanding of the soils on which your Italian garden finds itself. Often the foreign home buyer strives to buy a property in the vicinity of the sea. All along the Italian coastline one can be find poor, alkaline soil in a steady warm climate, this favours most of theMediterranean plants that we consider to be ‘Italian plants’ because they have evolved in this type of soil. Plants like the olive tree, lavender and most of the stunning Mediterranean succulents like Agave, Aloe vera and Opuntia grow perfectly in this poor chalky soil. The best way to create a flourishing Italian garden is to first establish where you are in Italy, which soil your garden has and what style of Italian garden you would actually like to create.

Clearly a house on the coast has to reflect in some way the feeling of warmth, aridity and dryness that a coastal garden possesses. There are few Nordic plants that can withstand the lashing, hot saline wind of the Mediterranean sea (theScirocco), however many Mediterranean plants are perfectly adapted to these conditions. Plants like Atriplex, Teucreumand Lavender . All of the above mentioned Mediterranean plants can deal with the harsh sea spray and one is restricted to using these plants in this type of Mediterranean coastal garden.

Further inland from the Italian coastline the soil is generally still alkaline but is mainly of a clay nature and the choice of plants widens to both mountainous, Nordic and some Mediterranean coastal plants. Most acid-loving plants, like hydrangeas, azaleas and rhododendrons etc. will need special help in order to thrive well in this alkaline soil. If you are gardening on an inland Italian garden with soil that drains well and you are lucky enough to receive good sunlight many of the Mediterranean plants can be grown. However most clay soil can remain wet during the winter because it drains poorly, which does not favour the majority of Mediterranean plants. Soil drainage can be improved by installing drainage tubes adding sharp sand or grit, or by regular cultivation.

A house with a formal baroque or Renaissance architecture will require a garden that compliments that formality accordingly, using a formal Italian garden. Whereas an old rustic farmhouse in Tuscany may require a softer approach with maybe a wildflower meadow andornamental vegetable garden. Most Italian houses will have elements that pick up on almost all of these nuances, both formal and informal. Therefore I strongly believe that a mixture of all these styles can be incorporated, in small doses within the modern Italian garden. Plants must be chosen around the style of the house and garden and a lot of detailed research is clearly necessary if you are not to enlist the help of a professional garden designer.

By far the easiest solution to the problem of Which plant should I plant in my Italian garden? is to plant the correct plant in the soil that suits it best. Investigate your garden soil, study the feel/architecture of the house that it will compliment, establish what soil type it has, establish whether it drains well or not and plant accordingly. There are many plants that will thrive in damp clay, from ferns, hostas and calla lilies to magnolias There are “Italian plants” for every situation, so, before you go and waste a fortune on expensive plants that will surely die if planted in the wrong place, try instead to understand your Italian garden from the outset.