Beginnings of a Small Italian Garden
Italy. Hazy grey vistas are punctuated with narrow vertical trees. Nodding sunflowers laze in stony fields. Knotty ancient thick-trunked olive trees hold forth in blazing sunlight. Window boxes are crammed full of vibrant red Pelargoniums or cascading petunias. Peeling walls, old doors and white sculptures are pierced with long rays. Shadowy evenings are filled with bees humming, and the breeze surprises with soft scents of lavender, roses and rosemary. Fountains play, and nearby the pergolas and arbors anchor verdant vines. At once the designs are structured yet informal. Italian gardeners tend to trim, pollard and generally shape many aspects of their plantings so keeping discipline within the freedom of the overall design. How could I bring these colors, textures and smells to a small sunny south-facing Colorado garden?
Imposing Facade Bramasole, Cortona , Italy
Roses, Lavender, Hibiscus, and Bees, Bramasole
Blues in Foliage, Movement in Growth Pattern of Lavender Bed, and Lemon Trees in Movable Containers. Credit Patty Hollis Bramasole Photographs
We actually have some similarities here in Colorado to Tuscany: the purity of the sunlight, the ability to grow many of the same plants, and the often-disappointing soil! Moreover, in Denver there is a propensity of Italian style houses needing yard work done, so as to create harmony with the home design.
We had this situation: a somewhat imposing stone house, with a tile roof, overwhelming a sad small lawned plot. We needed a plan that captured the essence of Italy. An Italian garden is rigid in some ways, but flowing and full of playful surprises as well. First, I put in the new curving flagstone pathways, then we had a focal point gate inserted in an existing wall (the only big expense), and I marked-out (with garden hoses) the new meandering borders for future flowerbeds.
Spring 2015, I laid six layers of newspaper, then topsoil and finally mulch (begged from a tree felling crew) on the new borders. Meanwhile, we planted the biggest items first so trees were positioned in the remaining grass areas. This stage included three small standard flamingo willow ball topiaries, and we were happy with how their pink spring delicate leaves brought in movement. In June I put in marker flags and then dug holes and planted the bulk of the borders.
The New Reclaimed Border: Newspaper Layers, Topsoil and Mulch with Roses, Lavender, Speedwell, Tiny Dusty Miller, Boxwoods AND June Hail
From the house foundation to the front this was the order: Spiraea on one side (part sun), alongside large Rose of Sharon shrubs (full sun). Also, dusty pink climbing roses mixed with Russian sage were set-in at the base of the sunny wall. Then Moonstone™ floribundas were the next tall, back layer. Coming forward I placed Veronica (speedwell), and then lavender (both grouped in threes and fives), catmint (in a sometimes boggy drain outlet area), Bonica roses, and in front random plantings of soft grey Dusty Miller (which I planted as a annual but has thrived into this year). Finally, I nestled in boxwoods at the front of the new borders.
New Garden Gate- Early Days
Boxwoods were intrinsic as a uniting design element, but I worried in this hot aspect that they might not thrive. They have done well so far (after some initial winter bronzing that righted itself) and although slow growing they add dark green shiny all-year round formality. I planted many more this year, and slowly I will add different sizes to bulk out the design. Also, I just put in a mixture of own-root end-of-year bargain miniature roses, in the same soft pink scheme. Someone else might have chosen to go for more vibrant colors in so much sunshine, but for us the dusty pink and muted blue palette suited and followed our Tuscan inspiration.
Cosmos: First Year Quick Dramatic Interest with Daisies and Spiraea
Boxwood, Roses, Catmint, Russian Sage, Climbing New Dawn Roses and Trumpet Vine
Terracotta on Wall near Cortona
Terracotta on Wall in Denver
Moonstone Rose Large and Long Lasting
There was also an arid area around a large blue spruce so my latest additions have been barberries, grasses and low growing, tight growth junipers.
Dwarf Hameln Grass, Barberry and Blue Spruce
Additionally, we have a small curved 270’ pathway that needed a focal point. I had a thriving eight foot Aspen, along with cankers and overnight new saplings. It did hurt to rip it out, but it needed to be done. Ideally, a hundred year old olive tree was called for. But for a substitute we have just planted a Twisty Baby Black Locust to add the gnarly element that mimics a grand olive tree. I have given it a weekly dose of sugar water to possibly help with rather dramatic transplant shock more information here. This specimen tree should be interesting winter interest too, and we are hoping in time it will produce its lovely large white spring blossom.
Dramatically Staked Rather Droopy New “Twisty Baby”
Recently we were pleased with how things were shaping up, but we still felt our house overwhelmed the plot and we were missing some movement, texture and color. I realized the design was devoid of a crucial element that separates the Italian landscape from any other, and without which Tuscany and even Renaissance landscape paintings would be dull. The strong narrow verticals dotting all the land, lining the roads to cemeteries and grand villas. I needed some upward movement. In lieu of cypress I have planted, somewhat symmetrically, some Blue Arrows and Medora junipers. They have added the strong missing element, and should be interesting in our monochromatic winters.
Assisi, Umbria Vertical Inspiration
2017 One of the New Vertical Evergreens
Whimsy. Perfumed and Perfect
Structure in the Design, Clipped Hedges and Flamingo Willows.
Blue Arrow Vertical Defining House with Speedwell & Sweet Drift Rose
Part Sun Textural Plantings and New Verticals.
Late summer sees our humble garden at its best. It is textural, perfumed and the air is filled with bees. As the boxwoods grow larger, and the narrow upright junipers extend upwards, the design will strengthen. But for the moment I am content with the first steps on this project. Once established it has been low maintenance, with little room for weeds to grow. Ideal additions would be a little flagstone wall to step the front lawn, more beds, a sculpture or a sundial, and citrus in movable pots.
A Denver County Apprentice Master Gardener
Appendix : Other Images Showing Details
Verbena and Boxwood in Large Pot
Pelargoniums in City Window Boxes
Bees and Hummingbirds
Above:Movement and Wildlife Elements
List of Main Plants:
Barberry: Berberis thunbergii for winter interest; slow growing and perfect in front of blue spruce and Spiraea)
Lavender ‘Munstead’: Lavandula angustifolia for bees and constant summer blooming
Lavandin: L. angustifolia x L. latifolia
Russian sage: Perovskia atriplicifolia as a foil for roses and kept in check behind them
Catmint ‘Walker’s Low’: Nepeta racemosa covers unsightly gutter and run off area
Dusty miller: Jacobaea maritima gives a lot of bang for the buck and adds amazing light grey and texture to the design; much taller than the 10” I expected!
Speedwell: Veronica longifolia was cut well back in July for a substantial second bloom
Yellow trumpet creeper: Campsis radicans f. flava Still waiting for flowers- value to be decided!
Junipers: Juniperus scopulorum ‘Medora’ and Juniperus scopulorum ‘Blue Arrow’
Flamingo willow: Salix integra ‘Flamingo’
Boxwoods: Buxus sps
Black locust : Robinia pseudoacacia Twisty Baby™
Roses: ‘New Dawn’ – climbing; ‘Moonstone’™ – floribunda, highest maintenance, has had aphids, rose midge and very bothered by Japanese beetles, but are flourishing at end of summer with massive blooms; ‘Nearly Wild’; Bonica™; Blushing Knockout®; Pink Double Knockout®; Sweet Drift®; Whimsy™ – miniature, amazing fragrance.
Michaelmas daisy: Symphyotrichum novae-angliae
Spiraea sp. Large and formally cut box shape house foundation plant, dark green leaf and few white flowers
Spindle: Euonymus japonicus
Rose of Sharon: probably Hibiscus syriacus ‘Collie Mullens’– has very short “giving season” but is glorious August and September.
Semi Arid area under blue spruce tree:
Red barberry: Berberis thunbergii
Mound grass: Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ – divided and planted late summer, so hoping it will thrive
Juniper: Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star‘ – hoping to block out bindweed in time
Red fountain grass: Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’
Verbena sps – in pots with boxwood 2016
Pelargoniums: Pelargonium peltatum ‘Contessa White’ – ivy’type for window boxes. I didn’t actually succeed in overwintering these and expense prohibited from re-buying, also they were not exactly an ivy geranium in their growth pattern, having only a slight “tip-over”
Bulbs, Cosmos, Chinese bellflower – Platycodon grandiflorus- and ground covers including several Veronicas
List to do in Fall:
Anti-desiccant spray liberally on boxwoods and young evergreens
Wrap trunks of new trees
Twine wrapped around length of blue arrows (so snow doesn’t open the growth)
Collar grafted floribunda roses, pile mulch around other roses
Fertilize remaining lawn
Top-up mulch for general root protection and neatness esthetics (dark brown)