Dramatic. Opulent. Romantic.
Three of many reasons why you might be inspired by the stunning gardens of Italy, and why you could want to emulate their beauty in your own home.
Italian garden design somehow blends the elaborate structure of traditional French gardens, with the earthy, sun-baked ambience of other iconic mediterranean garden ideas, like Moroccan and Spanish design. Fortunately, there are some easy ways to recreate authentic Italian garden ideas in your own home, especially if you have space to spare.
Even if you only have a small garden, hopefully some of the suggestions and features in this post will inspire you to add a little Italian romance into your outdoor space.
Why are Italian style garden ideas so iconic?
Italian garden style is based on symmetry and geometry. Everything from crisp gravelled areas, to long pathways and flowerbeds typically creates visual balance to make that garden as aesthetically pleasing as possible.
On top of that, traditional Italian gardens tend to have an abundance of decorative design features purely to delight those wandering through them. Expect promenade style walkways, leaping fountains (and trick fountains), grottoes, statues and hidden terraces.
The most luxurious gardens in Italy were intended simply to demonstrate the wealth and status of their owners. Because of this, there really is no limit to the beauty, and opulence possible.
Even domestic gardens tend to feature some elements of classical Italian garden design, meaning there are lots of places to find inspiration for your garden at home.
You would be forgiven for thinking that the Villa del Balbianello is wild and overgrown. Look closer and you’ll see that these famous gardens are carefully manicured to give the impression of wild growth, all under control. The effect is incredible, and it’s no wonder these beautiful grounds have featured in several films!
Italian Garden Design & Layout
As I’ve mentioned, symmetry is the most important aspect of Italian style gardens. Paths, flowerbeds and shrubs should be arranged in clear geometric shapes, favouring right angles and rectangles over curves and circles.
Traditionally, Italian gardens feature a promenade, or raised walkway, designed to view the entirety of the garden. If you have the space, building a central path – either made from gravel or stone can recreate this. Add archways or clipped hedges down either side, or urns of flowers.
If you’re struggling to figure out how to arrange a hillside garden, you can find inspiration in Italian style garden ideas, which often contend with slopes. The traditional solution is to divide the garden into levels of terraces, with different garden styles on each layer.
Hardscaping is a common feature in many Mediterranean garden styles, where hot summer months are too dry for beautiful grass to grow. Even if you want to keep your lawn, you can use stone walls, tiled patios and gravelled paths liberally.
Italian Garden Design Features
Let’s take a closer look at some iconic Italian style garden ideas and features.
1. Grand entrances to announce your arrival
The drama of an Italian garden often starts with a beautiful gateway, made with intricate ironwork. If you have a gate at the side or rear of your property, make it stately and heavy to lend a sense of grandeur to your garden. Adding shrubs or flowers on either side – and keeping pathways well-swept add to the effect.
This gateway at the end of a pergola-covered pathway looks ethereal and inviting – perfect for evoking that Italian romance. Wrought iron and weathered brick are also good materials to choose.
2. Secret gardens for quiet sanctuary
A joy of Italian style gardens is coming across a secret hideaway, tucked inside a grotto or behind hedges or cypress trees. These secret seating areas are intended to be quiet, intimate places where you can relax and enjoy the ambience with friends or a loved one. Of course, a glass of wine and some antipasti is always welcome too.
See how this simple seating area isn’t attached to the house? Steer away from patios that are attached to your back door, and head further into your garden to truly enjoy its ambience. I adore the mossy flagstones – it’s really a look that takes time and patience to achieve (but you can buy pre-weathered stones to give yourself a head start).
3. Shady pergolas to relax in the afternoon
Pergolas smothered in wisteria or jasmine is, in my opinion, one of the most romantic scenes in any garden, and something the Italians really get right. Having any kind of garden structure provides shelter and shade from the weather, but the open design of a pergola hits all the notes for a more Italian vibe.
4. Sculpture and stoneware as decorative elements
Gardens in Italy are often treated as an extension of the home, and are decorated accordingly. Sculptures, mirrors and highly decorative planters are common, and make a garden feel opulent, beautiful and deliberate, instead of wild and unruly.
These beautiful glazed pots look amazing in this Italian-inspired garden. The colour perfectly blends with the grass, water, lavender and trees, which contrast against the stone and sculpture.
5. Tranquil water features for added ambience
The gentle trickle or bubble of a fountain or water feature is part of the idyllic soundscape in lots of Italian gardens. There are plenty of water feature ideas that can work in small gardens – don’t be deterred if you only have a little space!
This wall-mounted fountain fits in perfectly with other Italian style garden ideas like gravel patios and terracotta pots.
Larger gardens can use water features as a focal point of their garden. Central fountains, or reflecting pools make beautiful centrepieces, especially with cascades or arcs of water.
Another amusing feature you can occasionally find in traditional Italian gardens (and across Europe), is the pressure-sensitive fountain. These hidden fountains would be triggered when someone stepped on a stone with an air pocket beneath it (or a similar system). A surprise jet of water would then shoot up from an unexpected place. If you like this idea, take a look at the Hellbrunn Palace in Salzburg, famous for its trick fountains.
Even modern metal fountains can look beautiful in traditional-style gardens, providing contrast against plants and stone.
Plants and Flowers in Italian Garden Design
Italian gardens actually tend to have very few flowers, and focus on various textures and colours of evergreens. However, there is always room for some trailing or climbing flowers in the right place.
6. Parterre gardens
Similar to knot gardens, parterres are flat areas planted with ornamental shrubs and flowers in an intricate, symmetrical pattern. A parterre might be divided into quarters (or a similarly geometric shape) with narrow paths between the sections.
Although parterres tend to feature a variety of plants, the beauty is in the overall effect of the colour scheme and pattern. They require careful manicuring for the best effect – only recommended for passionate gardeners!
The Walled Garden near Henley on Thames is a beautiful example of Italian style garden ideas, featuring an intricate parterre. The modern materials look fresh and clean now, but will age beautifully.
7. Topiary trees and shrubs
To complete a perfectly symmetrical garden plan, you need evergreen plants that are easy to shape and prune. Box shrubs and junipers are very common, contrasted with tall cypress trees kept in a narrow shape.
You can plant these as borders to paths, as part of a parterre, or simply in stone or metal planters that you can space out evenly around the garden.
Look at this amazing topiary at the Abbey House Gardens in Malmsbury, where the topiary has been trimmed to symmetrical perfection.
8. Climbing plants and trellises
Trellises are an excellent way to bring greenery and blooms to your garden – especially in courtyards or small gardens where you might be short on soil.
We’ve already talked about growing jasmine and wisteria over a pergola, so try clematis or a trumpet vine for variety. Or, for the ultimate in romantic garden ideas, plant climbing roses and enjoy their fragrance all summer long.
Using an unusually-shaped trellis – like this diamond one – can create visual interest even with the simplest planting scheme. The subtle differences in colour and leaf-shape are what make this garden corner striking.
9. Hardy plants
Other ways of adding that Italian essence to your garden is in hardy perennials that come in different shades of green, grey and silver. Start with lavender and rosemary, both of which look stunning in an understated kind of way, and also smell gorgeous. Bay trees are also great (and complement a kitchen garden too).
10. Sweeping trees to sit beneath
It’s a classic scene: sitting at a dining table with a newspaper and a fresh orange juice beneath the boughs of a beautiful garden tree. Very Italian. The best trees to make this a reality are a yew tree or willow… but if you already have an established tree it’s probably best to work with that!
Bringing Your Italian Style Garden Ideas to Life: Furniture and Decor
11. Furniture for an Italian garden
As Italians can generally expect their furniture to stay outside year-round, it’s generally made from sturdy, weather-tolerant materials. If you have a large patio and typically need to seat several people, a wrought-iron dining set is both elegant and no-nonsense. In smaller households, a pretty white bistro set looks fresh and inviting for a morning coffee.
In hot weather, make the most of your garden with a hammock or swing chair. Position it so you have the best possible view, grab a book and put your feet up.
12. Colour schemes to evoke the Mediterranean
As you may have noticed, the UK doesn’t quite get the same quality of light as say, Tuscany or Rome. So, you’re going to have to fake it a little with your colour scheme.
When choosing your base colours and neutrals, make sure you’re leaning towards warmer shades. Choose ecru, linen tones instead of stark white, and opt for the peachy, tan-rose colours of sandstone rather than the cold, blue-grey of regular concrete.
13. Stone planters and terracotta pots
We’ve mentioned using containers several times in this article already, but they really are a great way to achieve that Italian-farmhouse look, and are also just a convenient, flexible way to grow your plants.
Arrange pots and shrubs of various sizes in clusters as a focal point, or twinned planters to add emphasis at either side of an entrance. You can also place a line of pots along a fence, or to lead people along a path.
That’s the great thing about pots though – you can rearrange them exactly as you need to until it looks right. Experiment with different positions depending on the size and layout of your garden to see what works best.
This planter is a great example of the kind of styles that work well in Italian style gardens. And, if you’re looking for ways to speed up the aging process, the splotches of green paint quickly give the impression of lichen growth.
14. Summery citrus scents
A tricky thing to recreate in the UK is the wonderful aroma of orange and lemon groves. You can actually grow orange trees in the UK, but they need to be in pots and taken inside in colder months. A sneaky alternative is to grow lemon balm – part of the mint family that has the same scent. Or, you know, light a citronella candle. I won’t judge.
15. Old-world window shutters
We really don’t get enough blazing sunshine in the UK to worry about wooden window shutters – but they’re virtually a staple of homes in warmer parts of the continent.
Head to a reclaim yard or do some savvy online sourcing to find old shutters that you can give a flaky coat of paint and then use to suggest the weather here is better than it is. The natural place to hang them is obviously next to your windows, but they can look just as effective placed either side of a large mirror, giving it a window-like effect.
What are your favourite features in Italian gardens, and which of these Italian style garden ideas will you be trying first? Don’t forget to take a look at our other internationally inspired garden articles for more inspiration!