Tuscan style gardens

A beautiful tuscan style gazebo serves as an outdoor living space
ARTICLE Jason Burgess 

There are few places that capture the imagination and define Italy like Tuscany. Stretching from the Apennines to the Tyrrhenian Sea, Tuscany sits at the centre of the country, is steeped with tradition and has some of the nation’s most visited historic sites. As if the major centres of Pisa, Florence and Siena were not enough, the province also boasts a coastline of beautiful ports and a bucolic hinterland littered with remote medieval mountain villages. 
When it comes to Tuscan garden design there is inspiration aplenty from two very distinct styles of garden; the rustic and the Renaissance. Contemporary landscape designers take their cues from both, fusing naturalistic farmhouse elements and earthy tones with the artistic formality of the highly stylized, evergreen villa gardens of the powerful.
Tuscany is the birthplace of the Renaissance and the influence of that movement can still be felt far and wide. Art and classical architecture remain major tourist draw cards here so too do the grand renaissance gardens. Despite being laid out in the 15th Century, these immaculate box hedged sanctums continue to represent much of what is considered Tuscan garden style today.

A path surrounded by box hedges and roses

They were not just statements of mastery and wealth they were also deeply loaded with symbolism. Symmetry, perspective and geometry are critical to the style; these design elements represent a cosmic order. Man recreating the harmony of the universe, simple, visible and easily understood by the onlooker. While evergreen avenues of elaborately pruned box hedging are synonymous with Tuscan gardens, scent and colour were key elements too.
Botanical, architectural and sculptural, garden designers employed a central axis that ran off the main door in the centre of the home. From here pathways run like spokes between compartments that can be themed, enclosed, terraced or hidden to create an unfolding sequence of spaces. The axis organizes and unifies this entire composition.
For those of whom lira was never an issue, hillsides were hand dug and terraced and rivers re-routed. Craftsmen and artisans spent years creating elaborate statuary, grottos, pavilions, walls, and colossal water features. High walls enclosed the gardens while on the more grandiose properties a ‘bosco’ or ornamental woodland was employed outside of the formal areas. The tall trees and hedges of these outer groves were sometimes used to frame the perimeter of the inner garden. These wilder areas were places to hunt and commune with a slightly less controlled version of nature.

Roses resting on top of a Tuscan styled gazebo

Beyond these gated gardens the rest of the community was largely agrarian, famed for their rich heritage of wine production, olive groves and truffle fields. The sylvan splendor of the Tuscan landscape belies the truth of the regions tough, arid growing conditions. The survival of crops depended on the determination of generations of persistent and mostly peasant, farmers.
On farms fields were planted with a bounty of useful flowers -a pharmacy if you like- including mustard and poppies and herbs like rosemary, sage, lavender and thyme. These flowering herbs tend to the purple end of the colour spectrum and make great edging for pathways or drama en masse in terraced beds. To complement and break with that palette try the yellow flowers of Mediterranean-native lavender-cotton (Santolina). Neither related to cotton nor lavender, its flowers were used in perfumes and the leaves in potpourri.
Bold hardscape elements in warm earth tones of tan and reddish-browns are reflections of the Tuscan landscape. Permeable stone walkways direct precipitation back into the earth, colorful tile edges highlight flagstone patios and large Amphora (terracotta urns) provide focal foils to shrub backdrops. Judiciously placed pots and plaster statuary can be used to great effect to draw attention to different zones, like alfresco dining areas, fire pits, pizza ovens or simply to guide the eye down a pathway.

A squared white marble water feature pouring water on a garden wall

Wooden pergolas, arbors and latticework draped in wisteria, climbing roses or grapevines can suggest a transition or link between zones while also providing great screening. Wrought iron furniture and fixtures like scrolled gates, fences, hinges, doorknobs and spigots, finished in black enamel paint provide a dynamic contrast to areas of stonework.
Water features are one of the definitive principles of a Tuscan garden. They add an important balancing element against the dominance of earthy colours. Where space is tight a wall mounted water feature will stay true to Tuscan design without taking up the room of multi-tiered centre pieces.
Spires of tall slim cypress are common in Italy but they may not endure in many of our cooler, damper microclimates. For a hardier upright columnar equivalent try Juniper scopulorum ‘Skyrocket,’ Thuja occidentalis smaragd ‘Emerald’ green cedar or Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil.’ All can be clipped to shape for an architectural look. If you have the space, then Mulberry trees are a Tuscan perennial but for those on more modest sites repetitions of container planted olives and citrus can be used as screens or to define paths and low walls.
Tuscan gardens suit a drier climate and should catch full sun. They are a celebration of harmony and balance; these are the perfect touchstones for designing any private outdoor space.

Looking for other styles? Read about Desert style gardens or French style gardens.


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*All information is believed to be true at time of publishing and is subject to change.

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