The Gentle Gardener: All roads lead to Rome

Thoughts of the Italian landscape conjure glamourous afternoons spent in sun-drenched gardens overlooking the sparkling Mediterranean Sea.

Who can forget terraces draped in Bougainvillea along with the beautiful citrus and olive groves? OK, clearly this was someone else’s vacation – I vividly remember trying to avert my young boys’ eyes from topless sunbathers and fuming at my husband for his goggling at the show — but I’m allowed to dream, aren’t I?

Sorry, back to the topic at hand. The Italians are recognized for many life-altering inventions such as aqueducts, Italian ice and most beloved of all — pizza. But did you realize they also are credited for creating the first Renaissance garden? These gardens emerged in the late 15th century at villas in Rome and Florence driven by Catholic cardinals who wanted to impress their brethren with their taste and sophistication which would hopefully serve them well when it came time to elect a new pope. The goal of these gardens was to embrace the classical ideals of order and beauty – something which my poor mother tried in vain to instill in me for many years without success.

If you’ve been fortunate enough to visit Italy, I’m sure you’ve wished you could bring those beautiful vistas back to your own garden. Well, today is your lucky day if you call the Lowcountry casa mia. While our hot, humid summers can melt the face off of a beauty queen and frizz her hair beyond repair, it is the perfect climate for creating your very own Italian get away. Numerous plants that evoke all things Italian thrive under these often-challenging conditions. And even better, most of them thrive on neglect. That’s right – benevolent neglect so there’s no need to drag yourself outside into the heat to tend to them!

Ask & Answer

We’ve just bought a house with a pool in full sun. What should I plant around the pool area? Right now, it’s pretty barren.
— Hoping in Hilton Head Plantation

As long as the water doesn’t splash the plants, I always recommend citrus because it’s evergreen and won’t make a mess in your water feature. It might not seem all that important but hesitate about planting magnolia, crepe myrtle, live oak or pine trees near pools. They absolutely will turn cleaning your pool into a living nightmare reminiscent of the movie Groundhog Day. And needless to say, the added benefit of growing citrus is its usefulness in cocktails.

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Some of the easiest plants to grow here in the Lowcountry include bougainvillea, citrus, fig and olive trees. All of these plants thrive in full sunshine with well-draining soil. And they actually perform better if they’re not under irrigation. The best way to kill your fig or bougainvillea is to plant them where they receive regular watering from your irrigation. How is it that I know this? I learned the hard way – by killing both with too much kindness. (Think mean girls in high school – don’t give them any attention and they’ll actually thrive.) None of these plants like high winds so planting in a sheltered location is preferable but not right next to the foundation of your home as they do need some air circulation.

Winter, however, brings its own set of challenges. Lime, bougainvillea and olive trees are the least cold-hardy plants so you might want to grow them in containers so they can be moved to shelter to protect them from the cold. Oranges appear to be the hardiest of the citrus followed closely by lemons. When the temperature threatens to drop below freezing, I have used landscape cloth with great success – two layers is better than one. I know some folks who use old-fashioned Christmas lights with similar success but candidly, I’m too lazy to lay them all out and then pack them away once the chill has passed. Most importantly, remember to water your plants well the day before the freeze – the water will actually protect the roots. I know, I know, this flies in the face of don’t overwater, but you have to choose between the two evils and frost will immediately kill them while overwatering will take time to kill them (kind of like shooting your cheating ex outright or feeding him a steady diet of bonbons).

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