From the street, Florence Welborn’s North Slope garden looks like most other Northwest gardens: tall maples and conifers, some rhododendrons. But peer over the edge of the wall and you’re in another place — Italy, to be precise. Because Welborn has recreated the formal parterres, statuary and gravel walks of the place she loves to visit again and again, and which bears her own name: Florence.
“I bought the next-door lot four years ago,” says Welborn, who’s lived in her north-end Tacoma house for 47 years. “So here was this 50-foot lot — it was a dump heap, a jungle of blackberry with a big drop-off.”
Others might have ripped out the brambles and replaced them with a typical Northwest landscape. But Welborn, thanks to her husband’s statuary import business, was a frequent visitor to Italy — especially to its gardens. When, after two years of asking, she finally received an invitation and visited the Renaissance-built, New York University-owned Villa LaPietra in Florence, she instantly made a decision.
“When I walked into that garden, I said, ‘That’s what I want,’” Welborn remembers.
But it took a lot of doing. Working with landscaper Jim Tartaglia on her design, gardener Martin Lucke and stoneworker Jose Lopez — not to mention her husband, Howard, for the authentic Carrera marble statuary — Welborn came up with a replica of Villa LaPietra’s cruciform parterres, evergreen backdrops and fountain-centric forms, terraced to accommodate the slope. Built in 1462 and restored in 1915, the Florentine villa was in turn inspired by medieval cloister gardens, with their cross-shape designs and herb beds, and Islamic walled gardens.
Three years later, Welborn’s garden — which she’s named “Paradisos” — is a picture-perfect blend of formal Italy and the wilder Northwest. Up on street level, a terrazzo with flagged stone leads past stone lions down a path with stone walls and traditional fan-pattern flags. Red geraniums and neatly trimmed roses spill out of white marble urns and terra cotta planters; arborvitae form a deep green background that sets off the pale stone, and on the house side a tall laurel hedge stretches out at tree-height with sculpturally twisting trunks.
But the crowning glory is the parterre garden. Nestled at the bottom of the terraced path like an intimate room, the design of box hedge quadrants, curving stone benches and gravel looks exactly like Renaissance gardens all over Italy. On the white east wall is a frieze of battles and gods, including the Athena Nike; on the north boundary is a five-niche stone pergola that shelters stone goddesses representing the four seasons, arched over with a tiny pink-budded Cecile Brunner rose. Another single pergola borders the west, with more terra cotta planters soaking up the sun; and in the center of it all stands a three-tier fountain complete with swimming stone cherubs.
“My husband was dying to have a grotto here, like at the Boboli gardens (in Florence), but I said it wasn’t any place for a grotto,” Welborn explains. “But they did have these swimming ‘putti’ (cherubs). So I had to have them in mine.”
Inspired by a garden in Lucca with live swans, Welborn also put a stone swan in her fountain. Other Italian elements include young gray-green cypresses and a six-foot-high bronze Gallio sundial.
But the garden doesn’t stop at the parterre. Through the western pergola a stone path leads up past lyre-strumming cherubs and Northwest beds of rhodies and ferns to a circle of box, edged with lawn and dotted with roses, framing a central urn. Another goddess shelters under a pergola, and tall bamboo fringes the fenceline to enclose everything. Farther still, past an Antonio Canova-inspired Venus dipping into a water-filled urn, is a secret garden — the house’s original backyard, ivied and shady, the wilder Northwest adding a new dimension to the Italian formality.
“It’s an Anglo-American interpretation of an Italian Renaissance garden,” says Welborn.
There’s one truly Italian plant that Welborn just can’t replicate, though — the lemon. Soaking up the Mediterranean sun, lemons thrive in Italy’s climate, and many formal gardens have entire lemonaries — sweeping expanses of lemon trees in neat rows.
Welborn has just one lemon, and it’s not happy after a winter inside the house and a cool early spring.
Overall, however, an Italian garden requires much less maintenance than other gardens, Welborn says. She has help to mow the grass and hand-trim hedges twice a year, and has an irrigation system. Other than that, it’s just a bit of pruning every so often.
“It’s getting to the point where it’s pretty much set,” Welborn says.
And it’s also exactly what she wanted — a piece of Italy in Tacoma. “What you see here is just what I see over there,” she says, with satisfaction.
Get the Look
How do you replicate an Italian garden in the Northwest? It’s easier than you might think (except the lemons), but you do have to be strict with form and vegetation.
Plan in sections or “rooms,” with defined borders of wall or hedge and pergolas connecting them. Build a parterre, which is a circular area made up of four curved quadrants of box hedge, an interior circle of curved benches and beds, and grass or gravel in between. Put an urn, fountain or statue in the center. Work on symmetry and group things in pairs or odd numbers. Keep grass very neat; hand-trim box hedges. For inspiration, see nyu.edu/global/lapietra or gardenvisit.com/gardens/in/italy.
Italian gardens use mostly evergreens, which work well here. Good hedge plants are arborvitae, laurel, cypress and box; good spiller plants for urns are variegated ivy, red geranium and rosemary. Trail climbing roses over pergolas; plant other roses in pots. (Stick to non-hybrid red ones for an authentic look.) Rhododendrons grow a lot in Italy, but keep them and other Northwest plants to the edges. If you have somewhere warm and sunny inside to overwinter a lemon, that will complete the look: Keep it in a terra cotta pot and find it a sheltered place outside during summer.
Hardscaping: Use gravel or flagstones for paths, concrete or stone for statuary. This isn’t cheap, but just one urn or statue will lend an Italian atmosphere.