Northern Italy reminds me of Washington state — the snowcapped peaks of the Alps surround crystal-clear lakes and the mild climate allows for beautiful and diverse gardens. So I declare the lakes district of Italy the most beautiful place in the world for visiting show gardens.
We recently returned from exploring the gardens near Bellagio on Lake Como (the real Bellagio, not the Vegas imitation) and Stresa on Lake Maggiore. We took home more than great wine, olive oil and photographs. We took home ideas from these classic gardens that surround centuries-old villas, which are not only practical but water-saving as well.
Most European gardens are maintained without built-in sprinkler systems as water is considered such a precious resource. Here are a few ideas that give you plenty of drama — without too much drinking:
VILLA CARLOTTA — ON LAKE COMO
This lush, romantic-style estate used a shaded hillside valley to grow a world-famous collection of rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias. Then a colorful piece of modern art was added for a punch of color. Italians are not stuck on traditional statues. A bright red sculpture of a red devil sat amid the leafy greens of rhododendrons and ferns. This color punch shocked the senses in such a cool and shaded valley — and inspired some devilish behavior from our travel companions. Mama Mia, indeed!
Take-home idea: Add a colorful glass or metal accent piece or brightly painted birdhouse to your shaded area for yearlong color. Then make like an Italian designer and move around your garden accents at least every few years. Bonus — no need to water your garden art.
ISOLA BELLA — ON LAKE MAGGIORE
A dramatic surprise awaits visitors as they emerge from the doorway of the huge Borromeo family villa and climb the steps into their display garden — the most impressive garden “gazebo” ever built leaves visitors with a feeling of shock and awe. You might not have room for the flowering layers of a three story structure in your own garden (complete with a larger than life frosting of unicorns on top) but you can add the element of surprise to even the smallest landscape.
Take-home idea: Hide a corner of your garden by curving a pathway or adding a bit of screening with a hedge or section of fencing. There is delight in discovering a secret garden tucked out of site. Bonus: A hidden garden area is perfect for growing winter-dormant plants such as hydrangeas or dahlias.
VILLA TARANTO — VERBANO, ON LAKE MAGGIORE
Dahlias create the drama in the garden. Instead of growing these tender bulbs in predictable rows, the 6-feet-tall dahlias were used as garden walls to create a blooming garden maze. Visitors follow a grassy, winding path surrounded by walls of dahlias grouped by color.
Take-home idea: Plant tall dahlias on both sides of a garden path at home and you’ll get the dramatic effect of being dwarfed by giant flowers during late summer and fall when the rest of the garden may be weary from summer heat. A well-mulched dahlia bed that has soil amended with compost is surprisingly drought-resistant. The fleshy tubers can store moisture so a good soak every few weeks is all the water they require.
Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of several books. Reach her at binettigarden.com.
To see more take home ideas and places to stay from her travels friend Marianne Binetti on Facebook or visit her website at binettigarden.com.