Il Colle, my home garden
Testing the limits of drought tolerant mixed borders on a Tuscan hillside
The garden began in 2011, when we moved here, and has never stopped developing. The main layout was fixed at the outset, soon after the land was cleared, but it has taken time for the lines to become evident as much of the planting was done with small plants, seedlings and cuttings. As my home garden, this is where I test many plants and combinations for suitability to the climate.
On a hillside, with clay soil and a sunny exposure, it presented many challenges and opportunities. In terms of design, I subdivided it in sections with the most 'gardened' one closest to the house, a long border about 12 metres in lenght and 2 in depth, in which I can experiment with more detailed combinations of smaller herbaceous plants, shrubs and roses.
This is followed by a sloping lawn below two pine trees. This is outlined by a low rosemary and lavander hedge, beyond which the the hill drops more sharply to olive groves and agricultural landscape. This low horizontal shape defines the view, stopping the unsettling sense of rolling down the hill, and gives a formal outline to the house garden, marking the passage to other areas. On the other side, the circular outline of the lawn and the drop in level are marked by a triangular border with taller plants - lilac, roses and Kerria japonica. In this west-facing border Miscanthus, backlit by evening sun, is particularly effective and adds winter interest.
Further down there is border with large groups of perennials and a greater proportion os shrubs. It is such a steep slope that it's hard to weed or plant without falling over, not to mention the particularly heavy clay which makes it slippery in winter, hard as brick in summer. I plant for lowest maintenance and greater impact from a distance, with Euphorbia charachias wulfenii, Salvia mycrophilla and Santolina chamaecyparissus as main structural elements.
By the steps leading down one are a large group of Sedum Matrona and Sisyrrinchium striatum, which can be appreciated up close. Stachys byzantina provides an excellent ground cover to reduce weeding.
There is no irrigation in the garden, plants are watered in until established, then they have to deal with up to 4 months of summer drought, and temperatures which range from -5 C in winter to 40 C in summer. I've lost quite a few plants to this harsh regime, but I have been able to test most of the plants which I can then recommend to clients. The clay soil helps retain moisture over a long period, and is an ideal habitat for roses, used in the context of mixed planting for a natural, softer look. In my garden I test what I advocate, a low-water garden, which fits into the landscape, for a long season of interest. My borders mimick natural plant communities, a mix of shrub, herbaceous and grasses for constant succession of flowering times, which is also beneficial to wildlife.
Plants which are native to the landscape or have long been naturalized will grow like weeds. Iris germanica, the most common light blue form, grows with such vigour that I periodically, divide it, and plant it further away. This leaves space for more choice cultivars closest to the house. As a native Florentine I always grow several Iris, my city emblem. Testing plants means having to shut your ears to well-meaning comments, because I've lost more plants to good intentions than to bad weather, by watering them at the height of summer.
Apart from those mentioned above, some of my favourite plants include Salvia micrantha, Erigeron karkwinsianus almost always covered in little daisies, Gaura linheimeri and Stipa tenuissima which self-seed liberally for a light airy screen in the toughest conditions. My garden is never finished, it's certainly not perfect, but it teaches me everything I can share about growing plants in this ecosystem and climate, always with an eye to water saving and lower maintenance solutions.