Bella Umbria

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Eleagnus hedge with view of Umbrian landscape

I have spent the last two weeks in Umbria, sometimes called 'the green heart' of Italy. We stayed high on a hill 20 or so km north of Perugia, in a beautifully renovated old farmhouse complex, which looks across the valleys to Mount Subasio, with the town of Assisi glinting on its lower slopes.

As well as restoring the old stone buildings, the owners have created a wonderful private garden on the sloping site, using plants eminently suited to the Mediterranean climate and able to grow in the challenging terrain. Many of these plants are ones that we in Sydney have such trouble growing, due to our summer humidity, so it was a joy to be able to see them thriving in the right place, illustrating to me once again the importance of choosing plants to suit where we live.

Lavender hedge

Mature oak and olive trees provided a solid framework to the garden, which was terraced with stone walls to provide garden beds on the slope; stone was also used to create pathways and sitting-out areas to enjoy the superb views from every angle of the property, looking out onto vineyards, olive groves, wooded areas, fields and green hills. Soft informal hedging was used most effectively to provide privacy between the three guest quarters and to provide structure along pathways, giving a pleasing cohesive picture. I particularly loved the long hedge of lavender (possible Lavandula angustifolia) leading up to the villas, smothered in a haze of slim spires of violet flowers, which attracted huge bumblebees all day long. Rosemary was also used successfully as an informal hedge, as was a silvery Eleagnus (possibly E. x ebbingei) - luckily for us, both these plants do also grow well in Sydney.

Silvery-leaved Buddleja with olive tree in the background

These silvery leaves looked so appropriate in this climate, and were a theme throughout the garden, from the olive trees to Buddleja, Artemisia and low-growing cotton lavender (Santolina) with its cute yellow button blooms. Elsewhere, evergreen shrubs gave contrasting colour and form - such as Viburnum tinus, Cistus and juniper cultivars. A yellow-flowered broom (Genista species) was also grown in the garden: it also seemed to grow wild in the surrounding hills, giving a golden glow amongst the dark trees in the landscape.

Herb garden

Climbers were used to cloak the old stone walls of all the buildings - roses and star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) provided a gentle perfume in the warm summer air, and wisteria draped over the little pergola over our sitting-out area, giving welcome shade from the sun. A herb garden, which guests can use for their cooking, held robust plants of thyme, oregano and rosemary, along with the healthiest looking sage bushes I have ever seen!

Convolvulus, possibly C. althaeoides

Everywhere in Italy, we saw wildflowers growing along the sides of the roads and these also grew in the grass of the less formal areas of the garden where we were staying: red poppies, low Geranium, Echium vulgare and a pretty pink Convolvulus (possibly C. althaeoides), which I have tried and failed with at home on several occasions. Perennial Nepeta and Centranthus ruber softened the garden walls as they spilled over the stone edges, in full bloom.

Gaura grown in pots

Potted plants are a great favourite in Italy and in this garden they were used to give colour on the stone terrace areas. Pelargonium of all types grow brilliantly in this climate (far better than in Sydney!) and are seen everywhere in pots, as are citrus plants. I admired the use of Gaura lindheimeri in large pots on one of the terraces in the garden - something I had never thought of doing.

For information about staying in this idyllic place, visit