Five Foolproof Flowers for an Italian Garden

A while back, I wrote a blog called Five Foolproof Shrubs for an Italian Garden, so the logical sequel to this has to be a blog featuring five equally foolproof flowers for an Italian garden.

Here then is a mix of ultra-reliable perennials (plants that with a modicum of care will survive and thrive undisturbed in your garden for years); and annuals (plants that grow from seed; flower; and then die in the course of a single year) that have been tried and tested in our Abruzzo garden – an acre of south-facing blue clay without a shred of shade.

Foolproof flowers ? Well…though nothing’s ever 100% guaranteed to grow, I’m reasonably confident none of these will let you down, (and hope that confidence isn’t going to come back and haunt me…)

Pelargonium (Annual)

No Italian garden is complete without a Pelargonium

Commonly – but mistakenly – referred to as Geraniums, Pelargoniums are so widespread in Italian gardens that they’re a bit of a horticultural cliche. – but that doesn’t mean they should be ignored. Their popularity stems from the fact that they’re cheap to buy; tough as old boots; won’t mind if you forget to water them; go on flowering forever; and come in a huge variety of colours and forms. Most are simply discarded each autumn – but you can over-winter them and replant the following spring. (Cut back foliage to about 15 cms; dig-up; repot in multipurpose compost and keep indoors in a well-lit, unheated position. Water every 2-3 weeks).
Good points: In flower from May until September – or later. Cutting-off the old flower-heads to encourage new ones is about all the maintenance they need.
Bad points: None

Geranium Cinereum Subcaulescens (Perennial)

The searing magenta-pink Geranium Cinereum

Geraniums are one of my favorite perennial plants, but the ones I bought out from England need cool, moist, semi-shaded growing positions I struggled to provide in my Abruzzo garden. But there’s one glorious exception. Geranium Cinereum Subcaulescens doesn’t have a ‘common name’ and though it’s readily-available from larger plant centres and specialist growers in the UK, it’s not a plant that I’ve ever seen for sale in Abruzzo. From a 40cm clump of heavily-divided, light green leaves, it produces metre-long stems of searingly vivid magenta-pink blooms with a black centre all through summer. And though it has a little protection from adjoining plants, it seems unbothered by even the very hottest days. As with other flowering plants, dead-head to encourage more growth/blooms. Leave it to die down in autumn; trim off the previous year’s dead foliage just as regrowth is starting in spring – and enjoy the subsequent show !
Good points: Fabulous colour and excellent reliability
Bad points: It’ll need a bit of a search to find

Osteospermum (Perennial)

Osteospermum. A foolproof flower for an Italian garden

Too often used as an annual in the UK as it’s not that winter-hardy, but given decent drainage, I’ve found it’s untroubled by the snows of an Abruzzo winter. Like Pelargoniums, these are easily available here, with small plants quickly bulking-up and providing successive flushes of white, magenta, purple or creamy yellow flowers throughout summer and into autumn.   Left to their own devices, Osteospermum can develop into quite sizable, woody-stemmed clumps. They can be trimmed-back, but eventually they become lank and leggy.
Good points: the glossy, dark green leaves can remain on the plant throughout winter.
Bad points: Not a true perennial like a Geranium, so the life-span’s not especially long. You’ll need to replace clumps every 3 years or so with either new plants, or from cuttings.

Mexican Daisy (Perennial)

Mexican Daisy - a perfect groundcover plant in the Italian garden

Erigeron Karvinskianus – to give it its full botanical name – has proved one of the stars of our Abruzzo garden, colonising the slopes around our swimming pool. It really does originate from Mexico and central America, so copes easily with the heat of an Abruzzo summer. And also, perhaps surprisingly, the cold of an Abruzzo winter. It’ll readily self-seed – which depending on your needs and available space is either a plus, or a minus, point – but never to the point of becoming annoyingly invasive. The tight-knit green leaves are produced in mounds about 10-15cm high and provide terrific weed-supressing ground cover, but the real charm are the thousands of daisies, much-loved by smaller butterflies, that smother the plants from early spring to late autumn. In winter, these die-back to a basic leafy sub-structure. Dust-like seed will allow the plants to spread, and you can take easily-rooted cuttings from new growth in spring.
Good points: Highly attractive and great ground cover. Once it’s established, you can safely leave it to look after itself.
Bad points: Another plant you’ll have to source outside Italy (though it’s easy to find in the UK – and can also be grown from seed, again easily-found). Not the best plants though for tiny, constricted places.

Pink (Perennial)

Pinks. A perfect scent for an Italian garden

Few flowers have a scent as strong or distinctive as the old-fashioned Pink. On a warm summer’s evening, the faintest breeze will carry the rich, intoxicating fragrance of cloves, while the flowers themselves are a magnet for bees, butterflies and moths. Pinks like hot, dry positions and the only maintenance you’ll ever need to do is to is cut the stems back by half when it’s finished flowering. A few week later you’ll be rewarded with a second flush of blooms. But be sure you go for old-fashioned Pinks, rather than their modern counterparts which have been bred for size; bright colours and continuous flowering at the expense of scent. Old fashioned pinks invariably have smallish single flowers in muted shades of pink, mauve, lavender or cream – and bicolor too – but the giveaway is the scent, so try and buy a plant that’s in flower, so you can have a sniff scent-check before handing your money over. Or if you can’t find plants, Pinks are easily grown from seed. They’ll easily tolerate winter cold – but can’t stand winter wet, so really good drainage is essential.
Good points: Scent. Scent. Scent. And a pleasingly ‘old-fashioned’ cottage garden appearance.
Bad points: Not in flower the whole summer – but the grassy grey foliage is attractive in its own right.

I’ve found that all these plants survive and thrive with just a modicum of attention, though as with the ‘foolproof’ shrubs featured in the previous blog, a bit of judicious watering during their first summer – and from then on, occasionally on the very hottest days of the year – will help enormously towards their long-term survival.

 But even that said, this spring I came across one of last year’s Mexican Daisy cuttings that I’d planted out and then forgotten. Peeking through the crispy brown foliage, I came across a sprig or two of sad, but still-green leaves. Trimmed and watered, the plant quickly recovered and is now flowering away happily !

Besides those recommendations, an honorable mention too for the annual California Poppy, which produces mounds of ferny blue-green foliage and endless flushes of bold, papery flowers in jellybean colours. Loves poor, sandy, gravelly soil and easily raised by a spring scattering of seed where you want them to flower.

But don’t even think about trying that UK bedding standby the Busy Lizzie. The mainstay of our first ever summer display, these lasted just a few scant weeks in Abruzzo’s summer sun before shrivelling away, leaving embarrassingly large and embarrassingly empty gaps.

Proof that what’s a foolproof flower in one country is anything but in another…


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