Five Foolproof Shrubs For An Italian Garden

We have an acre of Abruzzo hillside, facing due south without a shred of shade or cover.

The soil’s heavy blue clay. Concrete in summer; boot-cloyingly claggy in winter.

Most is just rough grass, kept in check with strimmer and mower. The rest is a highly-cultivated mix of shrubs, trees and flowers, (plus a vegetable patch and an orchard.)

Before we moved here, I read the books and did the research about Mediterranean gardening. These may have some relevance if you’re actually on the Mediterranean, but not much help 370m above sea level in Abruzzo.

So on the basis of what I’ve bought; planted; nurtured and then watched shrivel to dust in the heat of an Abruzzo summer…

…and what I’ve bought, planted, nurtured for a bit and then watched them shrug off summer heat and winter snow with equal ease, here are five shrubs that not only survive and prosper to perfection here, but also provide long-lasting colour and scent; and bring bees and butterflies into your garden too.  They all seem a good bet for pretty well any garden in Italy.

Oleander
This is the big, evergreen flowering shrub you’ll see planted along autostrade (and on the A14 running through southern Abruzzo, on the central divide as well). Available primarily with clusters of single white, pink, or blood red flowers, Oleander will be continuously in bloom pretty much from May-September. If left unchecked, can reach 3m high and wide – but it’s easy to keep to half that size.
Good points: If it starts getting too big or leggy, cut it back down to 60-90cms in early spring. It’ll resprout from old wood in a few weeks and be in flower by summer. The last two Abruzzo winters have been unkind to the Oleanders planted round our pool, but with the snow-bitten areas chopped-out, they’ve been fine. Pest and disease-free.
Bad points: All parts of the plant are toxic, so if you’re pruning, sensible to wear gloves so sap doesn’t get onto bare skin. (Being toxic also an Oleander plus as it’s shunned by deer and wild boar)

 Oleander offers pink, white or blood-red flowers from spring until autumn

Rose
Contrary to popular belief, roses are neither ‘difficult’ nor ‘hard work’. Modern shrub roses flower throughout summer and have terrific disease resistance. Aphids can be a problem. If you’re so inclined; spray them. If not, the damage they cause is minimal. (And ladybirds will thank you).
Two personal favourites: Old Crimson China, which loves long, hot Italian summers, is a gorgeously-scented 18th century rose that’s in flower for 10 months of the year. And Margaret Merrill, an even more heavily-perfumed white rose with big, glossy, dark green leaves.
Good points: The sheer variety of shapes, sizes, scents and colours and the fact that there’s a rose for pretty much every garden purpose from ground cover; to climbers; to growing in pots on the patio; to simply planting as a bush. They’re not too fussy as to the type of soil they grow in and if given a modicum of attention, can be extremely long-lived.
Bad points: Aside from aphids, no getting away from the fact that in late winter, you’ll need to prune your roses. You can do this by snipping away with secateurs – or by using shears, or even a hedge-trimmer. It’s been shown that all these methods are equally effective.

 The variety of roses available make it a must-have in any Italian garden

Russian Sage
Not Russian and not a Sage either. The botanical name of this incredibly easy and good-looking shrub is Perovskia and it’s a really good alternative to Lavender if, like me, you have the kind of clay soil in which Lavender would perish in its first wet winter. Perovskia grows to about 1m high when in flower; is utterly drought-proof; doesn’t really care where it’s planted; and will provide long wispy fronds of purple flowers from May until October that respond to even the gentlest breeze. One of the very best bee-and-butterfly plants you can find, but the scent divides opinion. Like it or loathe it – but it isn’t intrusive. Each spring, chop back to around 30-40cms and that’ll be your annual maintenance done.
Good points: Really doesn’t need any special feeding, watering, or protection from bugs or disease. Superb hot weather shrub that can also double-up – as we use it – mass-planted as a border along a path.
Bad points: Only the scent, if that isn’t to your taste.

Russian Sage planted alongside a path in our Abruzzo Garden - and a Buddleja 'Black Knight' 

Teucrium
Tiny steely-blue leaves and flowers (virtually year-round) that shimmer in the sun – and the biggest bee-magnet I’ve ever come across. Was given a spindly specimen for free by a nursery-owner who basically just wanted rid of it. In three years it’s developed into a big, tight bun of a shrub 1.5m high and 2m across. I keep it in check with a bit of informal topiary using shears whenever it threatens to get out of hand.
Good points: This really is a ‘plant and forget’ shrub that loves hot, dry conditions Aside from the occasional clip, (and you don’t have to even do that if it has the space to grow), it needs no care or attention whatsoever.
Bad points: None

Steely blue leaves and flowers on this foolproof Teucrium

 Buddleja
Its common name of ‘Butterfly Bush’ is well-earned, because this is really the only choice if you have room for just one 100% foolproof butterfly plant. Plant it in the hottest, driest part of your garden and although it’ll need a little watering during its first summer to get established, once it’s got its roots down, you can forget about it. Long flower panicles vary in colour from light mauve to deepest purple, which all have a light, honeyed scent. There’s also another easily-obtainable Buddleja variety that has orange, golf ball-size flowers
Good points: Butterflies. Lots and lots of butterflies. Disease-free.
Bad points: If left unchecked, Buddleja can get big, leggy and unwieldy. Each spring, cut back hard to about 1m to encourage fresh new growth.

 Buddleja is a magnet for butterflies - like this beautiful Swallowtail

A couple of honourable mentions to Hypericum Hidcote, a glossy evergreen, with big, buttercup-yellow flowers in summer; Pyrcanthus (Fire Thorn), which has mounds of tiny white flowers in spring and red or orange berries in winter; and Cistus, which for an all-too-brief time in early summer is smothered in tissue-paper flowers of deepest pink, or white.

One final caveat: Even the easiest, best-natured and forgiving plant will need a little help to get established. But a little effort on your part in its first season will allow you to then sit back and relax and enjoy the fruits of your hard work…


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5 Comments

  1. Nick says:

    Good morning: just got to do a phone con and it’s pissing me off before I start (bad attitude I know..) but reading your blog on plants was a great diversion and leveller…they come to me via linkedin. Good stuff. Nick

  2. Caroline says:

    Many thanks for your advice. We’re in Umbria and I’m always battling with plants that I would love to grow, but find it impossible with the heat in the summer. Some great ideas here!

  3. Vittoria Thornley says:

    I’ve just found your blog and am very interested in your experience of gardening in Italy. We’ve just finished restoring a Tuscan farmhouse and the garden is a blank canvas. We have raised beds and large areas to fill! Any useful ideas of plants which you’ve had success with in a hot and dry climate would be much appreciated! Many thanks. Vittoria

    • villasfor2 says:

      Thanks Vittoria. I’m anything but a professional gardener, and I don’t know anything about soil/micro-climates in Tuscany, so would be reluctant to advise what might/might not succeed for you. But take a look through further gardening blogs on the Villasfor2 site that deal with flowers – plus fruit and vegetables – which’ll at least give you an idea what’s worked for me (and what hasn’t) in Abruzzo.

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