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Janet Macunovich

Under the Tuscan gun, plant-choice wise

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N.B. brings this to us by email and we're hoping for help from you-all:



I am working on a Tuscan themed landscaping project. I know that I have to make some compromises for climate, etc. and for the most part I'm doing fine, but was looking for two items that have me stumped. Are there any small ornamental flowering trees weeping or otherwise that you think would fit this theme that you could help me with? If not something like that any other suggestions would be greatly appreciated. I think something dark would also be striking against the light brick. The conditions are full sun, a window on one wall that would be behind the tree, near front door and curving sidewalk the brick on the house is tan and white.


I am also looking for a vine that would fit and work in our zone where everything I am finding isn't cold hardy that's used in traditional Mediterranean design. Would love it to be flowering, not overly large northeast exposure, same brick coloring. Having fun scouring books, but nothing seems right to me, and I want to stay as true to the theme as I can.


You've been very helpful in the past, and always pass on great info. If there is anything you can do to help me with this I'd greatly appreciate it. Thanks in advance. - N.B. -


There is definitely a need to settle for similar-look plants, N.B., since no way can we grow the heat-loving, warm winter plants of that region such as the blue Ceanothus vine (although a few people have told me they do keep one of the hardier varieties ALIVE in protected places in zone 5, and maybe even see a bloom or two... Okay for some maybe, but that's not what I would want of a plant I know can be a 30' x 30' blue-flowering expanse!) Most not-too big vines tha bloom well are annual for us (and good thing, in many cases. Blackeye susan vine Thunbergia alata is only, perhaps, 10' at the end of a zone 5 growing season while in zone 8 it becomes a suckering, shrub-smothering presence). So maybe you should be placing a Mandevilla in that place where you need a vine, replacing it each year?


There's a weeping redbud... its dark bark would look good against light colored walls. Could it be pruned to conform to the proper look? Hmm.. It grows a mile a minute so would require your acceptance of that "cost".


I haven't been to Tuscany so the look and feel of those landscapes doesn't spring right to my mind. Some of our Moderators have traveled in the Mediterranean, some have even guided garden tours there. Let's put this on the Forum and see if they can offer any help.




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Whenever I try to create a theme landscape I focus first on the hardscape to set the stage for plantings. This way when you make plant substitutions (because of climate) they are much more believable. Hardscape elements that come to mind for a Tuscan landscape are:

White stone and white washed architecture white stone paver tiles, terracotta and stone pots (large), Iron arbors over walkways, fountains, cut stone walls, gravel paths, patios and gravel in between pavers.


I also try not to get too hung up on finding precise matches for plant substitutes, focusing more on recreating the overall effect of the plants and hardscape combined. To me Tuscany has a special balance of refinement and wildness. For example the narrow formal look of Cypress trees against a back drop of rolling hills and wild brush. Or large grand pots staged along a path overflowing with bougainvillea.

I grow Bougainvillea “pot in pot”, cut back in fall, keep in the house and bring back out in spring. The look of Cypress and rolling hills is bit harder to recreate without knowing exactly how much space you have or seeing a picture. In Tuscany cypress trees line streets and drives, surround patios, gardens and courtyards. They are planted well enough apart from each other to stand as individual sentinels, defining garden areas and ales from the greater landscape. If you don't have a lot of space you could even use dwarf (narrow) evergreens as small recreations of that effect along a walk or at the edge of a garden.


Don't over look the power of fragrance to set the theme. Plant rosemary in pots and lavender near walkways. Plant thyme in between pavers and Jasmine in pots. Look for large fragrant roses with tightly packed double petal type flowers… all commonly found in Tuscany.

The sky and even light and air in Tuscany have a unique blue cast. Try using plants with dusty blue foliage to get that feel while at the same time mimicking the color of the olive trees. A butterfly bush with a soft flower color as a back ground might work. Oregano (there are ornamental varieties) also has a bluefish cast and is often seen in Tuscan landscapes. Bring in bright clear greens to contrast. Flower colors often used are red, blues and whites. For summer long color consider; Red and white geraniums and Dahlias or blue salvias and verbenas, white roses and petunias. I love the sophisticated look of dusty blue and clear green foliage with just white flowers


Now to your specific questions…

I don't really think of specimen trees for a Tuscan landscape. Often focal points are fountains or sculptural elements, or groupings of pots. Many trees planted near homes in Tuscany are selected for their usefulness… apple, fig, lemon, and olive. So for a small ornamental you might consider a dwarf apple, crab apple or pear.


And finally consider a grape vine or wisteria… Even if the wisteria never flowers its form and foliage lend an air of “old world”. Neither are small vines I know but on a sturdy iron arbor or a support attached along an entire wall of the home they could help transport you to Tuscany.

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