by Erin Marissa Russell
If you’re a fan of Italian food, hardly anything is easier than marrying your enthusiasm for the culture and cuisine of Italy with your love for gardening. Creating an Italian themed garden is simple, has delicious rewards, and best of all, is a whole lot of fun at every stage—from research and planning all the way up to harvest. Read on for ideas about what to plant, visual elements to echo the Italian theme, and best of all, what to make with your harvest once plants mature and begin to yield a tasty crop.
What to Plant in a Garden Inspired by Italy
Start building your Italian-themed garden with backyard staples that fit into the Mediterranean cuisine and aesthetic. This list is a good place to start. Follow the links for each type of plant to get in-depth instructions for their care needs, planting timelines, and methods of harvesting.
- Basil: Everyone’s favorite herb makes a no-brainer when you’re curating an Italian-style garden. Use liberally in pesto sauce, marinara, bruschetta, or pair with tomatoes and mozzarella cheese drizzled with balsamic vinegar for a Caprese salad.
- Beans: Any kind of beans will work, but fava beans are the most iconic legumes in Italian cuisine. Add them to soups, whizz into spreads, or pair with noodles for pasta e fagioli.
- Bell peppers: You can hardly make pasta sauce without stirring in sweet, crisp bell peppers. Slice them into salads, simmer in soups, or enliven sauces.
- Broccoli: This favorite of the brassica family is also a standby in Italian cuisine. You can even enjoy eating broccoli leaves. For a truly Italian treatment, simply drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper, then roast in the oven. Optional: Fresh from the oven, sprinkle roasted broccoli with slivers of Parmesan cheese or golden brown bread crumbs.
- Cabbage: This one may come as a surprise, but Italian cooks have been working with cabbage for ages. A rustic and authentic home-style recipe is sauteed cabbage and rice, but you can also include cabbage in a minestrone soup or prepare a braise, which traditionally calls on Savoy cabbage.
- Cauliflower: Continuing the brassica trend, don’t leave out cauliflower when you’re building an Italian vegetable garden. You can simply roast it using the broccoli method described above, or you can use it raw in salads, chop it and add it to soups, or think outside the box and slice cauliflower thick, and sear it like a steak.
- Celery: You don’t have to strain your brain to come up with ways to use celery in soups and salads as part of Italian cuisine. But we bet you didn’t automatically consider celery Parmigiana, a recipe that hails from the Italian region of Umbria.
- Eggplant: Nothing says Italian like eggplant. The iconic dish is an eggplant Parmigiana, but you can also cube, toss with spices, and roast in the oven, or create a cheese-stuffed eggplant rollatini.
- Garlic: Garlic is a must-have in the Italian garden. We don’t have to tell you all the ways you can put it to use, but we will tell you our favorite. Just take a thin slice off the top of a head (yes, a whole head) to expose the cloves inside, drizzle with olive oil, and roast in the oven. When it’s golden brown and soft, you can just squeeze to release the roasted cloves from the papery husks. Then break off a hunk of crusty bread and spread the garlicky goodness on like butter.
- Lettuce: Italians love their salad, and what’s a salad without lettuce? Romaine is an Italian favorite.
- Oregano: Second only to basil when it comes to ubiquitous Mediterranean herbs, oregano is a must in the Italian garden. Use it in everything from soups to spaghetti sauce.
- Parsley: Parsley makes any dish just a little tastier (and prettier). This herb is so Italian, one of the two types of parsley on the market is often called Italian parsley.
- Red onions: You can hardly cook without onions—it seems almost every recipe starts with caramelizing them in olive oil. Red onions are traditional in Italian cooking.
- Rosemary: Italians love cooking with rosemary, and who wouldn’t? Flavor fluffy focaccia bread, sprinkle over potatoes before roasting, or use liberally in a dry rub spice blend for pork, lamb, seafood, chicken, or beef.
- Spinach: Who doesn’t love a plate of tender, vibrant green spinach? Raw or sauteed, spinach makes a tasty base for salads, gives the richest soup the veneer of healthiness, or amps up meat when used as a stuffing.
- Thyme: Round out your Italian herb garden with a thyme plant or two. This delicate-looking herb is a powerhouse of flavor added to vegetable dishes, used in marinades for meat, or simmered into sauces.
- Tomatoes (especially plum or Roma tomatoes): You can’t even start thinking about Italian cuisine without calling on the vivid color and rich flavor of ruby-red tomatoes. If you think you love tomatoes but have never had the pleasure of one fresh from the garden, you’re in for a real treat. Sow more plants than you think you’ll need—you can never have too many homegrown tomatoes.
- Zucchini: This garden favorite is a staple of the Italian kitchen. Roast diced zucchini, slice lengthwise and throw on the grill, or spiralize it raw into “zoodles” for a low-carb alternative to pasta.
Less commonly cultivated plants you can add to in an Italian-style garden may take some extra work to find, but they’ll really set your garden apart from others on the block. Follow the links to learn more about how to grow and how to use these lesser-known (but no less delicious) gems of the Italian garden.
- Allium porrum (wild leeks)
- Broccoli rabe
- Cima di rapa
- Radicchio (Italian chicory)
- Spaghetti squash
- Squash flowers
Visually Evoke Italian Gardens with Mediterranean Design
To really drive home the Italian aesthetic, incorporate some elements that are synonymous with the gardens of Italy in your own outdoor getaway. To keep in line with Mediterranean garden style, be heavy handed when planting shrubbery like cypress, boxwood, or juniper. Intersperse evergreens with a restrained hand, adding flowers in a limited palette of just one or two hues. Italian gardens are known for their use of formal hedges in meticulously symmetrical formations, manicured to a razor’s edge, and just a few such hedge rows can cast an Italian glow over an entire garden.
Use marble tiles and warm-colored stones to create along a garden path or delineate the borders of your garden beds (called parterres in Italy). Adding a fresco or mosaic to an outdoor wall will make visitors feel like they’ve stepped into an Italian palace courtyard. Private hideaways—grottoes and alcoves with disguised entrances draped in climbing roses or grapevines—are common in such gardens and easy to mimic however much space you may have to work with.
Architectural and design elements like Roman-style columns or sculptural fountains wound with ivy, a pathway dotted with topiaries, or a selection of terra cotta pots can be scattered throughout a sprawling garden—or a single statement piece can stand alone in a smaller space. Opting for broken or crumbling stonework will conjure up images of ancient ruins. In no time, you’ll be enjoying the fruits (and vegetables) of your labor in all kinds of Mediterranean dishes—which you can eat al fresco in your own backyard Italian paradise.
Want to Tour Some Italian Gardens From the Comfort of Home?
Thanks to YouTube, you don’t have to leave your cozy chair to get an up close and personal view of the gardens of Italy. Take a look at these virtual tours of Italian gardens in the most iconic styles for a little inspiration to kick off your own garden design.
Bomarzo (Viterbo) IL Sacro Bosco ” Parco dei Mostri”: Get a feel for ancient Italian sculpture as you take an expedition through the “Park of Monsters” in the Gardens of Bomarzo in Lazio, Italy. In the shadow of the castle of Orsini, the larger-than-life macabre sculptures are images from classical mythology, some carved from the bedrock that rises from the earth itself.
Garden of Ninfa – An Ancient Gem of Romantic Beauty in Italy: Follow along as host Claudio Beffa visits the Central Italian Garden of Ninfa. Touted as one of the most beautiful gardens in the world, this location boasts some 1500 species of plants from around the world.
Italian Garden Tour in Tuscany, Italy: This 10-minute feature follows host Gabriele as he walks viewers through his family’s home garden in Tuscany. The fruit and vegetable plants he shows off are especially a treat.
BBC Italian Gardens Rome Part 1 of 4: Really have some time to devote? This hour-long feature is the first in a four-part series that gives viewers a tour through the gardens of Rome. Subsequent episodes take viewers through Florence, Naples, southern Italy, and the northern cities of Veneto and Lucca.