Lessons from a Tuscan garden

Landscaping lessons in using water from a garden in a tiny hill town in Tuscany.

Photo courtesy of Mary-Kate Mackey.
Water fountains and other water features are a special part of the landscape at Villa Maddalena in the tiny Tuscan hill town of Montisi.
Photo courtesy of Debra Prinzing.
Water spills from a terra-cotta jar.

I recently returned from a week in Italy, visiting the Villa Maddalena in the tiny Tuscan hill town of Montisi. The occasion was a birthday celebration for my friend and colleague, Debra Prinzing.

The villa has a south-facing garden with an array of water features. Here’s what I learned about how water is handled in this home-style Tuscan garden:

More than one water feature sounds good. The villa’s outdoor area is not large. With patios and narrow walkways, it’s arranged more like a city space, than the country garden it is, overlooking an olive-treed valley.

Yet, tucked into one side are both a goldfish pond, where water is pumped up and falls from the mouth of a terra-cotta jar, and, right next to it, another small arching spigot that pours water into an old trough.

The different pitches in sound from those falling waters are tuneful from morning to night.

Big is not necessarily better. The goldfish pond, a raised pool, measures approximately 10 by 10, and perhaps three feet deep. In size and shape, it echoes the nearby vegetable garden plots. The water and the growing areas are compatible neighbors, without one dominating the other.

Fish protection can be beautiful. In the fish pool, a few inches below the water’s surface, lies a gridded metal table top whose legs rest on the bottom. It’s a perfect platform to support water plants such as dwarf papyrus (Cyperus isocladus) in pots, and the eight-inch-square openings give the goldfish protection from predators.

The fish can easily swim down below the metal top, but it would be awfully hard for a wily bird or other critter to balance on the grid work while trying to scoop up dinner. The metal is painted a light color, with no effort to disguise it, and the regularity of the square forms is a pleasing aspect of the pool.

Water does not have to occupy center stage to be effective. The fish pond is placed up against a side wall of the house. The sound of splashing, the flash of goldfish, and the reflecting glints of sunlight on the wall all draw you to the water from wherever you are in the garden.

And because the pool is hidden from the main axis of the villa, it becomes a daily discovery — you have to go see what’s happening.

You can repeat the look of water in other places. At the goldfish pool, the water spills from a pot turned on its side. Over by the patio area away from the pond, a similarly shaped terra-cotta pot is laid sideways on a wall. Nearby, rosemary trails over the edge of the wall, mimicking water.

The idea of duplicating the look and form of one waterfall using plants in another location is charming, and could be repeated throughout any garden, large or small.

Mary-Kate Mackey, co-author of “Sunset’s Secret Gardens — 153 Design Tips from the Pros” and contributor to the “Sunset Western Garden Book,” writes a monthly column for the Hartley Greenhouse webpage and numerous articles for Fine Gardening, Sunset, and other magazines. She teaches at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism & Communication. She writes about water in the garden for Diggin’ It.

Editor’s note: To read more by Mary-Kate, check our blog archive. Gardening articles on a variety of topics can be found at the Monitor’s main gardening page. Also see our RSS feed. You may want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our next contest.

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