How they garden in Sicily

Winter evenings are made for garden scheming and dreaming. Here, find a few ideas to steal from a recent tour of Sicily, a sun-drenched island sitting off the south toe of Italy.

I recently went to Sicily “off the beaten path” and discovered a culture rich in history, wine and olive oil, and a slower pace of life based on outdoor living and dining. Here is some stuff I learned

1. Use overhead timbers and wisteria vines to create quick shade in outdoor living areas.

It may not be practical to add shade trees to a patio area close to the house or to wait years for young trees to cast a shadow.

Villas in Sicily grow almost instant shade by using the foliage of robust vines, such as wisteria, over pergolas made from wood, stone or even metal pipe. The north or east side of a building becomes the preferred spot for an outdoor living room in a hot climate. Back at home in rainy Washington, the sun-drenched west or south sides of a home would be more practical for an outdoor living room.

Wisteria not only drips with fragrant clusters of flowers in spring and offers sun-blocking foliage in summer, but this vine has the good sense to lose its leaves during the winter months allowing much needed sunlight into the home.

2. Add color with paint, tile and garden art.

Gardeners in warm climates have always looked for ways to add color that do not require a watering can. Sicilian gardens are rich with ceramic tiles, painted pots and garden statuary.

Stucco walls are painted peach or pink and native stone mellows to gold to create a lovely backdrop for plants. In one poolside garden at a resort in Taormina, we admired colorful square pots that were made from five 12-by-12-inch ceramic floor tiles. A simple do-it-yourself project, each brightly painted tile was glued to the edge of a 12-inch bottom base tile and secured with construction adhesive. The result is a tile cube open at the top that can be filled with potting soil and heat-loving plants such as palms, plumbago, thungbergia, sedums and citrus fruits.

3. Turn your balcony into a hanging garden.

Traveling the world should always make one appreciate home, and visiting a country like Sicily with high taxes and higher unemployment made us very aware of our status as “rich Americans.” All over Europe, fewer citizens own property and can afford the luxury of a large garden. Renting a small apartment does not keep Italians from creating rooftop, balcony and even alley gardens.

Geraniums spill from terra cotta pots over wrought iron railings. Potted palm and orange trees cast needed shade on rooftop gardens. Vegetable lovers harvest eggplant, tomatoes and basil from narrow alleys where containers may be as economical as recycled olive oil tins or plastic water jugs.

Gardening in Sicily shows there is no excuse not to make the world a more beautiful place by growing plants. Lack of water and money in this country did not mean a lack of gardens or passion for living.