Join the Bloom & Grow Garden Club!

Let Maria slide into your inbox twice a month with planty education and inspiration created just for YOU to help you “keep blooming and keep growing” your indoor jungles and spirits (you’ll also be the first to know about upcoming events, launches and other exciting things we are working on!).

The History of Italian Gardens and Italian Citrus with Helena Attlee, Ep 206



Ever heard the saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”? You bet those lemons might have come from an Italian garden, plant friends! To celebrate Italian American Heritage Month, this episode brings us all about the history of Italian gardens and citrus cultivation with Helena Attlee, an expert on Italian gardens and author of the book The Land Where Lemons Grow. We will talk about Italy's epic obsession with gardens and citrus fruits over the centuries.


In this episode, we learn:

  • [00:00] What is the deep-rooted connection between Italian culture and gardening?
  • [07:36] How Helena became passionate about Italian gardening
  • [11:48] Helena’s garden features and the cultural significance of citrus in Italian agriculture
  • [13:57] Why is it not advisable to grow citrus in Britain?
  • [15:00] Get your fall planting and feeding essentials from Espoma Organics!
  • [16:30] Gift the magic of soothing melodies this season with Wind River Wind Chimes
  • [18:23] What recurring cultural garden themes did Helena find in all her visits?
  • [22:05] Revival of Italian gardening
  • [28:05] What sustains edible gardening in Italian culture, especially in lower and middle-class communities?
  • [29:59] How volcanic ash from active volcanoes benefits plant growth, particularly in regions like Sicily and Naples
  • [31:11] What inspired Helena to write her book, The Land Where Lemons Grow?
  • [34:30] Importance of Italian citrus farming and its link to the mafia's rise
  • [41:13] Health benefits of blood oranges and lemon juice, especially in preventing scurvy
  • [44:11] What are Helena’s top favorite gardens to visit in Italy?
  • [46:41] What would be one way to elevate your gardens in an Italian way?
  • [47:34] Where can you find Helena on social media?


Order my book!

Growing Joy: The Plant Lover's Guide to Cultivating Happiness (and Plants) by Maria Failla, Illustrated by Samantha Leung

Don't forget to subscribe to the podcast,

so you don't miss the amazing episodes we have coming up!




Who is Helena Attlee?

Helena never imagined herself as an expert on Italian gardens. But while studying abroad in Siena for college, she fell head over heels for Italy. Fast forward a few years, she and her husband landed a sweet gig photographing hidden Italian gardens in the late ‘80s. With their new baby girl in tow, they went around Italy chasing these rare gardens attached to ancient villas and palazzos.

Knocking on those dusty villa doors was almost like time-traveling for Helena. The aristocratic families inside had lived there for hundreds of years, and their crumbling gardens were like majestic time capsules. Helena knew she had to help bring these national treasures back to life after decades of neglect, and so her quest began.


The Golden Era of Italian Gardens

Back in the Renaissance, Italy was the place to look at if you were into stylish gardens. Seriously, they had the coolest and fanciest gardens in Europe. The first of these ‘modern’ gardens started in Florence in the 15th century, and it totally changed the game! They had slick geometric designs and were among the first to have fountains and other cool water effects.

Then, in the 17th century, these Italian gardens became super flashy, with intricate statues, fountains that played music, and sneaky water tricks to surprise guests. They were the ultimate party spaces for the wealthy, hosting concerts, games, and horse shows. But by the 18th century, people were more into the laid-back gardens of France and England. Still, Italy’s expensive gardens have left a mark and influenced the way we see gardens today.


The Rise and Fall of Gardening in Italy

Gardening took off again in Italy in the early 1900s when Mussolini tried putting Italy’s greatness on full display—what he calls Italianità or the Italianness of Italy—including excavating ancient sites. But WWII devastated the country and ruined Italy’s garden scene, leaving many fancy estates abandoned. With no money or gardeners left, these once-outstanding gardens sadly fell apart.

By the ‘70s and ‘80s, most historic gardens were tragically overgrown and forgotten, known only to nearby villagers. Helena was part of a small early effort to bring these forgotten treasures back to life by writing about them for a wider audience.

Gradually, the love came back starting in the ‘90s, as groups like Grandi Giardini restored gardens and opened them to visitors as lush tourist sites. Today gardening is slowly returning as a popular hobby in Italy’s middle class, though climate change impacts are making it tough.


The Rich History of Citrus in Italy

Beyond elegance and artistic heritage, Helena realized that Italian gardens also grew citrus. Aristocrats went crazy showing off rare citrus trees in pots as status symbols during the Renaissance. But citrus wasn't just for flexing. Sicily’s warm climate allowed massive lemon exports in the 1800s that actually enabled the rise of the Sicilian mafia (yes, for real!). 

Citrus offered medical benefits in addition to financial gains. Sailors who were plagued with Scurvy also eventually realized that lemons provided vitamin C. Blood oranges contain antioxidants that modern studies suggest may help treat respiratory ailments, obesity, and more. You can learn about this more in Helena’s book.


Gardens to Visit in Italy

When asked which Italian gardens she would recommend visiting, Helena gave a list of favorites that provide beautiful snapshots of different eras.

  • San Giuliano (Sicily): modern 20th-century garden with awesome cacti and succulents
  • Villa Lante (Lazio): awesome Renaissance water garden
  • Villa Medicea di Castello (Tuscany): what remains of the Medici citrus groves
  • Boboli Gardens (Florence): statues and alleyways

Gardens are entwined with Italy’s culture, past and present. Citrus fruits have graced Italian tables for millennia, enjoyed for their beauty, flavor, and practical uses. Helena’s tireless efforts to revive these forgotten gems of Italy’s past have helped inspire a new wave of enthusiasm for the history and beauty contained in Italy’s gardens. Make sure to check out Helena’s books and social media for more history behind gardens and citrus.


Mentioned in our conversation:


Thank you to our episode sponsors:

Espoma Organic

Make sure your plants are all set for the new season! Espoma Organic is dedicated to making safe indoor and outdoor gardening products for people, pets, and the planet. They have an amazing variety of high-quality, organic potting mixes, garden soil, fertilizers, and pest control products that are organic and eco-friendly. To top it all off, they have a huge sustainability commitment with a 100% solar powered plant, zero waste manufacturing and eco-friendly packaging.

Visit to find your local Espoma dealer or check my Amazon storefront.

Wind River Chimes

Bring more peace, serenity, and magic into your home with chimes. Wind River is a Virginia-based company creating premium handcrafted and hand-tuned wind chimes for over 35 years. If you are looking for a new way to grow joy in your life and find a moment of peace, a Wind River chime is the perfect addition to your home or garden. Plus, it's a perfect personalized gift for your loved ones!

Visit and use code GROWINGJOY to receive free engraving on all Corinthian Bells wind chimes.



Follow Helena:



Follow Maria and Growing Joy:

Order my book: Growing Joy: The Plant Lover's Guide to Cultivating Happiness (and Plants) by Maria Failla, Illustrated by Samantha Leung

Join the Bloom and Grow Garden Party Community Platform & App AKA the plantiest and kindest corner of the internet! Get your FREE 2-week trial here!

Take the Plant Parent Personality Quiz (Get the perfect plants, projects and educational resources for YOUR Lifestyle)

Support Bloom and Grow Radio by becoming a Plant Friend on Patreon!

Instagram: @growingjoywithmaria

Tiktok: @growingjoywithmaria

Subscribe to the Growing Joy Youtube channel! /growingjoywithmaria


Pinterest: @growingjoywithmaria

Leave a Reply

Follow along,  plant friends!


Stop wasting money on plants that don’t fit with your lifestyle.

Take the Plant Parent Personality™ quiz, and get curated recommendations for plants, projects, and podcast episodes inspired by your lifestyle to unlock your Plant Parent Potential!

Take the Plant Parent Personality™ Quiz