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In Tierra Verde, a glimpse of Tuscany in a verdant garden

If Al Saltiel had lived in a different time and place, he would be a gentleman farmer growing Sangiovese grapes and Frantoio olives in the Italian countryside. Tuscany to be exact. He'd live in a rustic stone villa, surrounded by cypress and fruit trees, manicured hedges, bougainvillea vines and urns spilling over with mixed petunias, sunflowers and geraniums.

His wife, Debbie — the villa's contessa — would bake crostini in the wood-burning oven, dousing it with fresh-pressed olive oil and herbs from the kitchen garden. Dining al fresco with a bottle of chianti from their own vineyard, they would watch the Tuscan sun go down on another day of la dolce vita.

But Al Saltiel was born in New Jersey, Debbie in Los Angeles. He's a pediatric critical care physician whose days are spent at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. She was a nurse back in L.A.; now she's a busy mother and volunteer.

They live more than 5,000 miles from Tuscany in the West Shore neighborhood of Tierra Verde, on a street known for multimillion-dollar homes and water views of nearby Shell Key. It's a world away from Tuscany's rolling hills, farm houses, vineyards and olive groves.

But from the Saltiels' second-floor veranda overlooking the waterfront property, it appears Tuscany has come to Tierra Verde.

Almost.

There are still pelicans and herons back by the mangroves, and the Gulf of Mexico is practically a stone's throw away. But everything else, from the home's architecture to the landscape design, celebrates the Italian way of life.

Inspired by an Italian vacation years ago, Al Saltiel pored over books on Italian architecture and landscaping to create the look and feel of an Italian villa. Even the color of their home — a warm mustard or marigold — was blended to match a paint chip from a Tuscan villa that caught his eye.

"In Italy, you either have an enormous palazzo or a farmhouse. In the middle is the villa," says Saltiel, casually dressed in T-shirt, plaid shorts and flip-flops, ready to tinker in the villa garden he has tended for at least 10 years. Like a fine wine or an artisanal cheese, a garden must develop over time.

There are all the things you'd expect — manicured hedges and small trees, colorful bougainvillea, a handsome fountain and numerous pots and urns overflowing with colorful flowers. The garden's order and symmetry contrast with an unruly bed or two with splashes of color. That's the Tuscan way, Saltiel says. Formality mixed with "messy" plantings of flowers that can't be tamed.

His pots are his passion. Like bouquets, each one is mixed with the brightest flowers of the season, from blue and purple pansies to deep red geraniums.

"I like color. It makes everything pop," he says, sounding like an artist as he describes the potted miniature landscapes as "moments in time."

Al and Debbie Saltiel enjoy entertaining, but mostly they love family time. That's another thing about the Italian way of life. It's about family, food, taking it slow and savoring the moments.

"We're both Italian, and when you grow up in an Italian home, life centers around food," says Debbie Saltiel, who's as at home in the kitchen as her husband is in the garden.

They fell in love over pizza at an Italian restaurant in L.A., and whenever they travel, they enjoy a good meal. No trip is complete without visiting a nearby garden or two.

"It's like looking at art," he says.

Yvonne Swanson can be reached at yvonnesgarden@gmail.com.

. FAST FACTS

Lasagna gardening

It sounds like a recipe for growing basil and tomatoes, but lasagna gardening is a technique coined by American gardener and author Patricia Lanza (Lasagna Gardening: A New Layering System for Bountiful Gardens, Rodale, 1999). The no-dig, no-till method is based on creating layers of organic matter from yard and kitchen waste that over time become rich, fluffy soil.

All you do is place cardboard or three layers of newspaper directly on top of the area where you're gardening. There's no need to remove existing grass or weeds. Next, wet the layer, then begin layering with alternate layers of brown waste (leaves, shredded newspaper, peat) and green waste (kitchen scraps, grass clippings, garden trimmings). Keep layering until the bed is about 2 feet high. Keep it moist to promote decomposition. Eventually the bed will settle, and when it's dark brown and crumbly, you're ready to plant.

Yvonne Swanson, Times correspondent

In Tierra Verde, a glimpse of Tuscany in a verdant garden 03/13/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 13, 2009 9:50am]

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