I t takes at least three years to grow a full, verdant garden, according to the experts. Writer Anne Kreamer just couldn’t wait that long. After she and her husband, essayist and novelist Kurt Andersen, sold their house in the country, they (and their teenage daughters) began to ache for greenery. To make it worse, they looked out on a funky yard practically devoid of plants (yet full of sun). Three months later: a lush, rich Eden. How did they make it happen? Timothy Tilghman, their game-for-anything garden designer, did it all—including demolition and construction—with a bunch of hand tools and a few helpers. In the steps that follow, he reveals his methods and tricks.
While Tilghman cleared the area, Anne and her family thought about what they wanted.
-Two outdoor spaces: a living room for hanging out and a dining area close to the kitchen.
-Plants that can be tended in about 20 minutes a day.
-The fullness and feel of an English garden.
-Something blooming or changing colors every season.
-A floor surface that feels good on bare feet.
-Modern furniture that can stay outside through winter.
brainstorming Tilghman sits down with Anne and encourages her to dream about what she’d like— aesthetically and functionally—for her new backyard. They discuss everything from favorite colors, textures and scents to how the garden will look from each window of the house. The overall sensibility: cottage contemporary.
cleanup The designer and a couple of assistants demolish the old deck and haul out three truckloads of wood, rubble and cement. Underneath all the crap, they discover rich, loamy black soil—gardener’s gold!
plans and budget When he can actually see the space—cleaned up and empty—Tilghman draws the design, makes a plant list and costs out all materials and labor. After a final confab with Anne, he gets the OK.
planting Tilghman visits several nurseries to find the large perennials and shrubs with interesting foliage (about half are showy flowering plants) that he and Anne decided to splurge on. Since the soil turned out to be so good, the plants could be popped right in without adding any compost.
construction A truckload of crushed stone is dumped onto the bare earth and raked flat to provide a bed for the bluestone. The floor is laid piece by piece, like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
finishing touches As the garden settles in, the side fences are stained a warm deep brown that disappears against the green. Then Tilghman goes wild on containers: Tropical annuals (and easy, fast growers) like the blood-leaf banana and purple castor bean (which grows to 12 feet) yield a big, bold effect with their huge leaves and unusual tones.
purple & yellow
In this garden, color comes primarily from the foliage, not the flowers (although the black-eyed Susans help). Tilghman chose plants with deep-purple or yellow-green leaves, juxtaposing dark plants with light ones to max out the contrast.
how to get a lush garden in one season
Enrich the soil. If you don’t have great dirt, add three to five inches of compost; plants need ample organic matter to grow rapidly.
Opt for fast-growing perennials. Black-eyed Susan, Russian sage, snakeroot and Rodgersia, for example, will shoot up quickly.
Invest in some tall plants. Place them in back to help create instant levels.
Fill in gaps. Try annuals like salvia, sweet-potato vine, cannas, nicotiana and elephant’s ear. Finish with lots of containers. These transform spots where you can’t cultivate anything.