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Herb Appeal

At a prestigious Litchfield address, landscape designer Glenn Hillman respects the roots of an historic garden but dials up the color with exceptional herbs

Glenn Hillman’s herb garden is a celebration of sun. Although he started gardening at the tender age of ten, on previous properties, he always had to grapple with the burden of shade. Not that shade is a bad thing, but the canopy put a crimp in the precocious young gardener’s innate penchant for sun-loving plants. That changed when his family moved to Litchfield’s prestigious and ultra-staid North Street in 1993. Fresh out of college and 23 years old, Hillman came along, gratefully taking the added solar energy available in his new garden site and running straight for an herb garden. He’s been fine-tuning it ever since.

Back in his shade days, he had satisfied his horti-penchant mostly with hostas and ferns. But still, the nascent nature lover managed to grow vegetables and flowers on the porch in his formative years. Meanwhile, he frequented public gardens. Later, as an architectural history major, he maintained the college’s Shakespeare Garden. Oh, and between classes, he helped maintain the school’s orchid, succulent, and gesneriad collections. And clipped the campus’s topiary. So Hillman had more experience under his tool belt when he came to his first sun-drenched, adult garden than most people acquire in a lifetime.

When he arrived on the northwest Connecticut scene, Hillman found the remnants of a vintage garden—just as you would expect for the center of Litchfield. The 1771 Georgian house had already been fitted with a 1913 Colonial Revival expansion to bulk up its footprint. It had a modest pond and Colonial Revival perennial beds behind the house, accented by a charming fence that was in serious disrepair (“they were a wreck, actually,” says Hillman, who doesn’t mince words). Not being an iconoclast, but having strong horticultural sensibilities of his own, Hillman set out to “take what was here and make the best of it.” Except the swimming pool. It had to go.

So, he converted the fieldstone paths to brick, inflicted strong axis lines, and toned up the back stone terrace to accommodate the alpine collection he’d been amassing while other kids did high school sports. He remade the fence using the original template. But the goodwill policy didn’t extend to the plants. Except a few Siberian irises, peonies, and a baptisia or two from the original collection (“there were 15 baptisias here when I came—I like repetition, but that was boring”), he revamped the perennials to fit his savvy eye and affinity for collecting. And he dispensed with all the shade plants posthaste. “When I came here, I wanted only sun-loving plants,” he notes.

The perennial beds monopolized a few years and filled up all the time he could spare from his full-time job—design work in the family’s figurine business. Then he tackled his real opus: the herb garden. Knowing that the swimming pool “had to go,” he’d been hatching schemes for its footprint, informed by numerous trips to classic restorations. “I’m a historic house buff,” he confesses. “And I always wanted an herb garden.” Now that he had the sunbeams to make it happen, he went straight for the parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme of his dreams. But he didn’t stop at the norms. Instead, he found variegated versions and rare editions beyond your typical herbs.

He created a tapestry by harmonizing colors, textures, and forms. He matches, he contrasts, and he streams colors along so your eye travels down the beds. “There are a million tricks, and I do them all,” he admits. He plays up stem colors, he accents the color of a bud, he enhances flowers, but he leans most heavily on foliar hues. As a result, the garden is consistently gorgeous throughout the summer. “There is no set peak; it peaks periodically throughout the summer.” The gold in a comfrey leaf might accent the glimmer in a thyme plant, which bounces off a golden lemon balm. To achieve just the combo he’s striving for, he travels to nurseries and buys primarily in person, not trusting catalog colors to divulge the exact shade he needs.

To give the garden a sense of permanence and to frame his art strokes, Hillman installed a boxwood knot garden, which he clips with razor-sharp precision. Exercising the topiary-trimming skills he honed in college, he also crafted boxwood cones and living-orbs. He lets thyme creep onto the paths and he encourages the herbs to spill over the edging. He put in bee skeps and an armillary sundial. Then he marched the axis up through a double allée of six matching Cleveland pears (“you should see them when they’re blooming”) to stop at a garden shed based on a conglomeration of period designs.

Not your grandmother’s herb garden, the plot is many notches above the usual four-square version. Formality at its finest, it’s symmetrical, it’s traditional, yet it’s a soulful herb garden you can lose yourself in. Granted, Glenn Hillman has worked 17 years on bringing the garden up to its current level of perfection. But it’s been time well spent.    

Glenn Hillman, 860-567-0324
Oliver Nurseries, 203-259-5609;
Windy Hill Farms, 413-298-3217; windyhillfarminc.com
Broken Arrow Nursery, 203-288-1026; brokenarrownursery.com
Kenneth Lynch & Sons; 203-264-2831; klynchandsons.com