Secrets of Professional Gardeners to Steal at Home

Any garden -- large or small, urban or country -- can take a few cues from the use of formal effects at Hollister House in Connecticut. The key is to divide your space into a dynamic series of visual events.

Create Strong Geometry

Formal gardens have long relied on squares and rectangles to define space. These hedges, walls, and pathways provide a sense of structure and hold in blowsy flower beds and shrubs. Counterintuitively, the visual trick often makes small spaces seem larger.

EXPERT TIP: Use dwarf boxwoods or raised beds to create a garden of square planting beds where there would ordinarily be an open lawn or a terrace.

Find the Right Stone and Brick

A former antiques dealer, Hollister House owner George Schoellkopf is a great believer in patina. He uses the rougher backside of cut stone for steps so their surface reveals a more natural, appealing texture. He also prefers hand-molded bricks that show small imperfections.

EXPERT TIP: Look for local salvage from municipal paving or old construction to get the most interesting irregular pieces and to avoid a newly installed look.

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Add Hedges and Walls

Schoellkopf mainly uses two kinds of room dividers: dry stone or mellow red brick, and tall, clipped hedges of classic dark yew. Even a small backyard can be made to appear larger by screening off the entire space with a trellis or hedge of tall plants.

EXPERT TIP: Trim hedges slightly wider at the bottom so all the branches get some sunlight. This technique keeps the bases from becoming bare.

Consider an Ornament

Even for the experienced garden designer, follies, statues, and decorative pieces can be challenging to use successfully. For the average home gardener, it can be tough to know when you're crossing the line into the land of tchotchkes. At Hollister House there are only a few decorative items, each placed to accent a view or an alignment.

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EXPERT TIP: Pick a plain plant backdrop, like this Boston ivy.

Go for Big, Bold Plantings

Flower beds packed full of large plants add their own sense of enclosure to garden spaces. The stems and leaves of tall perennials, such as plume poppy, and shrubs, such as butterfly bush, move in the breeze and add delicate patterns and shadows over walkways and bricks.

EXPERT TIP: Soften the edges of stone pavers with billowing herbs that spill over onto the stone walking surface.

Highlight Transitions

Hollister House is a garden divided into a series of roomlike spaces. Each is linked by a carefully considered walkway or portal, giving visitors the feeling that surprise awaits around each corner. It makes them more attentive and encourages them to stop and look at what surrounds them.

EXPERT TIP: Change the level between spaces with a small step or two, so each feels different from the others.

Nurture a Perfectly Imperfect Lawn

Bright green patches of mown grass are a signature of the traditional English garden. Schoellkopf contrasts his with larger areas of gravel or flagstone. Here, the lawn is just one of many textures for the "flooring" of the garden.

EXPERT TIP: Schoellkopf lets clover invade his grass because it can be mown extra-short, it's drought-resistant, and, from afar, it's as verdant as the most pristine turf.

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Help those good gardening vibes extend into your yard or patio with these tips.