Photographs by Kindra Clineff
Written by Tovah Martin
Glenn Hillman never scorned convention. Although the precocious gardener went straight from diapers (almost) to digging in, not for a moment did he stray from the straight lines of traditional design while laying out the structure of his Connecticut garden. But that’s not to say he didn’t blur them considerably to create a garden with flair.
Not many 23-year-olds would turn to Colonial Williamsburg for a template, but Glenn went there and to other historic properties for inspiration in 1991, after coming home from college with an architectural history degree. He put what he’d seen on that tour to use two years later when he tackled a 3-acre yard in need of renewal at his parents’ newly acquired historic house in Litchfield, Connecticut. There he installed a garden that he grew to love so much that when his parents eventually moved down the street, he stayed behind.
The Colonial Revival movement was born in Litchfield—so a modern solution wouldn’t fit the Hillman home. But going classic was natural for the young landscape gardener, who put all of his learning and convictions into practice. “Luckily,” he says, “the footprint was in sync with my taste.”
He put his own stamp on the land and took advantage of its vistas by following the existing axis straight down from a central urn on the lawn beside the house to where a pool resided. He removed the pool to put in an herb garden. Although he kept the layout for the perennial border around the house, renovation and reclamation were needed. “The stone wall was a wreck; the fence was a wreck; the beds were a wreck—but they could all be fixed,” he says.
In the herb garden, Glenn used a traditional layout of brick paths delineating quadrants, where he put in shaped trees and clipped boxwood. From there, he went unplugged. “Farther away from the house, you can be more relaxed,” he reasoned.
Starting with the golden hops vine he let loose on the arbor, he encourages civil disobedience in his herbs. Although only the hops vine has the potential to become a holy terror, the golden oregano and lemon balm also tend to stray. “I want exuberance,” Glenn explains. A prim little herb garden doesn’t interest him. He collects and cossets herbs with color, growing variegated sages, shocking golden tansy, and comfrey with yellow stripes—all plants that make you sit up and take notice. And he sees no reason why an herb garden must be populated solely by herbs. Other shrubs and perennials—lilac, spirea, roses, and geraniums—add color and texture.
Finding plants that create the right friction between staid brickwork and floral frill led him to allow irises, chamaecyparis, and foxgloves to cohabit peaceably beside the familiar quartet of parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.
The garden’s axis cuts across the lawn, through a gate and the herb garden, and then down an ornamental pear allée that ties it all together, ending at a shed Glenn designed, patterned after a pavilion in Williamsburg. Carefully selected trees around the periphery, including golden locust and Japanese stewartia, add an arboretum feeling to the area. He continually updates the perennial beds with current versions of old faithfuls to render the garden more sustainable (requiring less maintenance) and more engaging throughout the seasons.
Glenn also collected or designed strategically placed focal points throughout. An armillary sphere, a bee skep, birdhouses, and sharp white pickets keep herbs this side of chaos. These accents collude with the plants to honor the landscape’s roots and impart the essence of the home. The landscape he installed has never needed revamping. “You follow the basic tenets, and everything falls into place,” Glenn says. “Good design doesn’t change.”