Christine Froehlich

Mr. Tilly’s garden: Laying down tracks

by cathym on March 16, 2020

story and photos by Christine Froehlich

Learning is designed to be fun here—the only hard part is deciding what you want to see first

When Paul Tilly was a kid, he longed for a train set. “I grew up on a busy farm and there just wasn’t time for playing with trains,” he said. Besides that, most of the places he lived didn’t have a big enough basement for them.

As an adult, he’s making up for it. This octogenarian is still a kid at heart, with plenty of time and more than enough room for trains. In fact, they’ve taken over his entire backyard garden.

It’s a kid’s dream on steroids. More than 200 feet of tracks traverse nodding swaths of daylilies, fragrant phlox- and billowy hydrangeas. A shiny locomotive blows its horn and rumbles across a bridge. Tiny people await its arrival at a train station that’s nestled into a bunch of large leafed hostas. Watch out for King Kong—he’s on top of the bridge that crosses the blue pebbled river! Toy dinosaurs and pretend snakes sun themselves near the tracks. Those trains have plenty of stops to make: several villages packed with miniature houses, farm equipment, water towers, and various animals stand waiting.

Tilly’s garden is a destination for neighborhood kids
Fantasies can run wild in this playful garden. Either King Kong or the dinosaur is going to pounce on that locomotive.

Creating a train garden wasn’t part of the plan back in 1976 when Tilly and his wife Betty Lou bought their house in Avon. They just wanted to turn their small overgrown backyard into a garden they could enjoy. They enclosed it with flowering trees, shrubs, and plenty of pollinator plants. It was certified as a wildlife habitat in 1984.

Everything changed after Tilly went to a train show at Rochester’s flower and landscape show, GardenScape, in 1992. “I had never seen trains displayed in gardens before,” he says. “It inspired me to incorporate them into mine.”

Intent on his mission, Tilly began laying down tracks. He created villages out of birdhouses he found at lumberyards and populated them with miniature trucks, toy cars, tiny animals and figurines he picked up at tag sales. He kept collecting engines and eventually had to turn the chicken house into a shed to store them all.

At first the train garden was just for him—his two kids were already grown and gone. The idea of sharing it came after a local nursery school heard about his garden and asked if they could visit for a field trip. It caught on, and soon he and Betty Lou began hosting other area preschools. She helps organize the tours and Tilly instructs, using the some of the training he received when his garden was certified as a wildlife habitat.

Finds from hardware stores and tag sales supply the tiny villages. Here, birdhouses have been transformed into miniature buildings.
Paul introduces teaching opportunities throughout the garden—a giant ladybug helps young visitors find out about beneficial insects.
Kids learn about pollinators by seeing them flock to the bee balm, coneflowers and phlox.

As an experienced father, grandfather of four and great grandfather of eleven, he gets young children. “Kids around three to four years old are very curious and observant about everything,” he says. “A lot of trains get knocked off the track when they visit, but that’s ok—they learn by touching.”

But it’s not just about trains. There’s plenty more to learn about here. Tilly makes a game out of teaching them to observe. He might ask kids to hunt for Godzilla, King Kong, or a certain type of frog, snake, or dinosaur. Maybe they’ll have to search for a particular vegetable—all are grown in containers so they can be found and observed easily.

He uses his habitat garden as an opportunity to teach kids about plants and their environment. “You can’t start too early,” he claims. Young visitors can discover the worms in the compost bin and see how they benefit the soil. Which flowers attract butterflies and birds? There they are, flitting around masses of beebalm and coneflowers. How do the plants get watered? Tilly shows them how his rain barrels help conserve water.

This terracotta chicken heads back toward the hen house with hens and chicks on her back. Touches like this delight and instruct young visitors.
That frog on the left might be on the treasure hunt list. Maybe he’ll tell us what insects he likes to eat.
Passengers wait to board Thomas the train as he pulls up to the local station.

There’s plenty more to delight young hearts—a giant red ladybug, Thomas the train, a pink lady scarecrow holding a basket of flowers, a giant teddy bear, and a locomotive that blows bubbles as it chugs down the tracks. Tilly recently built a miniature playhouse, complete with Elmo and his friends all set up for a tea party. “Even the boys loved that,” he laughs. 

Local garden clubs, family and neighborhood kids can’t resist the appeal. During the Avon Corn festival in August, it’s packed with visitors. “I open it so people can have a place to sit and relax,” Tilly says.

It’s hard to tell who’s having more fun here, but one thing is clear: It’s never too late to have the childhood you want.

Find Christine Froehlich at


story and photos by Christine Froehlich

Shrubs of varying heights create interest and privacy

Bumping up curb appeal often starts with buying more plants. A few shrubs, a tree, or some snazzy containers might be just the thing… or is it? A quick fix can be tempting, but if you want to improve the looks of your front yard and you aren’t sure how to get started, adding more plants right off the bat might not be the answer. Sometimes the best way go about it is to work with what you already have. You might even end up liking the plants you think you want to get rid of.

An autumn view of the garden

Robert Salmon and Catherine Fuller’s garden makeover began with a bunch of spindly trees in their front yard. Robert had been eying the forlorn specimens, worried they might fall on the house. He was about to carefully go at them with a chain saw when his wife, Catherine, called me to consult about their fate—and general appearance of the front yard. She was afraid that if they were removed their house would be too exposed to the street. 

The trees, an assortment of self-sown cherry trees (with a few nice oak and ash saplings mixed in) were leggy specimens with no great appeal. But on the plus side, they provided a degree of privacy from the road and connected the house with the woodlands surrounding it. We decided to compromise on the trees, selecting the healthiest ones with the nicest forms and removing the rest. Even though they weren’t perfect specimens, their height offset the scale of the two-story house. Plus, they would provide a perfect canopy for more attractive plants—a layered planting of shrubs and possibly perennials or groundcovers. We began brainstorming about how to marry it all up to the existing woodlands and foundation plantings that hugged the house.

View from the street
Planted areas seamlessly blend with surrounding landscape

The trees sprang up randomly from an enormous oval shaped bed about fifteen feet from the house and spanned almost the entire width of the front yard. It was a natural but sloppy mess filled with weeds and junky shrubs, but strengthening the connection between the existing foundation plantings and woodlands with better looking plants had possibilities. 

It was a lot of space to plant. Robert and Catherine both like to garden, but their busy work schedules limited gardening, so we needed to make it as low-maintenance as possible. 

Getting Started
We chose plants that would help integrate the leggy trees into the surrounding landscape. Robert and Catherine had a lot of room to work with and their house was large. If your property is small, take heart—the same concept can be used with smaller-scale plants.

Begin by choosing varieties with cultural needs that suit your site and fit the style you want. The growth habit and mature size of the plants you choose should match up to the job you want them to do. For example, slow-growing shrubs or trees with a vertical habit for tight spaces, fast-growing flowering shrubs for privacy borders, or plants with distinct forms to serve as focal points. 

Add Structure
We began with structural plants—the trees and shrubs. The largest specimens went in first. To balance the scale of the existing trees and insure against future tree loss, we planted Fagus sylvatica ‘Asplenifolia’ on the opposite side of the bed. Commonly known as fern-leaf beech, this stately tree has a pyramidal shape and a lovely texture—the delicate cut leaf resembles fern foliage. 

Around the base of the leggy trees, a mass of Viburnum tomentosum took care of masking the bare bottoms. Also known as doublefile viburnum, you can’t beat it for quick coverage. This fast-growing, deciduous shrub is tall (twelve to fifteen feet) and has a horizontal branching habit (eight to ten feet wide) that makes an attractive screen. Outrageous clusters of white flowers blossom from late May through June, and in fall, the leaves turn an intense plum color with red fruits the birds flock to.

Form and Foliage 
The form of the shrubs and trees dictate the style of a planting. Here, they played an important role in contributing to what I call “the controlled wild look.” The idea was to mimic the woodland without looking sloppy. Fast-growing deciduous shrubs with relaxed growth habits fit the bill. 

We bumped up curb appeal by choosing shrubs with exciting foliage, flowers, berries and interesting texture.

Layers of Shrubs
Shrubs of varying heights were layered together in groups of three and five throughout the bed. This lent a naturalistic look to the planting and provided more screening from the street. 

Many deciduous shrubs of varying sizes offer gold, magenta and variegated foliage. Most are fast growing and are an inexpensive way to fill space quickly and attractively. We made the most of their attributes here, contrasting foliage colors to increase visual impact. 

What We Planted And Why
Most of the shrubs used are deciduous, but some evergreens were included for additional winter interest.

Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diabolo’ (ninebark) has an arching habit that resembles forsythia and sports pretty, whitish-pink flowers in June. I like it best for the wine-colored foliage that pops out in late spring. Unpruned, this shrub matures at around eight to ten feet tall with a spread of six to eight feet, perfect for the back of the bed.

Cornus alba ‘Ivory Halo’ (Red twig dogwood) The flowers aren’t showy, but the crisp green and white leaves are striking. It grows quickly (four to five feet) and has bright red bark that adds color to a winter landscape.

Ilex meservae ‘Blue Girl’ and ‘Blue Boy’ are also known as blue holly because of their dark blue-green leaves. This variety grows a little slower than others, usually about five to six feet depending on conditions. Red berries and shiny dark leaves add contrast and winter color. Hollies come in two sexes and only females produce berries. To get them to berry you need to have a boy nearby, so make sure to plant both.

Weigela florida ‘Wine and Roses’ The combination of the dark magenta leaf and vibrant pink flowers make this one of my favorite mid-sized shrubs. It reaches a height of about 4 feet and has an arching growth habit.

Hydrangea quercifolia‘Snowflake’: Also known as Oakleaf hydrangea, this slower-growing variety is five to six feet tall. Longwhite panicles pop out in August and turn pink as fall arrives. Bold leaves, which are shaped like oak leaves (hence the name) turn deep magenta as fall progresses.

No Bare Ground
It takes around three years for shrubs to mature. While you’re waiting for them to grow, the quickest way to reduce weeding and achieve immediate gratification is to fill in bare spots with perennials. Obviously, you don’t want any you’ll have to stake or deadhead, so pick low maintenance varieties.

For this planting we chose varieties with interesting foliage and long-lasting flowers. 

HostaSum and Substance’: This big hosta (about 3 ½ ft tall) adds pizazz to a shady garden with its enormous pleated chartreuse leaves.

Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’: Nepeta, especially this cultivar, (36” tall and wide) tends to hog all the space around it, but there was plenty of room here. The long-lasting blue flowers and gray foliage provided a tidy border for the front of the bed.

Amsonia hubrichtii: Commonly known as Bluestar, the pale blue flowers that bloom in June and July are pretty, but I chose this substantial (2’x3’) perennial for the delicate feathery foliage that turns vibrant gold in early fall.

Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foester’: Also known as feather reed grass, this tall (4’) upright grass has attractive vertical foliage that doesn’t flop. It looks pretty in winter too.

Pennisetum alopecuroides: A fat fuzzy grass around 3 ½ feet tall great for added softness and height.

Several views of the mix of trees, shrubs,
and perennials in the Salmon-Fuller garden

By the end of the first summer, the bottoms of the leggy trees were almost hidden by shrub foliage, and the bed blended gracefully into the foundation plantings and natural stone wall Robert had built. It was a perfect marriage.  Robert and Catherine liked it so much that they kept on going, eventually reclaiming more of their overgrown property and extending the controlled wild look farther out into the woods. 

While we all might not be able to turn an ugly duckling into a swan, most of us have plantings that could be rearranged, or embellished to increase curb appeal. It’s worth taking a closer look at what’s going on in the front yard before you go shopping. Who knows? You might end up creating a garden you really want instead of the one you think you’re stuck with. 

View from the front door to the street

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