Open Garden

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


by Donna De Palma

Syringa vulgaris (common Lilac) cultivar ‘Flower City’, at Highland Park in Rochester, New York. The information plaque next to this plant reads: “This variety was developed at Highland Park by horticulturist Richard Finicchia. It is a unique variety that has cupped, dark violet-purple florets with a silvery reverse. Some florets display radial doubling; an increase to 8, 10 or more petals. Its parent is ‘Rochester’, also a Highland Park development.” Photo courtesy Wikipedia: LtPowers

Scent is one of the most seductive qualities known. Throughout history, scent has lured, provoked, and even taunted the senses. No wonder the fragrant and delicate lilac’s early history, though largely unrecorded, is referenced as far back as Greek mythology. 

Syringa vulgaris, the common lilac, is believed to have originated on the Balkan peninsula. Its appearance in cultivation dates to the 15th Century. A species of flowering plant in the olive family, Syringa vulgaris is a large shrub that grows on rocky hillsides by the shores of the Adriatic, Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Seas. Other fragrant, flowering species of lilac are native to regions of Japan, China and Korea. 

According to Mark Quinn, Monroe County Parks’ superintendent of horticulture, while there are no written records of the lilac’s arrival in the United States, there is evidence that lilacs grew in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in the 1600s. 

Cultivars have evolved thanks to dedicated breeders seeking to improve on the natural beauty and scent of the fragrant flower, its disease resistance and overall plant habit. Irene Lekstutis, landscape designer at Cornell Botanical Gardens in Ithaca, who is responsible for selecting lilacs for inclusion there, says breeders have contributed to the structure, color and scent of the lilac over the past four centuries.

“Horticulturalist Victor Lemoine played an important role in developing cultivars of lilac in the mid-nineteenth century in France. Lemoine developed the first double-flowered hybrid lilac named for his wife, Mme. Lemoine,” says Lekstutis. 

Father John Fiala of Ohio, pastor and school principal who bred 78 cultivars of lilacs, is also identified by Lekstutis as another significant breeder in the 20th century. He learned about gardening and horticulture from his grandmother at her country home in Michigan.

Perhaps the most prized collection in the United States, and arguably the world, is the one at Highland Park in Rochester. With more than 550 varieties and around 1,200 bushes, Highland Park’s Annual Lilac Festival, originally just “Lilac Sunday,” has been drawing lilac lovers since 1905. The event developed into a 10-day festival in 1978.

Highland Park was established on twenty acres of land donated by George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry in 1888. George Ellwanger immigrated to the U. S. from a small farm near Wurttemberg, Germany, in 1835. Ellwanger grew up tending grapes and making wine with his father and brothers in his native country. He harbored a love of horticulture throughout his life and possessed a strong sense of civic responsibility.

Patrick Barry immigrated to the U.S. from Belfast, Ireland, in 1836 and began his working life in America at what was the oldest nursery in the United States at the time, Linnaean Nursery in Flushing, N.Y. He began his partnership with Ellwanger in 1840. Ellwanger and Barry owned Mount Hope Nursery (also known as Ellwanger and Barry Nursery), the largest nursery in the U. S., from 1840 to 1850. 

The civic-minded business partners donated the first 20 acres of land to establish an arboretum on the undeveloped land where Highland Park stands today. Their donation was instrumental in the formation of a parks department in Rochester. Ellwanger also donated an observation pavilion atop the hill near the reservoir in the park. The Children’s Pavilion, also known as the Ellwanger & Barry Memorial Pavilion, was dedicated in 1890. [The pavilion was torn down in 1963 due to disrepair, but a campaign is underway to finance its reconstruction starting in 2022.—Ed.]

Frederick Law Olmsted was hired to design the park. Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in New York City, is often referred to as the father of American landscape architecture. He was at the pinnacle of his career when he designed Highland Park, which, according to Quinn, is a phenomenal example of Olmsted’s genius.

 “The landscape architect’s style highlights natural attributes of the terrain,” says Quinn. “Olmsted’s ability to create one view that moves into another was remarkable. He used natural materials to screen out city views.”

Superintendent Quinn says the design of walkways and the park’s layout are perhaps its finest features. “Where Olmsted shined was in his understanding of what plants would look like when they matured. He planned for a park that would mature naturally and beautifully.”

Lekstutis says Olmsted had a clever way of separating vehicular and pedestrian features and saw the importance of water fixtures in a park. “Olmsted liked to play with terrain. He applied ways of structuring space to create visual screens and expansive lawns and was expert at handling adjacent spaces. His work illustrates how the beauty of a naturalistic landscape is important to supporting our well-being and therefore should be accessible to everyone.”

While current numbers place the count of lilac bushes in the park at around 1200, John Dunbar planted the first 100 at the corner of South and Highland Avenues in 1890. In addition to creating several new cultivars, Dunbar developed the evergreen forest (pinetum) on the north side of the park and planted lilacs on the south side of a landmark hill in the park. 

Quinn says that while some varieties have been lost, an original vulgaris lilac bush from 1892 still blooms every May in the park. “Some of the varieties that are cultivated may not be strong enough to last, but most varieties that exist in upstate New York can be found here at Highland. We actively seek out new varieties every day. We’ve had a collaborative relationship with Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University in past years.”

Why has the lilac become such a popular shrub and flower here and around the world? Quinn says the climate in Rochester is suited to lilacs. “They like cold winters and warmer springs. Lilacs are hardy and easy to grow. The plants themselves are aggressive growers. Deer don’t like the lilac. Lilac shrubs can grow to 15 to 20 feet tall and some can last for a hundred years.”

“The main reason for poor bloom is because it’s either been planted in a shady spot or the shrub has been pruned at an incorrect time of year. Lilacs prefer dry soil. The amount of rain over the course of the year will affect the vigor of their blooms,” Quinn says.

Bloomerang ‘Pink Perfume’ lilac, photo courtesy Proven Winners
‘Beauty of Moscow’ by Leonid Kolesnikov. Photo courtesy Wikipedia: Kristy2906

While the plants themselves are hardy, their flowers can be affected by high winds, heavy rain, and too much heat once open. Relatively warm days and cool nights with moderate rain are optimal conditions for a long bloom period.

Quinn says lilacs in bloom are most fragrant in early morning and at early evening. The introduction of radial doubling, bicolor flowers and double-floret and four-floret flowers through cultivation has resulted in a wide array of varieties in appearance, scent, and form. From deep purple to French blue, pink, dusty pink, lavender, white, and yellow, cultivars come in a breathtaking palette of colors. 

One of Quinn’s favorites is the ‘Rochester’ lilac, a white, radial-doubling bloom developed in Rochester. Another favorite, ‘Sensation’, features a deep purple bicolor flower with a white rim. For its luxurious scent, Quinn recommends ‘Fenelon’, a variety of S. hyacinthflora lilac, an early bloomer that he says is one of the most fragrant of any lilac.

Lilac ‘Sensation’; photo courtesy Wikipedia: Angel caboodle

Lekstutis enjoys ‘Beauty of Moscow’, a lilac flower with pink buds that turn white. ‘Scent and Sensibility’, a dwarf mounding shrub with its dark pink buds that turn lavender pink once opened, is another favorite. Finally, repeat blooming purple lilac, ‘Bloomerang’, a cultivar that blooms after first blush into summer and fall is a noteworthy addition to Lekstutis’s best picks.

Nature’s colorful, fragrant display is set to bloom on schedule this year as it has almost every year for over 100 years each and every spring. Quinn projects this year to be on track for hardy blooms during Highland Park’s Lilac Festival. 

To enjoy these and all of the varieties growing at the park, visit the festival or wander through its winding paths when these lovely flowers are in bloom.

Donna De Palma is a freelance writer based in Rochester.

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story and photos by Duane Pancoast

The graying of America has been taking place for decades. According to Scientific American magazine, the ratio of workers to retirees was 4:6 in 2014 and projected to be only 1:9 by 2100. These figures, called the Potential Support Ratio, were calculated by dividing the number of people 20 to 64 years old by those 65 and older.

One definition of retirement is being able to do what you want instead of what you have to. For many, that means spending more time in the garden. For a growing number, however, the ravages of old age catch up with them before they have a chance to fulfill that dream. Knees, hips, and backs give out. Arthritis limits finger movement. Cardio-pulmonary and respiratory problems limit the amount of time you can spend in the garden. Eyes fade and our memories may not be as sharp as they were. 

Although this may sound pretty grim, it’s not all that bad. Gardening is one pastime in which people can adapt and continue well into their later years. In fact, the process by which seniors modify their gardens and gardening techniques to continue gardening is called “Adaptive Gardening.” Bad knees forced me to begin adapting more than ten years ago, which is why I have taken such an interest in the subject and write a blog entitled the Geriatric Gardener. 

Recently, I was introduced to two gardeners whose beautiful gardens are tucked into Rochester’s Nineteenth Ward, about two blocks from each other. Both gardens are as unique as the gardeners. 

The raised fish pond in the back corner of Marian Boutet’s garden. When she has the brick path replaced with a wider, smoother surface, the steps will probably be replaced with a ramp.

Marian Boutet’s backyard garden is approximately 60 by 60 feet. Although plagued by knee pain, the 73-year-old has spent lots of time working in the garden since retiring from Kodak 20 years ago. She has been living in the same location for 30 years and the garden has been evolving for 25 years.  

Before “Embrace Imperfection” was an adaptive gardening mantra, it was the theme of Boutet’s garden. The layout is very informal. Edibles are mixed in with shrubs and the hardscape is quite rustic. Walkways are made of brick and fieldstone, which Boutet’s husband John installed. There is even a fish pond in the back corner.

An overview of Marian Boutet’s garden from the deck.
The brick and fieldstone paths in Marian Boutet’s garden will be replaced with a smoother material to accommodate a walker or wheelchair.

Boutet uses a folding bench/kneeler when gardening. When placed in one position, it is a bench. Turn it over and it is a kneeling pad. The legs of the bench become railings that help her get up from a kneeling position. These can be purchased online or from garden supply catalogs.

Boutet uses adaptive tools like the trowel pictured that will work well in the raised beds that are in her future. She is also planning to make the paths wider and smoother to accommodate a walker or wheelchair.

This trowel is one of Marian Boutet’s adaptive tools.
Foliage plants like these in Marian Boutet’s garden require far less care than flowering plants.

Slowly, Boutet, who likes unstructured gardens, is eliminating lawn in the front yard and replacing it with beds of shrubs. John mows the remaining lawn and does much of the other heavy work, with some chores being turned over to neighborhood teens.

— • —

Although she is working to simplify her garden, Marcy Klein hasn’t really embraced imperfection in the same way as Marian Boutet. Klein’s garden is long and narrow, stretching from a street in front all the way to a street in back. The width of the house covers about half the property and the gardens fill the other half.  

The ten individual gardens contain nearly 200 plant varieties. Klein’s husband Rick Schaffer, a painter by trade, separated all the gardens with exquisite stonework. This resulted in waist high raised beds, which are easier for Marcy to work. Schaeffer also built paved pathways that have few steps and are wide enough to accommodate a walker. 

In the back, the gardens are shielded from the street by six-foot Japanese style fencing and beautiful Japanese gates to the street and driveway. Behind the fence and street gate is a Japanese garden. 

Some of the few steps in Marcy Klein’s garden are beside the boxwood garden.
The waist-high stone walls define the meandering pathways as well as holding raised beds in Marcy Klein’s garden.

Klein is a retired graphic artist who taught classes on easy gardening at the Rochester Civic Garden Center. She also took a class on designing healing gardens. Both have equipped her well to adapt to age-related limitations.

Over the years, Klein has planted more shrubs and fewer perennials and annuals because shrubs require less care. They don’t have to be deadheaded or divided like perennials or changed out seasonally like annuals. This has resulted in more foliage plants, a conscious decision since foliage plants are easier than bloomers. She has also taken great care to make sure there are no invasive plants in her garden.

Klein has grouped together plants with similar water needs. This is good for the environment as well as the gardener’s workload. Ideally, plants that require the least water should be at the higher elevations and those that need the most water at the lower elevations, where they can often do well from the runoff from the higher plants.

Marcy Klein and Rick Schaeffer’s front yard. Note the pine straw mulch.
Some of Rick Schaeffer’s stone work in front and surrounded by boxwood, this garden shows off repurposed statuary and a column in Marcy Klein’s garden.

Klein has seven coniferous trees and shrubs, which produce a goodly amount of needle drop every year. She leaves those needles right where they drop to mulch under the plants. Again, this is a tremendous saving of labor, and it’s good for the tree/shrubs and the environment. Down south, people use a lot of pine straw mulch, which means they actually pay for the same mulch Marcy Klein gets free. Then they have to cart it home and spread it.

The whole garden is in shade because of the mature trees overhead. With benches and seats placed strategically throughout the garden, there is no shortage of places to take cool, refreshing breaks. Alternate working and resting in the shade with a cool drink of water is one of the most important things aging gardeners can do. However, many don’t take frequent breaks if it’s too far to walk back to a resting place.

Although most beds are raised, there is still a certain amount of low work to be done. So, Klein also has a lightweight, padded kneeler with arms.

— • —

Klein and Schaeffer open their garden to many garden tours, so Klein has applied her graphic art experience to design and reproduce a map with all the gardens diagramed and all the plants cataloged. She didn’t say whether the copy she gave me was done for my visit in particular, but it does have a section at the bottom titled “Help for Geriatric Gardeners.”

Victor resident Duane Pancoast writes a blog on adaptive gardening at He is also founder and CEO of the Pancoast Concern, Ltd., a 33-year-old marketing communications firm serving green industry clients.