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Garden Makeover: Laying the Foundation

Martha Stewart Living, April 2009

When you dream of lush garden makeovers, only to wake up facing a barren yard, you may need to call in some expert help. 

That's what new homeowner Andy Gray decided to do after he'd cleared the scraggly bushes outside his century-old fixer-upper in a quiet town north of New York City. 

Between working as the art director of a Manhattan graphic-design firm and rehabbing his house, he had little time to master horticulture and no idea how to plan a landscape he could maintain single-handedly. 

For advice, he called his friend Tony Bielaczyc and asked, "Where would you begin?" Bielaczyc, deputy gardening editor at Martha Stewart Living, cautioned that rushing into detailed discussions of specific plants, soil chemistry, or the challenges of a shady front yard wasn't the wisest way to start. Instead, as they paced the half-acre lot, he encouraged Gray to talk about what he hoped to achieve through restoring his home. "I want something I can live with in a simple, comfortable, modern way and yet be respectful of its history," Gray said.

Tradition took tangible shape for him in reminders of the prior owner, who had bought the elegantly plain house in 1929. "Edie was a fine spirit who loved to garden," Gray says. "Even after she died and her beds went to seed, some lovely things remained out back. Lots of neighbors grow hand-me-down 'Edie's poppies.' "

Her generosity also survived in a front porch meant for casual chats with passersby, a custom suited to Gray's own hospitable nature.

Bielaczyc realized that linking a new garden to this wraparound veranda would honor both past and present. He built native-stone walls almost to porch-floor height and filled them with a mix of topsoil and compost, so that exuberant vegetation could hobnob with people in rocking chairs without blocking views of the street. (On the sunny-side porch, Bielaczyc hung rose trellises for privacy.) Raising the borders elevated them aesthetically, too, heightening the visual effect of beds that are compact enough to water and weed with ease.

Some of Edie's backyard bequests -- phlox, ferns, irises -- have been transplanted up front, where they mingle with recent cultivars of other trusty favorites. Dense planting gave the borders instant fullness, though it took several years to achieve the mature luxuriance Gray sought. This wait taught him the value of patience, a lesson no gardener ever learns too soon.

See More Garden Makeover Photos

Plant Picks: Sun
Some of the colorful flowering plants chosen for the sunny borders:

1. Allium 'Purple Sensation' Bulb; large violet starburst on a 2- to 3-foot stem.
2. Caryopteris 'Dark Knight' Shrub; 2 to 3 feet tall with sapphire blossoms.
3. Geranium 'Brookside' Perennial; violet blue with white throats.
4. Hydrangea 'White Dome' Shrub; giant snowy flowers; easy to prune.
5. Lilium 'Royal Fantasy' (hybrid lily) Bulb; warm yellow to pale cream.
6. Nepeta 'Walker's Low' (catmint) Perennial; violet flowers with fluffy foliage.
7. Paeonia 'Abalone Pearl' (peony) Perennial; coral pink around a gold center.
8. Phlox 'Bright Eyes' Perennial; pale rose with a vibrant-pink center.
9. Salvia 'May Night' Perennial; spiky indigo-blue flowers.
10. Spiraea 'Little Princess' Shrub; only 30 inches tall with prolific pink flowers.

Plant Picks: Shade
A list of shade-loving perennials planted by Gray and Bielaczyc:

1. Actaea 'Brunette' (cimicifuga) Ferny purple foliage below white plumes.
2. Adiantum Pedatum (maidenhair fern) Pale-green leaves on dark stems.
3. Anemone 'Margarete' (Japanese anemone) Three-foot stems; pink flowers.
4. Brunnera 'Jack Frost' Intricately veined heart-shape silver leaves.
5. Heuchera 'Palace Purple' (coral bells) Burgundy-tinged maplelike leaves.
6. Helleborus 'Ivory Prince' Unusually compact and sturdy hellebore; creamy late-winter flowers.
7. Hosta 'Guacamole' Chartreuse leaves with broad dark-green margins.
8. Hydrangea Quercifolia 'Sikes Dwarf' (oak-leaf hydrangea) Exceptionally petite: 3 feet high, 4 feet wide.
9. Polygonatum Odoratum 'Variegatum' (Solomon's seal) White-striped emerald leaves and dangling white flowers.

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