Garden Photo of the Day

Building a Garden From Scratch

Putting in the work to make a dream garden

Today Ellie Gilbert is sharing the results of 14 years of hard work.

When my husband and I moved to our newly built house in Plymouth, Massachusetts, I used my fifty years of gardening experience to transform an empty and sandy backyard that included a steep and barren hill into a garden I’m now proud to show off. Fourteen years later, this is what having a vision and a willingness to work hard has produced.

Our first task was to install a patio off of our kitchen, which I surrounded with several shrubs, including a Korean spice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii, Zones 4–7), chosen because of its heavenly scent, four lacecap hydrangeas, and several crimson pygmy barberry shrubs (Berberis thunbergii ‘Crimson Pygmy’, Zones 4–8) because of their warm color. Among these shrubs I put in a wide variety of perennials, such as shasta daisies (Leucanthemum × superbum, Zones 5–9), coneflowers (Echinacea), garden phlox (Phlox paniculata, Zones 4–8), peonies (Paeonia), sea holly (Eryngium), columbines (Aquilegia), Siberian irises (Iris siberica hybrids, Zones 3–9), bleeding heart (Dicentra), coral bells (Heuchera), Salvia, and meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense, Zones 5–9). For late season interest I also put in ornamental grasses and late-blooming sedums. I chose this wide variety of plants because I wanted to ensure that something would always be in bloom throughout the growing season.

To begin transforming the hill, we built steps from stones that we unearthed on our land, and I transplanted some birch saplings from our woods and added several spreading junipers to guard against erosion. The shrubs that form the main structure of the hill garden are tall oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia, Zones 5–9), ‘Rosebud’ azaleas (Rhododendron ‘Rosebud’, Zones 6–9), and several mophead hydrangeas. Over the years, I filled in all the empty spots between the shrubs with perennials similar to the ones I had planted in the patio garden—making sure I repeated the plantings across the hill so the final look would have a sense of rhythm and harmony.

June is when my garden comes alive with my favorite colors of pink and purple. Azaleas, peonies, catmint, and cranesbill are all vying for attention. Later in the season, those colors are replaced with varying shades of yellow, white, and deep rose. Sitting on the patio in the early evening and watching the antics of all the critters that share the space is a wonderful way to relax.

Although the garden appears to be quite full, I always seem to find room for more plants—but that seems to be the pattern with all die-hard gardeners!

Patio and hill gardens 14 years later

patio gardenPatio garden in late May

Siberian irisesSiberian irises in the patio garden

Stone steps leading to the top of the hill

Predominant colors in June

Hill and patio gardens showing change of colors in midsummer

View of the patio garden from the hill

hill gardenSide view of the hill garden

'Summer Wine' daylilyCorner of the patio garden showing lacecap hydrangea, ‘Summer Wine’ daylily, Asiatic lilies, annual cosmos, and zebra grass

Long view of the backyard showing room for new plants

shasta daisiesVisitor on my shasta daisies

Peony 'Dancing Butterflies'Peony ‘Dancing Butterflies’


Have a garden you’d like to share?

Have photos to share? We’d love to see your garden, a particular collection of plants you love, or a wonderful garden you had the chance to visit!

To submit, send 5-10 photos to [email protected] along with some information about the plants in the pictures and where you took the photos. We’d love to hear where you are located, how long you’ve been gardening, successes you are proud of, failures you learned from, hopes for the future, favorite plants, or funny stories from your garden.

If you want to send photos in separate emails to the GPOD email box that is just fine.

Have a mobile phone? Tag your photos on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter with #FineGardening!

You don’t have to be a professional garden photographer – check out our garden photography tips!

Do you receive the GPOD by email yet? Sign up here.

View Comments


  1. user-7525974 01/06/2020

    Your garden is absolutely stunning! It looks like you had a plan and stuck to it. Your steps were a great idea. I like the island bed.

    1. coastalgardener 01/06/2020

      Thanks so much. Those steps were a necessity because trying to scale the hill without them can be a challenge. It's really steeper than the photos show.

  2. garden1953 01/06/2020

    Lush, beautiful, and gorgeous! I'm sure when you relax on your patio it's pure joy to behold.

  3. User avater
    meander_michaele 01/06/2020

    Wow, Ellie, all your garden areas are spectacular. It looks like you have definitely achieved your mentioned goals...with your plant choices and combinations creating a wonderful rhythm and harmony. And it seems only fitting and right that one of your peonies should be so well named... ‘Dancing Butterflies’. I'm sure your garden is constantly and thoroughly aflutter with many winged blessings.

  4. deeinde 01/06/2020

    Beautiful! You have done a wonderful job at dealing with the hill.

  5. User avater
    user-7007816 01/06/2020

    Beutiful garden and photos. You have created something really special. Enjoy!

  6. User avater
    treasuresmom 01/06/2020

    If any of you want to see more of her gorgeous work, type her name in the search bar & you can find a couple.
    Ellie, as usual, just amazing!

    1. User avater
      simplesue 01/06/2020

      Treasuresmom- thanks for that info I want to see more!

    2. coastalgardener 01/07/2020

      Thank you! I'm so pleased that you recognized my name as having had prior posts...

    3. coastalgardener 01/07/2020

      To everyone who posted such wonderfully complimentary comments, I send my sincere appreciation. The gardening community is always so supportive. It's what makes all the hard work so worth it!!

  7. Maggieat11 01/06/2020

    Absolutely stunning! One of the best private gardens I have seen. (Oh, how I would love to visit!)

    1. coastalgardener 01/06/2020

      Well, if you're ever in the Plymouth area, come on by! I've never had a formal garden tour, but l love to have people drop by informally.

  8. Tami_Rice 01/06/2020

    Goals!! I too have a hillside, maybe just a bit steeper than yours and have been planting shrubs, your garden is beautiful and so inspiring!

  9. User avater
    simplesue 01/06/2020

    Why can't you live next door to me?! How I'd love to look past my own small garden and also see yours everyday! I know I have a lot of exclamation points at the end of my sentences but WOW!

    This is a really fabulous accomplishment, and you made the hillside as an asset instead of a problem. Love the way that hill showcases the plants. And I really appreciate that you shared the photos and info on exactly how your garden changes it's look and color during the growing season. This, most recently has been on my mind for planning my own garden. I'm also happy to grasp that fact- since I saw your photos- that the Siberian Iris bloom ahead of the Peonies. I'v read a lot, but to see it in a photo- it really sticks with me. I think I will try the same near my peonies.

    And as an animal lover, myself, I liked reading that you both took delight in watching the wild animals as night approached....instead of complaining about their impact on a garden.

    1. coastalgardener 01/06/2020

      Thank you so much for such a glowing review! I'm always happy when someone takes away something that they want to apply to their own garden.

      I. too, am an animal lover, although I have been seen out early in the morning (still in my nightgown) chasing away some pesky rabbits. They seem to be the worst chewing offenders, but after a while you learn to co-exist with nature's creatures.

  10. nwphillygardener 01/06/2020

    While the plantings capture our eyes, I have to say that the health and uniformity of the lawn grass, its rather immaculate flatness, and the exquisitely crisp edging of the garden beds contribute to what seems like a rather professional result for the entire garden.
    Those birch trees at the top of the bank are especially nice accents to integrate the beginning of a more wooded area above.

    1. coastalgardener 01/06/2020

      Thanks for noticing the grass...We have never had any professionals in to work on anything (except for having a large maple tree in our front yard removed and the stump ground out). I actually LOVE cutting the grass because it lets me see everything that needs attention in the yard.

  11. btucker9675 01/06/2020

    Your gardens are just gorgeous - so well thought out but still so graceful and natural looking. Stunning!

  12. wittyone 01/06/2020

    Let me add another WOW to the chorus.

    This is just gorgeous. I can say with certainty that your 50 years of gardening experience was put to very good use here. Not to mention all the hard work and planning involved.

  13. toweringpines 01/06/2020

    Beautiful garden, thanks for posting.

  14. hannahm 01/06/2020

    Wow! How inspiring, and encouraging, to see what can happen in 14 years. I’m 3 years into a “from scratch” garden and I know eventually it will “get there.” I also have a you just have mulch down between the stairs? Does that seem to work well? One more question: what variety of pink Achillia am I seeing?

    1. coastalgardener 01/06/2020

      Thanks so much for your comments. Yes, I do have mulch everywhere in the garden (except in areas where I've had annuals that I'm hoping will reseed themselves). At first, quite a bit of it would end up at the bottom of the slope, but as the plants have filled in, it pretty much stays put. As far as the variety of Achillea you asked about, I'm pretty sure it's 'Oertel's Rose.'

  15. Cenepk10 01/06/2020

    Wow. Magnificent!!!! Beautiful situation & home. Made yourselves a little slice of heaven on Earth. Appreciate you sharing!

  16. avongardener 01/06/2020

    Wow! Your garden is gorgeous! So neat and well planned. I guess one of the advantages of having such a beautiful backyard is you wouldn’t want to spend any time indoors! Thanks for sharing!

  17. carolineyoungwilliams 01/06/2020

    Ellie, Your yard is absolutely gorgeous. I love it all. You did an outstanding job planning everything out...all the way down to the grass looking like carpet. Thank you for sharing.... the results of your hard labor are amazing....we all are enjoying your rewards. Thank you.

  18. darylsavage 01/06/2020

    Yours is the best garden we've seen here in a long time. Kudos. I also use repeat plantings of cranesbill, and I can't recommend that plant enough. The only miss for me is the barberry, which I am very prejudiced against for all the known reasons. Thanks for sharing.

    1. coastalgardener 01/07/2020

      Thanks very much...and I love your comment on the barberry. Long sleeves and long gloves are my companions when pruning these little devils, but I love the color they bring to my garden.

  19. pam_clemmons 01/07/2020

    Oh Ellie, it’s breathtaking! And how marvelous that you can share with so many other garden lovers so that they can enjoy the beauty you’ve created! Thank you! ❤️

  20. mjtrusz 01/07/2020

    what a beautiful garden. I love the sprawling grass with borders of flowers on the edges of woods.
    The contrast provides a beautiful pallet for your flowers. Thank you for sharing your vision and hard work.

  21. user-5117752 02/02/2020

    Here it is almost a month later since your posting and I still keep going back to the pictures of your garden. So beautiful, so put together, so peaceful. I have a hillside that's in such need of inspiration and there you are. Thank you so much for sharing what I'd like to call your "love" garden.

Log in or create an account to post a comment.

Related Articles

The Latest