How about that!” exclaims garden designer Jeff Tilden, punctuating his remark with one of his trademark staccato laughs. The afternoon was full of sunshine, but suddenly, like a dream, a sheet of rain comes softly down, bringing fresh air and a delicious fragrance from the Meyer lemon tree in front of the porch. “Maybe somebody will see a rainbow.”
I hope it will be us. Tilden is sprawled in a faded easy chair, while I perch on a white rocker on the porch of his charming Hill cottage, enjoying the sights, smells and sounds of his unique front-yard garden. Mockingbirds chatter noisily next to a stand of evergreens, while softly curling tendrils of the ever-present clematis (one of Tilden’s favorites) wave gently in the breeze. The garden itself is just flaunting its first spring blooms—a riot of oranges, pinks, purples and yellows.
Most mornings and evenings will find Tilden out on his front porch, delighting in what he calls his cottage garden. Nearby, a well-worn blue cooler is stocked with beverages, a cigar box, a gift from his old friend Alex Rhoads, sits nearby and a newly acquired checkerboard is ready to be pulled close. Friends stop by often for a glass of wine or to cook out—and even strangers taking an evening stroll will sometimes stop, peep past the hedgerow, and ask Tilden, “Can we explore?”
It’s a common occurrence. Beyond the Irish-inspired hedgerow, thriving with verdant flowering plants, Tilden’s garden pops with surprises. In the center is Stonewall Jackson, an unusual orange deciduous azalea—“old Stoney,” as Tilden calls him, an old friend. Clusters of fritillarias—nodding, cup-shaped flowers with an unusual purple checkerboard pattern—cluster at the foot of a birdbath and along the edges of a bed.
He kneels to point out a Japanese woodland primrose, its pink snowflake-shaped flowers peeping out demurely, the only flash of color in a green bed—“Isn’t that an elegant little flower?” Peach trees, just over head high—“my nod to Trenton’’—are planted on the diagonal and crisscross one another along a walkway, while a towering line of leyland cypresses, their tops trimmed to resemble poodles’ poofs, stand upright at the edge of the yard. Tilden caresses a small stone birdbath surrounded by purple larkspur—an artisan in many other ways besides garden design, he crafted the birdbath by hand, and it sits in its green bed like a petrified Neolithic lily pad.
Tilden was studying geology before he changed his major to horticulture. He decided he liked to make places and has been doing so now for the past 26 years. A transplant from New Jersey and a UGA grad, he moved from Atlanta to Augusta “as soon as I got a couple of clients down here”—already enamored by the city’s charms.
As a child, the first flower he ever noticed was a yellow crocus—followed by a mild obsession with orchids in his teens. It’s clear that he is endlessly fascinated and entertained by the details of plant life—those colors and shapes that you or I might not even notice were it not for Tilden’s keen eye and enthusiasm.
He is careful to make one distinction: He is a gardener, not a landscaper. His designs don’t follow a set recipe—a foundation plant here, a cone-shaped shrub there. He approaches each new project looking for a theme and for how he can best create a sense of arrival and place. Most importantly, he designs each of his gardens to entice its owners to make it a space to be in—a joyful place of inspiration.
He explains, leaning forward earnestly and gesturing with his overlarge hands, “A garden is for people, and not only for people to be in but for what it does for people. What are the elements of charm? What makes something charming?...I like to put in elements that are a bit unexpected, elements that show a little bit of joy.
“I love to have people turn a corner or open a gate or come through some large evergreens and all of a sudden, there’s the atmosphere.”
Many of the ideas for Tilden’s garden designs are percolated here in this roughly 60- by 50-foot space. It’s his laboratory and his own personal source of inspiration. On any given day, he may have heirloom seeds sprouting in a grid, a boxwood topiary that he’s training to grow in a joyful curve or an unusual bulb from an exotic location that he’s testing to see if it will survive in Augusta’s sticky heat and sometimes lackluster soil. As a gardener, he is passionate about the importance of putting effort into feeding the soil—and a steaming pile of compost near the back edge of his yard attests to that. “We all like to eat,” he says. “Nothing’s going to really thrive until the soil gets alive—you have to put life into it, you have to put soul into it.”
Four bamboo poles are tied in a teepee-like structure over the front path—he’s thinking about threading vines of long beans up and over it. Last year, it was a variety of small Asian and European melons.
I’ve embraced hodgepodgery,” Tilden says. “But not really. The thing is, I’m fascinated by plants and there’s so many thousands of things that will grow here that I have to find something for each bit of space. And if I think there’s something better for that space, I’ll put something else there. I don’t mind squeezing things together and seeing how they do.”
As a result, his garden is alive with a fine sense of whimsy, powered by his enthusiasm for interesting plants from all over the world. “I get goosebumps thinking about the things I’ve seen and I love that,” he says. He points to a potted plant on his front porch, its bristly tendrils scattered with tiny yellow blossoms. “This just came from Oregon—it’s a barberry. Just look at those perfect little buds—they look just like little daffodils…that’s a fantastic plant.”
As the late afternoon cools, the breeze picks up again and the chatter of birds recedes into the distance. It’s easy to see why friends and strangers alike are drawn to this garden—peaceful, calming, yet so alive. After all, it’s designed to be lived in and to be part of Tilden’s everyday lifestyle—a lifestyle that finds delight in ordinary things and in doing so, makes them extraordinary. “I would say [my philosophy] is to surround yourself with noble and delightful creations. That’s what I’d like to do for my clients, is to surround them with things delightful and inspiring,” he says.
With his sunglasses pushed back, and with his clear, gray eyes, he looks both boyish and very wise. “I just want it to be something that has personality and, hopefully, a likeable personality. I don’t want it to look like it’s stiff or trying to show off. I like it to be like my friends and me, imperfect, but liking life.
“My garden may be imperfect, but for what it does for me, it’s perfect.”
Jeff Tilden's Garden