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Before & After: A Creative Couple’s Daring Garden Do-Over in Upstate New York

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Before & After: A Creative Couple’s Daring Garden Do-Over in Upstate New York

August 22, 2023

If you’ve ever found yourself the owner of an old property that’s beautiful but in sore need of attention, you already know: Remodeling the kitchen and bathrooms, painting all the walls, redoing the floors, etc. can suck up a lot of your budget and time (maybe even take an entire year)—but it’s the landscaping that will try your patience. The journey to the outdoor space of your dreams is long (think years, as the garden fills in) and most likely riddled with little failures.

For Amy Ilias, a designer, and her husband Jim Denney, an artist, it took four years, to be exact, to finally tame and shape their backyard into what they wanted: a spacious bluestone patio—with ample space for relaxation, outdoor dining, and poetry readings—surrounded by a lush garden with native plantings that highlight the beauty of their mid-19th-century Italianate house and play well against its unique lavender shade.

“The landscaping has happened in phases, in order of what was most critical,” says Amy. The first phase addressed the crumbling steps off the dining room. In the second phase, Jim installed a 16-foot dry well as a solution to the yard’s drainage issues (“when it rained, the entire backyard puddled up,” she says), and the couple designed the bluestone patio and paths. This was followed by the addition of a steel curved edge to a garden bed.

The last phase—one that all gardeners know to be never-ending—is new plantings. They chose “native plants that would stand a chance in this zone,” says Amy but otherwise relied on their artistic instincts to decide what to grow. “Our house is lavender, so the plantings had to make sense with the house. We really wanted a lot of texture and color, and to choose plants that would be rather low-maintenance, with staggered bloom times.”

“It is so satisfying to see things happy and return each year—like seeing old friends. Every morning this spring, we walked the garden to see what popped up overnight. The garden is becoming more established and beginning to feel like it has always been here.”

Join us for a garden tour of this most magical backyard in the Hudson Valley—and be sure to scroll to the end for the “before” photos. (For a tour of the interiors, see The Lavender Ghost: In the Hudson Valley, a Creative Couple’s Victorian Home with an Old Soul.)

Photography by Amy Ilias. (Follow her Instagram account here.)

The new floating steps, designed by Jim and executed by concrete contractor Ben Keyser, that lead from the dining room to the patio. &#8\2\20;Ben fabricated the concrete steps, and encased the dining room below the windows with concrete. The poured stairs were a feat of engineering,&#8\2\2\1; marvels Amy. &#8\2\20;Jim always wanted to have poetry readings in the backyard with the steps as seating. We now have one planned for the first time in September with poet Sara Berkeley.&#8\2\2\1;
Above: The new floating steps, designed by Jim and executed by concrete contractor Ben Keyser, that lead from the dining room to the patio. “Ben fabricated the concrete steps, and encased the dining room below the windows with concrete. The poured stairs were a feat of engineering,” marvels Amy. “Jim always wanted to have poetry readings in the backyard with the steps as seating. We now have one planned for the first time in September with poet Sara Berkeley.”
Renowned painter Brice Marden (who recently passed away) and his wife, Helen, were the previous owners, responsible for the home&#8\2\17;s unique purple palette. &#8\2\20;The beautiful shades of lavender were an amazing choice. The color reflects off of the interior walls and shifts with the sky and seasons. When the sky is gray, the house almost disappears,&#8\2\2\1; says Amy. &#8\2\20;It is a very small part of Brice Marden&#8\2\17;s enormous legacy, and we are grateful everyday to live within this lavender aura.&#8\2\2\1; In the understory of the smoke tree are Joe Pye weed, sedum, and catmint.
Above: Renowned painter Brice Marden (who recently passed away) and his wife, Helen, were the previous owners, responsible for the home’s unique purple palette. “The beautiful shades of lavender were an amazing choice. The color reflects off of the interior walls and shifts with the sky and seasons. When the sky is gray, the house almost disappears,” says Amy. “It is a very small part of Brice Marden’s enormous legacy, and we are grateful everyday to live within this lavender aura.” In the understory of the smoke tree are Joe Pye weed, sedum, and catmint.
Amy and Jim designed the shape of the bluestone patio and paths with stakes and tape, then hired Ryan Niver of Clove Hollow Landscape Co. to install them. &#8\2\20;Ryan is an artist. Each piece of bluestone was designated to a position in carefully hand-drawn renderings.&#8\2\2\1;
Above: Amy and Jim designed the shape of the bluestone patio and paths with stakes and tape, then hired Ryan Niver of Clove Hollow Landscape Co. to install them. “Ryan is an artist. Each piece of bluestone was designated to a position in carefully hand-drawn renderings.”
A riot of peonies, with a climbing hydrangea in the background. On the porch are houseplants enjoying their summer vacation outdoors. The windbell is from Cosanti in Arizona (see Object of Desire: Architect-Designed Bronze Wind Bells from Cosanti.)
Above: A riot of peonies, with a climbing hydrangea in the background. On the porch are houseplants enjoying their summer vacation outdoors. The windbell is from Cosanti in Arizona (see Object of Desire: Architect-Designed Bronze Wind Bells from Cosanti.)
Ryan added the steel curve to edge the plantings along the path. &#8\2\20;I felt the garden needed a curve to contrast the geometry of the house, bluestone, and stairs,&#8\2\2\1; explains Amy. There are bits of lawn, but Amy and Jim plan to eventually replace them all with a flowering thyme.
Above: Ryan added the steel curve to edge the plantings along the path. “I felt the garden needed a curve to contrast the geometry of the house, bluestone, and stairs,” explains Amy. There are bits of lawn, but Amy and Jim plan to eventually replace them all with a flowering thyme.
Amy and Jim do all the gardening themselves—including the watering, using &#8\2\20;an old-fashioned hose,&#8\2\2\1; she says. Here, dogwood, scabiosa, sweet alyssum, and grasses are content neighbors in the garden. &#8\2\20;To our surprise, everything  seems happy. When we lived in Brooklyn, very few things made it from year to year. This feels like a miracle.&#8\2\2\1;
Above: Amy and Jim do all the gardening themselves—including the watering, using “an old-fashioned hose,” she says. Here, dogwood, scabiosa, sweet alyssum, and grasses are content neighbors in the garden. “To our surprise, everything [in our garden] seems happy. When we lived in Brooklyn, very few things made it from year to year. This feels like a miracle.”
Black-eyed Susans mingling with feather reed grass, Japanese maple, and creeping juniper. &#8\2\20;My mother loved Black-eyed Susans. There were a few that were here originally, and a friend gave us some to plant from her garden a few years ago. They have taken off, and I am sentimentally attached to them,&#8\2\2\1; shares Amy.
Above: Black-eyed Susans mingling with feather reed grass, Japanese maple, and creeping juniper. “My mother loved Black-eyed Susans. There were a few that were here originally, and a friend gave us some to plant from her garden a few years ago. They have taken off, and I am sentimentally attached to them,” shares Amy.
The beginning of sunset. &#8\2\20;The best garden pictures happen for me at twilight,&#8\2\2\1; says Amy. &#8\2\20;I love the deep plum of the smoke tree with this acid green Japanese maple.&#8\2\2\1; Planted under the trees are catnip, crevice alumroot, and cut-leaf anemone.
Above: The beginning of sunset. “The best garden pictures happen for me at twilight,” says Amy. “I love the deep plum of the smoke tree with this acid green Japanese maple.” Planted under the trees are catnip, crevice alumroot, and cut-leaf anemone.
Peak sunset gives the house an otherworldy glow.
Above: Peak sunset gives the house an otherworldy glow.
A vintage birdbath reflecting the sunset and surrounded by purple asters that have not yet bloomed.
Above: A vintage birdbath reflecting the sunset and surrounded by purple asters that have not yet bloomed.

Before

When the couple bought the home, rotting wood steps off the dining room led to an old brick-pavered patio.
Above: When the couple bought the home, rotting wood steps off the dining room led to an old brick-pavered patio.
The yard was overgrown and would often flood, leading to a muddy mess.
Above: The yard was overgrown and would often flood, leading to a muddy mess.

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Frequently asked questions

Who are Amy Ilias and Jim Denney?

Amy Ilias and Jim Denney are the owners of Lavender Ghost Garden, a garden featured in the article.

What is Lavender Ghost Garden?

Lavender Ghost Garden is a garden created by Amy Ilias and Jim Denney. It is a whimsical and enchanting garden filled with lavender plants.

Can I visit Lavender Ghost Garden?

As of now, it is not mentioned in the article whether Lavender Ghost Garden is open to public visits. You may want to check their official website or contact them directly for any visiting information.

Where is Lavender Ghost Garden located?

The article does not specify the exact location of Lavender Ghost Garden. For more information on its location, you can visit their official website or contact them directly.

What can I expect to see at Lavender Ghost Garden?

Lavender Ghost Garden is described as a whimsical and enchanting garden. It features a variety of lavender plants, but further details about specific attractions or features are not mentioned in the article.

How can I contact Amy Ilias and Jim Denney?

Contact information for Amy Ilias and Jim Denney is not provided in the article. You may try searching for their official website or social media profiles for possible contact information.

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