In the Garden

The Long View

High in the mountains of Kentucky, a young garden designer adds his signature touch to a landscape decades in the making

Photo: Heather Anne Thomas

Fifty years ago, a young couple bought a tiny house on a wooded Kentucky mountainside. It took patience, a grand
vision, and the owner’s trust in father-and-son landscape designers to turn the improbably steep acreage into today’s magnificent sprawl of terraces and pergolas, native dogwoods and trilliums, trickling fountains and skyward-reaching junipers that frame endless Appalachian views.

Louis Edward Hillenmeyer III nurtured the thirteen-acre garden for decades before passing the rocky soil and challenging slopes to his son, Joseph Hillenmeyer. “The house is built into the hillside, and there’s not a lot of flat area,” says the younger Hillenmeyer, a thirty-nine-year-old Lexington garden designer who began refining the space for its owners, Leon Hollon and his wife, Sandy, fourteen years ago when his father retired. “We needed to create this story of how you move through the property.”

Hillenmeyer focused on eight elegant garden “rooms” that reflect the Hollons’ admiration for formal European style. One features a koi pond, another an observation deck; there’s a brick fireplace for cool evenings, a rose garden, and a cedar-shake-roofed screen house. In between, mulched paths and rustic wooden stairs wind beneath the original oak and maple canopy.

Heather Anne Thomas

Ferns, columbines, and moss—plants indigenous to Hazard, the small coal-mining town where the Hollons live—contrast with unexpected pops of color: pink-and-yellow Bartzella peonies, for example, or a lawn bordered by lush lady’s mantle and a tidy boxwood hedge. Rising Sun redbuds, a cultivar of the classic Southern tree, lend chartreuse strokes. “I worked with the existing woodlands and supplemented them with trees and flowering shrubs and grand perennial plants,” Hillenmeyer says. “Peaceful is what I’m going for: moving from very natural spaces to more refined spaces.”

Photo: Heather Anne Thomas

Gates open onto the Italianate garden

The latest addition is an Italianate garden situated about a quarter mile below the house. Hillenmeyer kept his plantings lower in height to showcase unobstructed ridgeline views, and added movement with a serene pool. “It’s more beautiful than I ever dreamed,” says Sandy Hollon, who in her seventies still likes to hoist a leaf blower and take her trowel to weeds. A bold building sits just above: a dramatic black folly capped with a custom dovecote designed by Thomas E. Wilmes, a Lexington architect. When doves failed to roost in the gables, Leon added a bit of whimsy—a carved decoy above the doorway.

Beyond its splendor and utility, the garden is a living record of neighborly and familial ties. Both Leon Hollon’s and Joseph Hillenmeyer’s mothers were born in Hazard, which inspired the designer to bring the regional scenery to the fore. “I’m extremely proud of that heritage,” Hillenmeyer says. “I want people to see the beauty of eastern Kentucky for what it is.”

Photo: Heather Anne Thomas

Joseph Hillenmeyer.

He’s also perpetuating deep traditions. Hillenmeyer and his father are eighth- and ninth-generation horticulturists, a legacy Joseph enhanced by working on a New Zealand farm, an opulent Turkish arboretum, and a Tennesee nursery. Louis first landscaped the Hollons’ yard, planting a now-towering ash tree and three crab apples, in 1971. “He pulled up with two big white truckloads of materials,” Leon recalls. “They got a major landscaping job done in like two hours.”

Where Louis was a traditionalist, Joseph takes risks. His style is structured but not staid. “There are elements of surprise,” says Leon, noting the hellebores that bloom in February and a curving eighty-foot-long brick wall fronting the house that Joseph recommended for depth and perspective. “It comes natural to him, and he always gets it right.”

Hillenmeyer, who now has projects from Brooklyn to North Carolina, grew creatively alongside the Hollons’ constantly evolving garden—and he has more ideas for it up his sleeve.
“A garden is never finished,” he says. “Especially when someone is passionate about it.”