With more than 140 hydrangea plants in their garden, Eric and Christopher Feml-Nelsen have been lovingly dubbed “The Hydrangea Kings” by fellow gardeners. Here, in their Upstate New York garden, two Adirondack chairs create a quaint seating area in their “Hydrangea Room,” a place for Eric and Christopher to enjoy one of their favorite plants.

Visit this garden as part of The Garden Conservancy's Capital Region Open Days on Saturday, July 20, 2024. Get more information here.

When Eric and Christopher Feml-Nelsen moved into their Upstate New York home in 2018, they weren’t big fans of the landscaping on the suburban 1/2-acre property, which consisted of grass and a couple spirea. Though they didn’t have a clear picture of exactly what they wanted, they do recall knowing “this isn’t it.” So, the couple headed to their nearest garden center where an employee looked at pictures of their garden, made a few recommendations, and walked them around to look at plants. They left that day with two new plants—but they also left feeling a little overwhelmed.

Taking it upon themselves to start doing some of their own garden research, Eric and Christopher began devouring garden magazines, watching Gardener’s World with Monty Don, and soaking up information via online content from creators such as Laura from Garden Answer, Erin the Impatient Gardener, and more. Though the two had no formal garden training under their belts, their willingness to dive into the gardening resources available to them and try things out is what led to their gradual backyard transformation.

As they began chipping away at their garden, they started their Instagram account, GrowForMeGardening. “At first, it was kind of like our journal,” explains Eric. “We were just taking pretty pictures and documenting our journey.” Instagram viewers began following along, and once Eric and Christopher turned the camera around and started sharing their personalities, too, their followers fell in love with the people behind the camera and their inspirational commentary as much as their garden.

Today, the couple has a remarkable garden with a contemporary cottage aesthetic. We sat down and chatted with Eric and Christopher about what they learned throughout the process of designing their garden from the ground up.

1. Create a Statement at the Entrance

A stately arch, 6 feet wide at the base and 8 feet tall at its highest point, connects two garden beds and draws visitors into Eric and Christopher’s backyard.

Walking through the side yard of Eric and Christopher’s home, visitors are greeted with an impressive archway that beckons them farther into the backyard and adds repetition, symmetry, and structure to the space. Growing along each side of the arch are Generous Gardener English climbing roses by David Austin accompanied by ‘Betty Corning’ clematis. Bobo hydrangeas ground the arch, making it more substantial at the base.

When they saw this arch on clearance at Gardener’s Supply Company, Eric and Christopher immediately thought about putting it in this sunny area where it could connect two garden beds. Stones placed in the grass break up the formality of the lawn, adding to the aesthetic.

2. Carefully Consider Textures & Colors

A close-up on a stunning combination in a shady planting bed: ColorBlaze® Royale Apple Brandy® coleus (maroon with bright greenish-yellow edges), 'Queen of Hearts' brunnera (dark green with a silver overlay), 'Peppermint Patty' bergenia (waxy green foliage), and Shadowland® 'Coast to Coast' hosta (puckered golden leaves).

When it comes to adding plants to their garden beds, Eric and Christopher explain that they don’t necessarily plan out the entire bed before they begin planting. That’s not to say that a lot of thought and consideration doesn’t go into the design, though.

As they begin filling a bed, the gardeners take into account how each new addition will add to the overall space. For example, each new plant must have a texture and color that will enhance, rather than detract or drown out, the plants that are already there.

In this shady garden bed, a variety of textures and colors abound. “The coleus works very well with the golden hosta,” Christopher says. “But on top of that, the texture of the hellebore leaves complements the texture of the brunnera.” Here, textures and colors aren’t repeated, so no feature is lost next to another.

3. Add a Touch of Whimsy

Cafe lights on their garden archway, creating a fairy garden vibe after the sun goes down, is just one way Eric and Christopher break up the formality of their space.

To Eric and Christopher, adding subtle, whimsical details makes the garden a fun place to explore. “Having cafe lights on the arch makes it like a fairy garden at night,” says Eric. “I also like little things like ‘head’ planters that look like they have fun silly hair coming out the top.”

While the pair does enjoy adding fun garden art, they emphasize that in their garden they stick to keep the whimsical low-key. “Little elements that pop out serve to break up the formality, but we do tend to go subtle with it,” adds Christopher.

4. Create Garden Vignettes

In the foreground, maroon leaves of a Ruby Falls redbud tree. A Campania fountain, surrounded by light-purple Walker’s Low catmint, adds to the serene ambiance of this outdoor seating area.

Eric and Christopher look at each area of their garden as its own unique vignette that contributes to the big picture. Here, framed by leaves of a Ruby Falls redbud tree is a picturesque scene: the color and shape of the leaves provide a perfect contrast to the airy, purple-blooming Walker’s Low catmint. From this perspective, the redbud seems to frame the Campania fountain and seating area beyond.

“When we approach each space of the garden, we think about how a vignette looks on its own, but we also think about how it fits in with the rest of the garden,” says Eric. Currently, the two are considering adding a plant to climb the legs of the pergola.

Listening to their thought process makes it clear that they are thoughtful about each new addition: They describe not wanting something too similar in color or texture to the plants in the same vicinity, but they do want to be sure that whatever they add serves to tie the small vignette together with the garden as a whole.

5. Embrace Evergreens

Eric and Christopher planted a ‘Troemner’ hybrid spruce to provide year-round structure to this perennial garden bed.

When designing most of their perennial garden beds, Christopher and Eric take a gradual, organic approach—seeing what works as they add each plant. However, when it comes to adding evergreens to their yard, they have been very strategic, spacing them out intentionally and with a purpose. Some have been added to create privacy from neighbors, others to create the structure of a “room,” while several have been added to provide weight in areas of the garden that need it.

“When you look out at our garden in winter, you see evergreens and lots of white,” says Eric. “I love them in winter, but I also love them in the growing season because they provide solid weight.” For example, in a bed that’s mainly fluffy in texture, adding a Hinoki cypress trimmed into a bowling ball shape serves to ground the space.

6. Don't Be Afraid to Experiment

In a lava rock planter, Eric and Christopher planted a Solenia Apricot begonia from Proven Winners. After falling in love with the plant, they plan to give it a permanent spot in hanging shade baskets.

While Christopher and Eric are big believers in using plants you love as your foundation, they emphasize the beauty of trying new things, too. One way they suggest doing this? Plant them in containers. Containers can be moved around to different areas of the garden, so, as Eric says, “They’re low commitment.”

For example, last year, the two received plants from Proven Winners to evaluate and enjoy, many of them quite different from plants they typically gravitate towards. They placed these plants in containers near raised beds. When Eric bought seeds of centaurea to try out, those went in containers, too. “When we grow plants in colors we’re not used to, we can keep them contained,” says Christopher. This is often how they find their new favorites.

A few years ago, Eric wanted to try a Primo® 'Peachberry Ice' heuchera with a Magic Show® 'Ever After' veronica. They tried it in a container, and both gardeners ended up falling in love with the combination, which has now become a fixture in one of their garden beds.

7. Include Vignettes with Contrasting Colors

Verbena bonariensis, with its clusters of purple flowers atop long stems, complement a planting bed across the way, a hedge of Limelight hydrangeas—creamy with a touch of lime green.

One of Eric and Christopher’s strategies is to have colors repeat throughout the garden for a sense of cohesion. “You need to find the colors you think look great together,” says Eric. “In our case, we use lots of purple throughout. With purple, we use lime greens, peaches, pinks, creams, and blues.”

In addition to thinking about colors in their overall garden, they think about colors within each vignette by picking a color palette for the space then sticking to it. “We make a point to limit a palette in a vignette to a handful of complementary colors,” says Christopher.

Although the couple loves including purple, it is important to note that they are conscious of placement and try to avoid drowning plants out in a sea of the same color. “If you do that, everything blends together,” says Eric, “but we want each plant to stand out.”

8. Create a Hangout Spot That Fits Your Needs

A bed containing two of Eric and Christopher’s favorite plants—lime-green Limelight hydrangea and purple catmint—lead up to their cozy seating area. A louvered pergola, Adirondack chairs, and a gas fire pit provide a cozy place to hang out in the evenings.

When planning their outdoor seating area, Eric and Christopher customized their space to meet their needs. They really liked the look of pavers interspersed with gravel, but they didn’t want the mess that usually comes along with it. To keep the space tidy, they opted for crushed gravel instead of pea gravel which has a sharper edge, so it doesn’t typically roll around underfoot.

The pergola, purchased from Costco, has a louvered roof which they can keep open for an airy feel, or closed to trap heat from the fire pit. Not wanting to maintain or stock a wood pile, they opted for a gas fire pit. When asked if they spend time out here often, the two say, “All the time…as long as it’s over 50 degrees!”

MORE FROM CHRISTOPHER & ERIC's GARDEN

Shimmery apricot orange leaves of Primo® 'Peachberry Ice' heuchera, lavender pointy flower spikes of Magic Show® 'Ever After' veronica, and deep purple foliage of Winecraft Black smokebush come together in this garden bed of well-paired textures and colors. In the container, blooms of Superbells® Tropical Sunrise calibrachoa coordinate with the heuchera, while asparagus fern adds texture and Unplugged® So Blue™ mealycup sage stands tall. An Eastern redbud tree hovers above the scene, topping off the eye-catching vignette.

Bright greenish-blue needles of a Vanderwolf pine (popping into the frame at left) add color and texture to the west side of the garden. Beyond, Limelight hydrangea shows off its pinky-cream fall blooms.

A view from Christopher and Eric’s backyard, looking back at their fire-pit and pergola hangout spot with their patio and home beyond.

The bed right outside the area which Christopher and Eric have playfully dubbed the “Potager Garden” features a vibrant combination of plants: purple Supertunia Mini Vista® Indigo and Supertunia Mini Vista® Hot Pink, catmint, and Verbena bonariensis. Not only does this bed offer brilliant blooms, it also attracts pollinators to this area of the garden.

One of the many reasons we love Christopher & Eric is for the motivational and inspirational messages they share with their audience. Below are some gems that stood out to us. Follow them at @GrowForMeGardening on Instagram and YouTube for more!

“As a gardener, one of the most delightful and rewarding experiences is witnessing the ever-changing beauty of your garden throughout the year.”

“The colors and scents of flowers? Nature’s prescription for joy and stress relief.”

“Create environments where you can find joy.”

“Don’t be afraid to experiment and have fun in your garden. Yes, there will be struggles and disappointments, but there will also be amazing triumphs and gorgeous results!”

“Get a pot, some quality soil, and plant that seed with love. Water it regularly, observe its growth, and let the joy of cultivating life inspire you.”

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