Just Add Water

For a flat fee, some photos, and a few weeks, Tilly will design your home’s landscape.

By Zach Mortice 

A Tilly-designed project in Denver. Photo by Kody Kohlman.

Tilly, the online residential landscape design service started in 2019, picked a good time to launch.

Founded by four women who had been friends since high school, including a Cornell landscape architecture graduate who has practiced for more than 15 years, Tilly came from an idea that sprung up during a vacation on Long Island. The women (Alexis Sutton, Sarah Finazzo, Heather Hoeppner, and Blythe Yost, ASLA) gathered their families and talked about their gardens, peppering Yost (the landscape architect and now Tilly’s CEO) with “a zillion questions about plants and landscape design, then lamenting that they couldn’t get comfortable hiring a traditional landscape architect,” Yost says. Fairly quickly, a question came into view: “How do we offer landscape design to more people who wouldn’t necessarily hire a traditional landscape architect?” she says.

Moving everything online and instituting a streamlined process was the answer, and Tilly launched in February 2019 with a focus on new homeowners and small residential projects, delivering relatively simple designs that can be installed by professionals or clients themselves. Their customers are often people without the money or interest to engage with landscape designers in a traditional process, and 71 percent of them say they would not have hired one.

Within months there was a pandemic, quarantining us at home and keeping us outdoors—or perhaps a combination of the two that’s been a boon to landscape designers who can suddenly reach a broad market of stir-crazy homeowners.

Because of COVID-19, there was a “huge influx of people that wanted to really make sure that their outdoor environment was exactly what they wanted, because now, nobody could leave their house,” says Cate Singleton, the western team lead for Tilly and a registered landscape architect in Texas. Traditionally public, active recreation programs began to creep their way into Tilly’s residential designs: bocce courts and nature playgrounds for kids.

And thus, Tilly started answering a basic disciplinary question that’s eluded the broad populace befuddled by landscape architecture’s proximity to so many other fields. “What is landscape architecture?” Singleton asks. “I do feel like Tilly has made landscape architecture accessible to the average homeowner.”

Tilly designers spend two to three weeks on each project. Image courtesy Tilly.

Tilly’s answer to this question is defined by the technological ability to communicate and share imagery fluidly, as well as the cultural shift to remote creative collaboration becoming the new normal. Tilly begins with a questionnaire for the client that asks about their stylistic preferences, irrigation needs, amount of sun and shade, and intended uses. Clients upload photos of the site and chat with their designer over a 30-minute video call. Designers then draw up plans for two to three weeks and offer one round of revisions, though you can pay for more.

A front yard design is $375, backyard design is $525, but they can be packaged together for $775. This includes a full-color plan, planting list, materials palette, and care and installation instructions. Tilly doesn’t include construction drawings. The largest site they’ll take on is one acre, zeroing their niche in on projects that might be too small for some traditional landscape architects.

“We want you to feel like you really do have your own designer,” Yost says. And strictly speaking, you do.

A Tilly backyard design costs $525. Photo by Kody Kohlman.

All Tilly designers have a degree from an accredited landscape architecture program, with five years of experience, Yost says. They hire both full-time staff (with benefits and insurance) and contract workers. Yost declined to disclose how they compensate staff and how many projects per month Tilly takes on. Singleton says she works on approximately eight projects a month.

Instead of growing her business by moving a high volume of projects, Yost says she wants to expand into installation and maintenance. “Our goal is to become that go-to resource for the entire life cycle of the landscape. We want to be able to give you a design that you love and then help you figure out the best way to get it installed. When you want to order hydrangeas for your mother-in-law, Tilly is your first thought.”

Tilly is developing budget and project road map tools to help clients purchase materials and organize installation, as well as a program of garden coaching video calls. Yost guesses it might work like Stitch Fix, the curated clothing service.

A Tilly planting plan, which many Tilly clients install themselves. Image courtesy Tilly.

Stories of genius unlocked through the cataclysmic wills of designer and client are legion in the design world, teaching that the surest way to sublime design is rooted in deep interrogations of site, context, and program. But Tilly wants to see if this can work at the other end of the design engagement level, producing creative synthesis without friction, or frisson: some photos and a conversation, a planting plan, followed by the long tail of something akin to a subscription model. This sort of streamlined process could never work for the public sector, with its wide array of competing interests and diverse audiences. But at home—as people scroll and save ideas during the waning days of a pandemic, getting things right for when we finally fling the doors open again—traditional engagement with the design discourse could seem like an extraneous impediment.

One thought on “Just Add Water”

  1. Feels like a superficial attempt to get a project done – like asking the staff person at Home Depot for plant suggestions for a persons yard. Nothing can replace being on site and understanding location, context, exposures, architecture, neighbors, soils, topography, etc. Yes, you can design a project from afar. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a good or appropriate design.

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