A full shot of Tracy Pollina's lush garden
The garden includes gravel paths, manicured hedges, minimal color, and annual plants in urns. Beyond the driveway is a fenced area for the family’s five horses. Photo Gallery »

SIZE 1,200 square feet
TYPE Herb garden
LOCATION Barrington Hills

Tracy Pollina felt right at home the first time she saw the Greek Revival–style Barrington Hills house, with its cedar shake roof, copper-trimmed bay window, and large yard shaded by towering trees. After a year-and-a-half stint in Schaumburg, Pollina, who had grown up on a 23-acre horse farm in Michigan, was ready for a more rural setting. And this horse-loving community in the far northwest suburbs seemed perfect.

A top-to-bottom makeover, completed in 2007, expanded the house and gave Pollina and her husband, Russ, the updated kitchen they’d been craving. But outside, the grounds looked neglected. So Russ and Tracy, who formerly had worked as an interior designer, hired garden designer George Hughes of Richmond, Illinois–based Garden Hues to help them create an exterior befitting the souped-up interior. With his passion for architecture and love of straight lines and symmetry, Hughes was the right designer for the job, Tracy says.

Hughes took his cues from architectural details such as the weathered brick chimney, copper-trimmed window, welcoming front entry, and whimsical cherub fountain to design a garden for a family in which kids (ages 9, 10, and 15) and pets (five horses and a pug) reign supreme.

“I wanted to please both Tracy and Russ, as well as to complement the architecture of the house,” which was built in 1941, Hughes says. “They had spent a lot of time researching and completing the addition and I knew being true to the architecture was important to them.” The job, which the Pollinas initially had envisioned as some foundation plantings and a small herb garden, quickly grew into something bigger—an artfully designed outdoor space for the family to use, relax in, and gaze upon with pleasure.

Hughes was happy to oblige Tracy’s request for a practical garden, with one caveat: It would be a formal one, with herbs and ornamental flowers flourishing in tidy beds bordered with low hedges.

“Americans have this preconceived notion that gardens are natural,” he says. “Gardens are man-made, not natural, creations.” Everything here was carefully orchestrated to stimulate the senses, from the sweet smell of lilacs to the babbling water in the cherub fountain to the crunch of gravel on the garden path.

There’s nothing stuffy about it, though. For Tracy, who loves flowers, Hughes included a variety of favorites (“I showed him pictures when I couldn’t remember the names,” she says). Annabelle hydrangeas line the front of the house, where plans for a new driveway are in the works. Lilacs framed in boxwood flank the front door, mimicking the columns that run across the façade of the house and keeping the symmetry that is Hughes’s calling card.

In the back, where family members and guests most frequently enter, pink rhododendrons, German irises, roses, delphinium, lamb’s ear, veronica, and phlox provide seasonal color and soft fragrance. In a shade bed, brunnera macrophylla grows with hardy cranesbill.

The herb garden is more than merely decorative. Tracy, who does most of the weekday cooking, frequently pops out to snip chives and parsley for the potatoes or grab rosemary to flavor the chicken. And Sicilian-born Russ, who enjoys cooking his native cuisine on weekends, is happy to have oregano, sage, rosemary, Italian parsley, basil, and thyme growing a few steps from the gourmet kitchen where he whips up chicken limone, osso buco, cannoli, and other dishes. Arugula that has migrated to cracks in the nearby stone patio gets used, as well.

When the horse chores are finished and the sun shines, the Pollina family gathers in the garden to spend time together. The children pull weeds as the family pug frolics among the herbs and flowers. A pony might even make an appearance in the garden, munching out of one of the urns. And Tracy, drawn to this home many years ago, now finds it even more inviting.

“I’m surprised at how taken I am with this garden,” she says. “It’s beautiful, calm, and serene. It makes all of us happy.”


Photograph: Linda Oyama Bryan