Last summer, as Alexis Sutton, Heather Hoeppner, and Sarah Finazzo peppered their lifelong friend, landscape architect Blythe Yost, with questions about yard maintenance and improvement, a big idea was born. “We said, ‘There should be a better way to do this—an online resource for professional landscape design that doesn’t cost thousands of dollars before you purchase a single plant,’” Sutton recalls. “Then we said, ‘Wait a second, we can do that!’—and we just started running with it.”
In February 2019, after months of research and nationwide testing, the foursome launched Tilly, an online platform that delivers custom landscape plans to homeowners nationwide at a fraction of the cost of a traditional landscape architect or designer’s service.
The process is simple: Homeowners talk via email, phone, and video chat with a dedicated designer about their needs and design vision, choose one of four design packages—The Mini ($95), The Front ($275), The Back ($375), or The Full ($575)—then sit back and wait for a customized plan, plant list, and installation and care instructions. Green thumbs can do the installation themselves, but most clients hire a local lawn-care crew to handle the dirty work.
The start-up’s reach is rapidly expanding from the New York City area, where Tilly is based, to projects in Colorado, Florida, California, Illinois, New Jersey, Texas, and Virginia. We sat down with co-founders Sutton (who recently relocated to Denver) and Yost (Tilly’s head designer) to find out what’s making Tilly such a success.
5280 Home: Creating a custom landscape design is a pretty personal endeavor. How do you get to know your clients from afar?
Alexis Sutton: Our process consists of multiple stages, through which we get to know the customer and their needs more and more. Sometimes it almost feels like dating! First, clients complete a high-level intake form that reveals their general garden style and their goals for the project, which helps us match them with the right design package.
Next, we do a much more in-depth space assessment and ask questions about their soil, sunlight, functional needs, and plans for maintenance and irrigation. We ask for photos of their property, as well as a property survey, which is especially helpful when we’re doing scaled plans.
Once we have all those materials, we schedule a phone call or, better yet, a video chat, which allows us to remotely “tour” a space. We can zoom in on a particular part of the yard, or even go inside a house to see the views from the kitchen or bedroom window.
What does a Tilly plan encompass?
Blythe Yost: Our services focus on plant materials because that seems to be where people need the most help. We can certainly draft a location for a patio or walkway, but there are local and regional codes that we need to steer clear of. There aren’t so many governing factors when it comes to plants.
Have you found that Denver clients have unique landscape requests?
Alexis Sutton: Here in Denver, people care a lot about pollinators and supporting bee and butterfly populations, so we’re helping them not only with plant selection, but also advising them about chemicals to avoid and how to best maintain those populations.
Do your designs hew to a particular style?
Alexis Sutton: They definitely don’t. We take cues from a client’s personal style and their house, but also from the natural surroundings. If we’re designing for a mountainside in Evergreen, for example, we probably wouldn’t consider a very structured, symmetrical design.
Is each project matched with a designer with expertise in that region?
Alexis Sutton: Our workload fluctuates based on seasonality, so we have a core team of designers and a deeper bench of contractors who are located across the country, but we’re focused on pairing projects with the best talent rather than regional talent.
Blythe Yost: We look for designers who have a strong background in plants. This level of residential work is very plant heavy, so if you have a good sense of plant material and how it works, it’s not necessary that you be 100-percent familiar with everything that grows in a certain region.
That said, do your designers work with native plants when possible?
Blythe Yost: Absolutely. There are best practices that we try to follow as landscape designers, and natives are certainly part of that. Interestingly, there’s a regional element to clients’ interest in sustainability and natives. I find there’s a lot more focus on water-efficiency in California, and on native and bee-friendly plants in Colorado, whereas New Yorkers really just want their grass to be green.
Speaking of water-efficiency, how does that influence your designs?
Blythe Yost: We advocate for an irrigation system as a way to protect your investment, but we try to select plants that, over time, won’t require supplemental irrigation. Having irrigation is important—especially given how strange the weather patterns are across the country lately—but we don’t want to be beholden to it.
Are there limits to what you’ll provide for a given plan, given that yards vary so much in size?
Blythe Yost: We try very hard not to put limits on things, because we don’t want anyone to feel like they can’t use Tilly. There are certainly going to be projects that are way more time-consuming than we anticipated, and there will be others that are sort of “one and done.” Our hope is that it will all balance out.
Who are Tilly’s customers—and are they who you expected to attract?
Alexis Sutton: When we went into this, we were definitely targeting millennial homeowners—mostly first-time homeowners who are new to landscaping. Tilly definitely struck a chord with them, but we’ve found that it really appeals to a much broader audience than we were expecting. Many are people who have been in a home for a long time but have just never wanted to splurge on the cost of a landscape designer.
Do homeowners typically implement your plans themselves?
Blythe Yost: Not many of our clients are DIY-ing. It’s a lot of work to dig in the soil! For the level of design and the quantity of plant material we’re doing, it really makes sense to outsource. Most of our clients tend to go with an outside landscape service.
Alexis Sutton: We saw that need immediately and have since launched our own installation service, which is currently available in Denver, Chicago, and New York.
What does the return-on-investment picture look like with Tilly versus a traditional landscape architect?
Alexis Sutton: There is a study that found that a mature landscape design can increase a home’s value from 7 to 13 percent, which is very significant. It’s one of those few home improvements that actually increases in value over time. If you put in a new bathroom, it’s like driving a car off the lot: On day one, it starts depreciating. But the more mature your landscape gets, the more valuable it becomes.
We expect that because our price point is lower, the R.O.I. would be higher with Tilly than with a traditional landscape architect, because you’re still working with a professional and the results are the same.
What’s next for Tilly?
Blythe Yost: We often get troubleshooting questions from clients, so we’re thinking about offering a monthly subscription service or other model that would allow for ongoing landscape support.
Alexis Sutton: And for everyone—not just existing clients—we’ve also started to provide more educational information—via blog posts, for example—and we recently launched a monthly “Ask Tilly” feature on Instagram, where we respond to questions about gardening and plant selection in real time for a day. We really want to be your best friend in landscape design.