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Space to Grow

Photos by Nora Edinger Karen McFadden and pup Maggie Mae enjoy a moment in the lush garden the retired nurse created in the backyard of her Bethany home. McFadden began gardening — starting with just a few plants — when her youngest child left for college.

BETHANY — There was a moment — quite a few years ago now — when Karen McFadden looked into the rearview mirror of her car and saw her college-launched daughter standing alone, quivering her lip and getting smaller and smaller as mom drove away.

The daughter was the second and last of her children to fledge, which made McFadden cry, too. Then, she came home and set to work turning a bare backyard into a stunner that rises up a gentle slope that heads into the woods on one end of Bethany College.

“It’s my empty nest garden,” said McFadden. With a sweep of her hand, she tried to erase from the senses what once wasn’t there. “This was grass and a little, tiny path against the house.”

McFadden, who was in the midst of more than 30 years as a nurse at the college when the garden began, said she started with just a few perennials. Those were planted against a short, stone wall that now defines the edge of a patio whose broad pavers were laid with the help of her husband, Floyd McFadden.

“It grew to this,” she joked gesturing toward an expanse of color and texture that has grown to pure lushness over the past three decades.


McFadden’s garden was loaded with blooms and cabbage white butterflies on a cloudy day in mid July.

In one corner, shade lovers such as astilbe and maidenhair fern — a delicate plant with dramatic black stems — were settled happily under an unusual variety of dogwood whose leaves were tinged with pink and whose berries will turn purplish-black. A vine brought back from a beach house where her family summered on the Atlantic coast peeked out of even the darkest recesses of the stone wall.

Other sections of the garden were pure sunshine.

Lilies and purple cone flowers were putting on the biggest show. There were also black-eyed Susans, tiny blue Chinese forget-me-nots, hostas, a few poppies that were still hanging on and a bright red variety of crocosmia called Lucifer.

Here and there, glass orbs, chimes and bird baths were placed just so.

A humming bird perched on a clothesline stretched from one swath of color to another, likely deciding where to feed next.

If lilies were what he had in mind, they were in particular abundance. McFadden has multiple varieties in colors ranging from delicate pink to an arresting orange specimen called Alabama Jubilee.

Some of the lilies — crosses between oriental and trumpet varieties known as “orienpets” — were more than 6 feet tall.

McFadden was likely glad they weren’t any taller. “I had so much trouble with deer, I thought, ‘I’m going to have to do something about it or get rid of the garden.'”

The couple instead extended the low picket fence they already had with 8-foot posts linked by a series of horizontal wires that are nearly invisible against a backdrop of vegetation. Maintaining visibility was important to McFadden as she enjoys seeing through the fence and talking to a neighbor, one of few people who actually can look into McFadden’s masterpiece.

Many of the posts have decor of a sort in the form of bird houses. “I have bluebirds every spring, sometimes three families,” McFadden said.


With all the work McFadden puts in to keep everything blooming — she tends to do it in marathon sessions on days that are cloudy and cooler — she noted there’s a lot of play in the cottage style that she prefers.

“A lot of it plants itself,” she said. “I don’t take much control of it.”

There’s a bit of serendipity to it, as well, she said, pointing to a green plant standing at the sunny edge of her shade garden.

“It’s a corn stalk!” she said with a laugh. “I didn’t know what it was. I just decided to let it grow and find out. That’s going in a clam bake. A bird must have planted it.”

Acknowledging her space is pretty much maxed out, McFadden said she has only purchased a couple new specimens in the last year or so. But, the constant change that gardens — as well as family and life — is also part of the play and joy, she noted.

“I hate to see anything die, but nothing lasts forever,” she said, adding that, with garden plants, such change simply means there is open space to grow. “That gives me a chance to get a new one.”



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