Tucked into an especially quiet corner of Fairfield, behind an almost cottage-like house, one can find Sally O’Brien’s perfectly proportioned garden. Here, she experiments with both practical and aesthetic plantings, growing herbs and vegetables as well as indulging in the joy of vivid and fragrant perennials. But the one-and-a-half-acre lot wasn’t always so idyllic.
When O’Brien, a former schoolteacher, and her husband Jim first arrived nearly thirty years ago, a steep slope dominated the landscape behind the home, leaving the couple with little room and few options. “We were at the mercy of the property,” says O’Brien. Desperately wanting to grow anything, she noted that the sunniest portion of their parcel was, in fact, on that irksome hill, and her interest was piqued. “I always have a vision. I get something in my head and I work in that direction,” O’Brien remarks. She realized that if they could raise the ground up to meet the house, they would have enough level space for a sizable garden and outdoor living space. So, the couple embarked on a landscaping evolution, creating an upper tier, with stairs that give way to the lawn below, where her now college-aged sons used to frolic and roughhouse. “As time went on, we branched out into different parts of the property and made the most of it. The vision grew and changed as ours needs changed, and as the boys got older and I had more time, my gardens expanded.”
Now, the space includes so much more than simple flowers, as O’Brien quickly incorporated raised beds for vegetables. “I grow very simple things that I know are going to do well—peppers, tomatoes, spinach, kale and a lot of herbs.” More recently, a coop (designed by O’Brien) and a small brood of chickens arrived, completing the feel of a miniaturized farm, which is situated steps from the kitchen.
She takes particular pleasure in collecting chicken eggs for breakfast, picking fresh kale for morning smoothies and cutting flowers to be displayed inside the home. “I think I’ve subconsciously tried to recreate my grandparents farm in Wisconsin,” O’Brien adds wistfully. The cast-iron bell at the entrance of the garden was from that very farm in Wisconsin, furthering her theory.
When she isn’t savoring the literal fruits of her labor, O’Brien enjoys spending time on the patio, a space anchored by a burbling water feature. Here, she and her husband entertain guests, have family meals and enjoy a glass of wine in quiet contentment amidst the tenderly cultivated greenery.
For those who know her, O’Brien’s green thumb comes as no surprise. Her mother was an avid gardener, and O’Brien herself completed the University of Connecticut’s Extension Master Gardener Program at the Barlett Arboretum in Stamford, which she calls “a tremendous educational opportunity.” It’s clear that her lifetime of experience has paid off and given her particular insight into the secrets of successfully creating a lush environment. “I like certain combinations of plants and certain things are just tried and true,” she explains. “Lady’s mantle and catmint are a beautiful combination; hydrangeas are a must have; bleeding hearts in the spring are gorgeous. There are certain staples for me that I love to have.”
At the end of every growing season, she goes through every section of the garden and takes note of what grew well and what she might want to replace or repeat. “As it’s a small space, I try to stick with a color scheme and a pattern. I think gardens are prettiest when you see repetition. So, I find something that works and repeat it. And that’s usually my advice to people who are asking for advice,” she chuckles.
Although her two sons haven’t yet taken up the family’s traditional pastime, O’Brien, ever the schoolteacher, finds subtle ways to share her horticultural knowledge with them. “Whenever they’re out in the garden, I always tell them the names of plants and have them smell the herbs,” she says. Her generous attitude extends beyond her family, and O’Brien finds special joy in educating others, saying, “I love creating a welcoming environment, whether it’s a house, a classroom or a garden. I like people to come in and enjoy. It’s fun to share what you love.”