For Helen McVeigh, time spent in the garden is fulfilling, inspiring, and fun
Helen McVeigh describes her gardens as “her bodacious dream,” and a visit to her charming Yarmouth Port home provides colorful clues revealing the dream’s nature. There are flourishing flowers, perennials aplenty, and an abundance of blooms—it’s a colorful world. Much like a house, the gardens McVeigh has created in her yard are organized in an array of distinct “rooms,” each offering a unique arrangement.
From the Monet “room” with its succulent greens and the occasional color burst neatly housed in a medley of stone pots, to the cutting garden’s colorful sea of annuals and perennials, to the coleus “room” which features several plantings with peculiar, serrated leaves—the gardens offer colorful surprises in every corner.
McVeigh, 70, was introduced to the world of gardening as a young girl, weeding for her mother at the family’s home in Worcester. What began as a chore transformed over the years into a passion. “Gardening,” says McVeigh, “has become my joy. Being able to share my flowers with friends, family, strangers—it just makes me happy.”
After growing up in Worcester, McVeigh settled down with her late husband, Walter, in Wayne, New Jersey, where she taught English as a second language for 22 years. As a teacher, she didn’t have the time she wanted to devote to gardening; she maintained a garden of annuals in the yard, but craved more.
She first fell in love with Cape Cod during her college years, when she spent summers working at the Wayside Inn in Chatham. In the summer before her senior year at Worcester State College (now Worcester State University), she met Walter on the Cape, solidifying her love for the region. After Walter passed away in 1993, the couple’s son, Chris, encouraged Helen to return to the area she loved.
She rented in West Dennis for six summers, then found a charming home in Yarmouth Port she wanted to call her own. The spacious lawn intrigued her, and after a closer look at the gardens—the owner had a green thumb—McVeigh says she couldn’t leave without making an offer. “He had a working garden with very good bones,” she says. “There were vegetables, strawberries, and shrubs. I took a small section at a time and made it my home.”
Since purchasing the home in 2000, McVeigh has continually added gardens, hardscapes, and accessories to the property, which she calls an “ever-changing work in progress.” Strolling around the backyard, it’s impossible to miss what she calls, affectionately, “The Great Wall of Yarmouthport.” A string of luscious green Leyland cypress—fast-growing coniferous evergreen trees—lines the back of the property, establishing a natural fence next to her neighbor’s lawn. Inside this border, the gardens’ rich details come to life.
Throughout all of the gardens’ “rooms,” ornate orbs are tucked neatly in rows of plants, and wooden birdhouses built by McVeigh’s partner, Bobby Hallstein, offer feathered friends a retreat.
Perhaps the most whimsical space of all is the fairy garden. An island bed houses dwarf conifers, hostas, and a quaint village of stone fairy houses with miniature “residents,” each of which has a story.
Another part of the garden with a unique story is the plants McVeigh did not grow herself. Her son, Chris, is a bioscience environmental technology teacher at the Ella T. Grasso Southeastern Technical High School in Groton, Conn., where he plants from seed with his students. During the year, McVeigh often visits the school to purchase the flowers. “It’s thrilling to have flowers that my son has grown with young people,” McVeigh says. “They start them from seed as another means to introduce these students to a career. I take all of these flowers and give them a nice home here in the summer.”
In late winter and early spring, while the ground slowly thaws, McVeigh begins preparing for summer in her backyard greenhouse. After a winter’s rest, she is rejuvenated and fresh with new ideas. “I spend a lot of time in my gardens, but I never count the hours,” she says. “They are hours spent with love. I don’t look at it as work, only because to me it’s a passion. I love to be out there.”
In summer, McVeigh’s time in the garden often begins at 5 a.m., especially when she is sprucing up for a garden tour. In 2015 and 2016, she participated in the Cape Cod Hydrangea Festival Garden Tour, where visitors toured a collection of local gardens. In so doing, McVeigh helped to raise money for the Barnstable Education Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping fund innovative programs at the Barnstable Public Schools. In addition to her involvement in the tours, McVeigh’s gardening expertise has also been highlighted in Prime Time Cape Cod and Costal Home magazines.
Of her large collection of plants, McVeigh says her favorites are the unusual ones—some so unique she doesn’t even know their official names. A long skinny, pink plant she calls her “shrimp plant,” is a current favorite.
Aside from gardening, McVeigh enjoys several creative endeavors. Inside her home, which she decorates seasonally, current furnishings and accessories include brightly painted furniture, mirrors wreathed with shells, and various handmade knickknacks she has created. “All my friends tease me because I really change the whole décor for each season,” she says. “I love the change. I think that’s part of my past as a teacher and doing the bulletin boards. I do it for every season and for holidays.”
Whether it’s decorating the rooms inside her home, or planting in the “rooms” of her garden, McVeigh views the time she spends crafting and designing, planting and pruning as well spent. Gardening, though, holds a special place in her heart. The simple joys of working outdoors and breathing in the fresh air make her happy—and she hopes to inspire other green-thumbs-to-be. “Gardening gives me so much in return,” she says. “It fulfills me. It’s not my children in a classroom anymore, it’s my children in a garden.”
Lillian Lowe is a freelance writer and a former editorial intern for Cape Cod