A Couple’s Hidden Garden

Beyond a handmade gate, lush plantings and flea market finds shape a whimsical, well-tended garden

by Ayn-Monique Klahre | photography by Matt Ramey

“From the front, our house looks like everybody else’s,” says homeowner Irene Campbell. “But when people walk through the gate they’re just stunned.” Nestled in the White Heart neighborhood, between Garner and Cary, the backyard is just under an acre, but its winding paths, repurposed treasures and layers of plantings come together to create a whole new world. Along with her husband Shay, Irene Campbell crafts planters and sculptures from items others might discard: washing machine tubs (“Great drainage!”), a broken-down baby carriage, half of a table, student art. There are disco balls hanging from the tree limbs and a cobalt-blue bridge to nowhere; a garden shed that looks like a storybook cottage. Much of it was crafted by the husband-and-wife team, Irene dreaming the ideas and Shay making them a reality. “If I can think it, Shay can build it,” she says.

Shay Campbell built the garden gate that welcomes visitors. The path is named “The Earlway” after Irene Campbell’s father, who in his later years would sit on the back porch and give his son-in-law instructions on how to build things. “He would always give Shay advice, even though he didn’t know much more than Shay did,” she laughs. The path leads through the outdoor kitchen, which they built, and down into the garden, where the hand-tiled fountain is the focal point. In the distance, the blue bridge—which Shay Campbell calls the “Troubled Bridge Over No Water”—takes walkers over flowers planted in memorial to both of their mothers.
As the self-proclaimed “queen of the flea market, garage sale and thrift store,” Irene Campbell buys pieces that speak to her, then waits for them to reveal their purpose. “We garden all year long, unless it’s raining or sleeting,” she says. “And we love to go junkin’—things find us!” So with ingenuity and everyday efforts, their garden continues to grow and evolve into a whimsical place of the Campbells’ creation.”