Winding paths, shade-friendly plantings and a dreamy greenhouse create a magical backyard

by Ayn-Monique Klahre | photography by Tyler Northrup

The paths aren’t really planned, they just appear—following deer tracks or the worn-down footprints of neighborhood kids. Homeowner Pat Grady embraces them. “I like to have it open when I walk, and every once in a while I see an area where a plant dies, and I put in another path,” she says. She and her husband, Dr. Perry L. Grady, a retired N.C. State professor, have lived on this land for 35 years. Over time, the eight-acre plot has evolved to include dozens of winding walks through the trees, featuring plantings highlighted in pots or rising from the ground in bursts of color. The paths are dotted with benches, birdhouses, sculptures and a greenhouse half-hidden in the trees, a place of discovery that grandkids and local children call a fairy garden.
“I grew up on a tobacco farm in Duplin County where it was sunny and hot,” says Grady. “So when we first moved here, I’d try to grow gladiolas and zinnias but got no response.” But soon she got to know friends in the gardening community who turned her on to shade gardening. Little by little, through trial and error, Grady learned which plants would thrive.

“I don’t have to weed a lot—I use pine straw and mulch—and I don’t fertilize or have irrigation,” says Grady, who says that in all but the hottest weeks of summer, her plants hold up. “But this past summer, I had to go out and water by hand. At least it forces me to go out on walks!” That’s where you’ll find her until mid-afternoon most days, enjoying the shade from the trees as she works in her garden. “I like wild spaces,” she says. The yard includes wooded areas and a deep ravine that leads to a swift creek, and often Grady will find neighborhood children exploring alongside butterflies, squirrels and the occasional owl or deer.

The greenhouse was a hand-me-down from master gardener Anne Clapp. She was looking to get rid of it around the time the Gradys were building their house, so the builder took the structure down and put it back together in their yard. The Gradys heat it in the dead of winter, but don’t have to cool it. “In the summer the trees shade the greenhouse, but in the winter the leaves fall off the trees so it’s heated by the sun,” she says. Here, the sounds of modern living are miles away. Dewdrops multiply the sunlight and the pathways capture the imagination. Under Grady’s gentle hand, her land has been transformed.