The Coastal Star

A fairy garden: Cultivating a tiny land of enchantment

Nancy Cudahy Touhey sits with her granddaughters Helen (left) and Mia and her dog, Niña, in her fairy garden.


By Mary Jane Fine


    “When the first baby laughed for the first time, his laugh broke into a million pieces, and they all went skipping about. That was the beginning of fairies.”
— J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan

That laughing baby must have lived somewhere near Gulf Stream or, maybe, Albany, N.Y., somewhere, anyway, near Nancy Cudahy Touhey. How else to explain Fairy Garden South and Fairy Garden North, one in each of her backyards and populated with all those little winged creatures and their houses and fences and bridges and tea tables and birdbaths and, oh, all the rest of their Lilliputian lives.
“I’m awaiting a FedEx delivery of three fairies right now, including a baby,” Touhey says, leading the way past two towering ficus trees and a sun-spangled swimming pool. “The baby will probably sit in the playground area, and the other two wherever I feel like putting them. It’s all done by whim.”
Her whims have created this, this 10-by-30-foot patch of fairy-garden-within-a-garden behind Lemon Hill, the Touheys’ 1930s Colonial estate, just off A1A. This is an Irish fairy garden, the houses — none taller than a toddler’s knee — complete with bark-thatch roofs and pebble pathways. The fairy castle sits at the center, back against a veritable forest of palm trees,  overseen by the Fairy Queen. That’s she, up on the turret, gazing down at the Fairy Princess who is, herself, fondly watching over an inch-long fairy baby.
Touhey created her Irish fairy garden four years ago, “because of all our Irish relatives, and Michael’s birthday was St. Patrick’s Day.” That would be former husband, Michael Cudahy, son of former ambassador to Ireland John Cudahy. Her original fairy garden came into being two years earlier, on the 160-acre Albany estate she owns with her philanthropist husband, Carl Touhey. The gardens owe their inspiration to a visit she made to a shop on Lake Champlain whose every corner, she says, “was filled with something charming, tiny teacups and little gardens.”
Acquiring the mini-folk and foliage is an ongoing pursuit.
“There’s so much available if you just spend the time Googling,” she says. She found online suppliers of fairies and fairy houses, dollhouse-size tables and chairs and gates and trellises, a teensy dog, a gazing ball the size of a marble, a basket of apples that are each as big as the eraser on a No. 2 pencil.  She has found suppliers of miniature junipers and boxwoods, schefflera and bromeliads, bonsai versions of their full-grown relatives.
Granddaughters Lane, 15, and Maggie, 16, wandered through the Delray Affair last month and scored a squirrel, two frogs, a grasshopper and a fish to add to the little world.
Word of the garden has spread through area schools, and Touhey welcomes the children who come to visit it. She serves lemonade and Meyer lemon cookies, all made from the lemon trees just beyond the pool. The little girls, she says, usually rush to the table; the little boys tend to linger at garden’s edge, marveling over the detail of the miniature world.
Nancy Touhey still marvels a lot, too. “I check on it every day and maybe work on it once a week. Once I’m there, I’m there until someone rescues me,” she says, and laughs.
Her delight in her Fairy Gardens is partially her delight in the imagination. She remembers when her son Peter was small and his elementary school teacher told her, “We have to do something about Peter. He tells all these lies, and the other children believe him.” The latest fabrication had been about a pony that Peter said had followed him and was waiting outside.
“I reprimanded the teacher,” Touhey recalls. “I said, ‘It’s not a lie, it’s a story. Why do you try to squelch a child’s imagination?’ ”
She loves to quote her young granddaughter who, after visiting the fairy garden one day, said, “Nanny, the fairies are singing so fast I can’t understand what they’re saying.”  Her smile, then, is one of pure pleasure.
“I think you have to have that power of belief,” she says. “It might as well be
fairies.”                                

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