Audrey Boys is driven to garden. For more than 40 years, she has lived on a sylvan half-acre in Wilmington in an English-style stone cottage originally built in 1900 as a four-car garage and chauffeur’s apartment serving the mansion of William Coyne, a director of the DuPont Co. “When I met my husband he told me we were going to live in this house, even though it wasn’t for sale,” she recalls. By that time, most of the grounds surrounding the mansion had been sold off, including the parcel on which the garage was sited. Houses had sprung up in between.
In 1968, a few years after their marriage, Boys and her husband, Richard, bought the property, still captivated by the home’s stone walls, slate roof and divided-light windows.
And, of course, there was the land, a rare and lovely expanse in an urban setting where they could visualize their children at play.
But before they moved in the young couple devoted a year to updating the home, turning a warren of three tiny rooms into a larger living room. They tore out the turned staircase that gobbled up space in the sitting room and replaced it with a straight flight of steps that opened up the room.
The industrial steel beams that supported the former garage were sheathed in oak to create the look of hefty wood ceiling trusses in an English cottage. In the dining room, a bank of windows was replaced with a pair of French doors, the better to usher in the garden that would evolve behind the house.
Stout interior walls are constructed from red tile and stone, coated with plaster. The extraordinary thickness of the walls makes for a home that is naturally soundproof and resistant to storms and other threats.
“I am told this is the only fire-proof home in the city of Wilmington,” Boys says.
Some people hand down jewelry through the family. In the Boys household, architectural elements are passed from generation to generation.
The black marble fireplace mantel in the living room was salvaged from the ballroom at Mount Vernon Place at Cazier Farms, her husband’s family home in Bear. The pair of white marble sinks in the dressing room also came from the mansion and are mounted on a double vanity crafted from barn wood.
A fireplace built from recycled Colonial-era curbstone already was in place in the sitting room when they bought the home. The sturdy spindles on the flight of stairs leading to the second floor were repurposed from the original turned staircase.
“My father lived to be 99,” Boys says. “We tend to think long-term.”
In the early years, Boys’ husband tended the garden. He transplanted the boxwood hedge in front of the house to the rear garden, clearing out overgrown yews and straggly mimosa. He laid a patio of recycled brick.
The couple’s daughters, Kristine and Maggie, enjoyed spending time with their father outdoors. Kristine became a professional gardener, working at the Brandywine Conservancy before heading to the horticulture department at Cornell University in New York.
Mother and daughter began gardening side by side, carving out exuberant border beds of painted ferns, Virginia sweetspire, lungwort and blazing star.
Kristine introduced her mother to unusual flora, some developed at Cornell. Locally, Boys finds special plants at Gateway Garden Center in Hockessin.
Together, they created pockets of plantings, including a miniature meadow of grasses.
“Each spot in the garden has its own mood, yet they all flow together,” she says.
What is now an artistically plotted garden was once a utilitarian vegetable patch.
“The whole yard was a truck garden for the estate,” Boys says.
These days, most of the garden is shaded. She grows herbs, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and other veggies in a small, sunny patch by the front gate. A pear tree is espaliered on the wall by the front door.
Licorice-scented fennel is interspersed with flowers. It is so prolific Boys sometimes struggles to keep the herb in check.
“I visited a plantation in Cuba where they train fennel to grow on the wall,” she says. “That’s an idea I will try here.”
Boys is inspired by gardens wherever she travels, most recently by the exotic plantings she enjoyed in Pakistan. She also gains insights at the Delaware Center for Horticulture in Wilmington, which sponsors an annual rare plant auction.
Most of all, she loves perennials, plants that return year after year, especially bear’s breeches (Acanthus spinosus), a tall stalk with spiky leaves and showy deep purple flowers.
Other favorites include butterfly bush (Buddleia sp.); New England aster (Symphiotrichum novae-angliae); Virginia bluebells (Mertensia Virginia); and trillium (Trillium cuneatum toadshade).
The towering blue spruce was a tiny seedling when she planted it 40 years ago in memory of her grandmother.
Boys doesn’t tap the sugar maple for fear of harming the tree. But on occasion, Mother Nature offers up a treat.
“Sometimes, the syrup just runs down the tree,” she says.
Hardscaping and other infrastructure help to define various open-air “rooms” in the garden. Boys put in curved stone paths to connect spaces. Arched trellises are “doors” to formal plots.
An antique gazing globe, a gift from a neighbor, adds a whimsical touch. A fountain decorated with a bronze heron is tucked into greenery bordering the patio.
The wrought-iron fence in the classic, curved hairpin pattern was salvaged from Mount Vernon Place at Cazier Farms, as was the wooden garden gate.
“It’s more than 100 years old and still works perfectly,” Boys says.
The birdhouse, shaped and painted to look like nearby Rockford Tower, is the work of Thomas Burke of Wilmington, founder of Barn Again Bird Homes.
“I like to put herbs in the bird house to attract caterpillars,” she says. “It’s a spectacular sight, watching all those butterflies flutter out.”
Boys enjoys her garden by moonlight as well as sunlight. The large trees that surround the patio have been outfitted with uplights, illuminating a canopy of leaves against the night sky. The ethereal blossoms of a peony tree look transparent, like cellophane.
“I like to plant white geraniums because the flowers sparkle in the dark, like little stars,” she says.
Slender trees behind a picnic table are wrapped in strings of white lights.
When she dines outdoors, Boys likes to cover the picnic table with a cloth textured like burlap that she found at Terrain in Glen Mills, Pa., a mecca for open-air aficionados.
She lights tall tapers in a pair of ornate candelabra to add glamour.
“The garden is as lovely at night as it is during the day,” she says.