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Article Published April 3, 2019
Carolyn Fish: Sharing the Art of the Garden
Aviva Luria, Staff Reporter

Carolyn Fish has fond memories of summer visits to her grandparents’ summer home, which they purchased in Westbrook’s Old Kelsey Point Association in 1920. The town’s charm made it easy for Carolyn and her husband Bill to choose Westbrook to retire to, and now Carolyn is helping ensure others can enjoy that charm through her efforts with the Westbrook Garden Club.

In the late ’70s, she and Bill, who lived in Rowayton, had the opportunity to purchase her great-aunt’s summer house, just around the corner from her grandparents’, and give their young children a similar summer experience. Once they retired, they winterized the house and made it their year-round home. Now their four grandchildren can visit them there, just steps from Long Island Sound.

Carolyn and Bill had planned for years to retire in Westbrook.

“We were sailors and swimmers,” she says. “And our adult children and our grandchildren love it here, too. We always loved coming here and it was always our goal to be able to retire here.”

Always one to keep herself busy, Carolyn built up a home staging business while winding down her hours at the end of her nursing career. She ran the business—assisting realtors and home owners with preparing homes for sale—for five years; it grew busier each year until she and Bill decided to retire and move to the renovated home in Westbrook.

“It was fun,” she says of the home staging business. “I enjoyed it because I got to be a bit artistic, shall we say, which I like to do. And I guess that’s probably why I like gardening. At some level, it is artistic.”

As a novice gardener in Rowayton, she joined the Rowayton Gardeners to learn.

“And that’s what we do with the Westbrook Garden Club,” she says. “We have lectures. We meet monthly and we have a lecture and it’s open to the town. We all want to learn more and that’s how I started.

“My gardens are mostly perennial gardens,” she says, “and I throw in a few annuals, just for color. But it’s a learning process and I’m always tweaking and changing. Sun, shade, height, colors.”

One of her proudest achievements as a member of the Westbrook Garden Club was its first-place award for Community Beautification in 2018 from the National Garden Clubs. The project that earned them the award was the New Window Box Project, which Carolyn co-chaired.

“That’s a big honor for us and it’s very difficult to achieve that honor,” she explains.

The award was a bit of a surprise: Carolyn submitted an application to the Federated Garden Clubs of Connecticut, hoping to get some recognition for the club’s efforts.

“They took my application and were impressed with it and sent it on to national,” she says. “And we got first place in community beautification for our window boxes, which are in the store fronts in downtown Westbrook.

“We’re very, very honored to get [the award],” Carolyn says. “It’s a big feather. We’re a small club compared to other garden clubs in the state of Connecticut,” although by Federated Garden Clubs of Connecticut standards, the Westbrook Garden Club, with 34 members, is considered a medium club.

The project replaced old pine window boxes whose seams were beginning to separate with bespoke white ones constructed by Clinton landscaper Chris Billings out of AZEK, a polymer material designed to retain its color and last longer than wood.

AZEK “doesn’t warp; it doesn’t rot,” Carolyn explains. “They use it for trim on homes now.

“The reason we did that style—it’s kind of a Colonial, New England style—was to match planters that we have in town,” she says. “We did that project two years prior to this. The original planters that we had were whiskey barrels, and they were rotten, and they were literally falling apart. We substituted the whiskey barrels with white AZEK square planters.”

After they were constructed, Carolyn helped to construct watering systems for them.

“They dry out fast, because a lot of them are in full sun,” she says. “We took PVC piping, put holes in them, and then some wicks, and then a spout going up to the top so we could pour water in them. We have them in the planters, too.”

Carolyn is co-chair of one of the garden club’s two annual fundraisers, the May Garden Market, which this year will take place on Saturday, May 18, at Westbrook Town Hall, from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. (The second fundraiser is a mum sale in September.) Sales from the May Market help fund the purchase of the plants that fill all those window boxes and planters in Westbrook’s town center. But the work of planting and caring for them is all volunteer: members of the Garden’s Club’s Spot Minder Program, like Carolyn, who plants and tends to four window boxes at the Town Green.

“We have 50 planters and window boxes in town,” Carolyn says. “They’re at the library, they’re at Town Hall, they’re on town medians, they’re on the Town Green. For the spring, the summer, and the fall, those plants thrive. And they look absolutely gorgeous. It makes the town vibrant and very attractive.”

The club tries to create a balance between maintaining a cohesive look across the window boxes and allowing individual gardeners to express some creativity.

Garden club members “take a lot of pride in what they do, which is wonderful,” Carolyn says. “And they’re all very talented, and they’re certainly very dedicated. Some of them have to bring jugs of water because there’s no water source” where their boxes are located. “Like on the town medians. And you have to water at least twice a week, particularly in August. And sometimes more. So it’s a lot of dedication.”

The Westbrook Garden Club celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2018 and is honoring this milestone by creating a sustainable meadow at Salt Island Overlook, an open space overseen by the Westbrook Conservation Commission located on Route 1 between the Post Office and Oxford Academy. It’s a joint project: Garden club members are clearing brush and working closely with the various partners on the project, including Cathy Connolly of Speaking of Landscapes, who is designing the meadow.

The club is also providing funding, together with grants from the Westbrook Foundation and Plant America. A local boy scout, Eric Franco, is constructing a raised walkway as his eagle scout project. Summer interns at the Westbrook Conservation Commission have been helping with weed and brush removal; the commission also purchased wood chips. Oxford Academy students are designing a watering system.

Despite her volunteer work for other organizations—the American Association of University Women, the Westbrook Council of Beaches, the Adopt a Spot program for the Town of Westbrook, and her church—Carolyn is undaunted by the prospect of becoming co-president of the Westbrook Garden Club. She and fellow club member Rachel McNellis have been nominated and the vote will be in June.

“I can’t say enough about this group of women,” she says. “They are entirely dedicated and hardworking and talented.

“The best part of having a leadership role is the enthusiasm and the dedication of the members of the club,” she continues. “That’s the driving force for me. Because they’re willing to get their hands dirty and work hard and follow through and get it done.”