Audrey Faden, Master Gardener Emerita

By Christa Watters

Audrey Faden

Gardener in Chief: Audrey Faden at work in Simpson Gardens, next to the Alexandria YMCA.

Audrey Evans was born on a coffee farm outside the town of Nyeri in Kenya in 1941. She recalls the “small” 600-acre farm as a beautiful place, with steep hillsides, rivers, bush, and a view of Mt. Kenya. Her father, who went to Kenya from South Africa, started the farm in 1911. Her mother, his second wife, went to Kenya in the 1930s from England as a nurse and met her future husband when he was a patient in the Nairobi hospital where she worked. “He fell in love with her voice,” as the story goes. 

The youngest of four children, Audrey says she was a shy child who spent a lot of time on her own, wandering about on the farm with her dog, looking at small wildflowers growing out of the rocks on the hillside, watching bushbuck, and looking out for snakes, including puff adders. As she grew up, she learned to paint and particularly loved watercolors. But whenever visitors came, she fled to the outdoors. People knew of her love of wildlife and brought her baby animals to nurse.

At that time Kenya was not densely settled and there were no schools nearby, so she was sent to the first of several boarding schools at age five. The school was 75 miles away over bad roads, so she went home for the holidays only three times a year. School was important to her future, she knew, but it was difficult to be away from home at such a young age, and sometimes lonely. When out of class, she headed to the rose gardens, where she could observe Jackson’s chameleons, a three-horned tree chameleon that lives in Kenya’s cooler regions. These chameleons are ovoviviparous – they are born live in little placental sacs. “They would break the sacs and walk away, seeking aphids to catch with their long sticky tongues. I was fascinated,” she said. When she was ill and had to spend time in the school’s infirmary, she noticed Kniphofias (red hot poker plants) growing outside and attracting bright, multicolored sunbirds that hung on the stems seeking nectar. On Sunday afternoons, the students went walking in the forest on the of the Rift Valley among beautiful old cedar trees. She picked berries off bushes and searched for tadpoles in the streams, lingering in the woods in preference to having the ice cream treat offered at the end of the excursion.

Color massing in the Waterwise garden. Photo: Christa Watters

Color massing in the Waterwise garden. Photo: Christa Watters

Her education continued at several other schools and after finishing secondary school, she went to England, where she earned a BS in zoology and botany from Bristol University in 1964. In 1965 she added a certificate of education to her credentials, and upon returning to Kenya taught high school for three years. She was then hired to head the Education Section of the National Museum of Kenya, where, with the help of a wonderful Peace Corps volunteer, she started a school program, the Wildlife Clubs Anniversary celebration of Simpson Gardens in of Kenya. Through her work there she met another American Peace Corps volunteer, Robert Faden, who at the time was based at the East African Herbarium on the grounds of the museum. Their courtship included a lot of trekking around the wild places of Kenya in search of rare plants, often in rather adventurous circumstances. They married in 1971 and the following year moved to St. Louis, where Robert earned his doctorate at Washington University. Audrey volunteered at the Missouri Botanical Garden and joined a group of artists. In the mid-1970s the couple traveled extensively, collecting plants in Sri Lanka, Africa, and Mexico. They moved to Chicago in 1976 for Robert’s work as a botanist. Between 1978 and 1986 Audrey led photographic natural history safaris to East Africa for the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and the Field Museum of Natural History. Between trips she continued to paint, selling many of her wildlife pictures.

In 1980, the Fadens moved to Alexandria. Robert worked at the Smithsonian Institution Department of Botany, and Audrey began volunteering there in the research greenhouse, maintaining Robert’s living plant collections of members of the Spiderwort family (the Commelinaceae), about which Robert is a renowned expert. During their fieldwork in Sri Lanka, Audrey discovered a new species, which Robert named for her: Murdannia audreyae.

Audrey became a Master Gardener in 1980, and worked in demonstration gardens in Arlington. Over the years, she and Robert also created wonderful gardens in their yard in Alexandria’s Del Ray section. In 1993, she designed the Waterwise Demonstration Garden in front of the nearby Alexandria YMCA, and with the help of other Master Gardeners installed it. In 1995, she installed a public garden around the Del Ray Farmer’s Market, which she maintained for many years. From 1998 to 1999, she designed further demonstration gardens behind the Alexandria Y at Simpson Park on top of an old roadbed. She and a team of other Master Gardeners and local residents installed the gardens, turning an arid and ugly wasteland into a beautiful and peaceful retreat from nearby traffic. The demonstration gardens include tufa rock gardens, raised berm beds, a scent garden, a butterfly garden and butterfly soak, a shaded bed, a small flagstone garden showing the use of locally available stones to form a pavement in the shape of a baseball diamond (an homage to nearby Simpson Field), specimen tree plantings, and a wide variety of native and non-native plants, including some that are quite rare. The gardens also demonstrate structural principles – the importance of paths, walls, vistas, and light in designing gardens. She continues to serve as the lead gardener of the Master Gardeners who volunteer there to this day.

Over the years, the Fadens, with help from Del Ray neighbors, planted up the area surrounding the back YMCA parking lot with a great variety of woody plants. In 1999 the Alexandria Commission for Women honored Audrey with its Cultural Affairs Award for her work in the city’s gardens. In May 2013, she and Robert were honored for their garden work by the North American Rock Garden Society at its annual meeting in North Carolina.

Audrey has always loved to travel, including visiting relatives in Australia. “The thing that I loved was to see the wildflowers and the wild animals and where they lived.” And as for gardening, “I always loved the unusual plants and the small details.” That love still shows at Simpson, where the small tufa bed is filled with tiny Alpine plants that happily grow in and around the artfully arranged tufa rock.

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All photos were taken by Christa Watters at Simpson Park Garden.

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