In a favorite family photograph, Nancy Riley is smiling, basket in hand, in the secret garden behind her Berwick home. The perennials around her are thriving — fittingly so, given the plants’ role in the business and family life she cultivated on the property.

Mrs. Riley died Sunday at age 59 after a battle with ovarian cancer. She leaves behind not only the beauty of the gardens she tended around her home, but the lessons they helped her impart.

For 29 years, Mrs. Riley ran Cottage Herbs out of her family’s home. She started out gathering wild perennials from roadsides, with her then-young children in the car. She sold dried flowers and crafts she fashioned out of the plants.

As the business expanded, she started growing her own plants in the cellar, in a greenhouse and in fields on the property. Additions were built to accommodate the shop and classroom space.

She shifted the focus of the business to quilting after being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 1995.

Mrs. Riley’s husband, Kevin, and their two children played large roles in the business. The family — along with the pets — would often be outside transplanting the perennials from greenhouse to field or harvesting plants to dry.

It was hard work, but a family project that was also fun, said the couple’s daughter, Kari Brodie of Clovis, N.M.

She recalled how she and her brother, Kristopher Riley, now of Sanford, would weed the long rows on the acre-sized fields.

Their mother would inspect their work to make sure they had earned their $3 — one of her ways of instilling them with a strong work ethic and a sense of responsibility.

”It made us who we are today,” Brodie said.

The Rileys would have marked their 40th anniversary in August.

During their first meeting, Kevin Riley teased his future wife, saying he might take her out if she played her cards right. When they ran into each other again, she pulled a deck of cards from her purse and asked how they would do.

The couple settled on the Berwick property in 1977.

It was a run-down farm with a house originally built in the 1700s, but Kevin Riley saw that it had acreage and potential for what they could build there together.

Kevin Riley had grown up on a farm, and he had nicknamed his wife ”Little Country Mouse” because of her welcoming nature, creativity and industriousness.

”Everyone loved being here. We always said we took in all the strays,” Brodie said. ”The door was never locked. It was ‘Come in, help yourself to the fridge.’ ”

The shop, housed in a big barn with a wood stove, served as a retreat for the ladies who patronized the business.

The family house was a gathering place for friends.

”She just touched so many people. She was the real deal — really,” Brodie said. ”She’s going to be greatly missed.”

 

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: [email protected]