What Is Cape Cod Landscaping?

Blu hydrangeas blooming next to a grey weathered Cape Cod house

Joe Shlabotnik / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Cape Cod, Massachusetts has a look like nowhere else in the world. The combination of older architecture (many homes are single story houses), ocean reflections of sunrise and sunset, and traditional colors seen on building exteriors create a look that most people recognize immediately. Cape Cod also has a distinctive look to its gardening landscapes. Learn about the classic Cape Cod garden looks and includes suggestions on how to achieve them at home.

History of Cape Cod Landscaping

The New England landscape was not welcoming to the English settlers when they first arrived. The cold winters and lack of agricultural crops meant hunger and hardship. Early structures favored simple but durable building styles, and some houses on Cape Cod date from these early settlements of the late 17th century.

To withstand the ocean winds, which can be harsh in winter, houses in Cape Cod were often built to rest comfortably and unobtrusively in the landscape, with small woodlands situated close by to lessen wind damage, or beachside houses nestled behind dunes and at a safe distance from high tide lines. This care in placement also was meant to highlight the natural beauty of the Cape Cod shoreline.

The basic design of a Cape Cod house (this is a common style of architecture throughout the Northeast United States) is a single story home with a pitched gabled roof (allowing for a small attic space), usually a central chimney, and very little in the way of ornamentation. The exteriors were wooden shingle or clapboard, and over time, weather turned this wood a soft grey color, a classic look very much associated with Cape Cod. The only spots of color would be on shutters or doors, but paint colors were limited. Even now, homeowners who decide to paint the wood exteriors of their homes choose a neutral grey to echo that weathered wood look. The clean lines of a Cape house mean that landscaping is usually simple and minimal also. But the neutral colors mean that garden colors are often bright and vibrant. Maybe that's why the bright blooms of hydrangeas are so popular.

Pink climbing roses spilling over low fence in front of weathered shingle house
These pink climbing roses lend bright color to contrast with the weathered wood of this Cape Cod home. Melissa Tyler /Flickr/ CC BY 2.0
pale aqua and weathered wood cottage with pink climbing roses and white fence
This charming cottage in Provincetown has bright pink climbing roses that pop in front of the pale aqua painted shingles. Dennis J Weeks / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
weathered wood fence and gate in front of formal garden and lawn
This Provincetown garden has a gorgeous balance of formal shaped shrubs and sculpture with classic Cape Cod elements like the stone wall and the weathered wooden gate. Kathy Collett / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Cape Cod Paving Styles

Cape Cod landscaping typically uses naturally occurring or available materials, so you'll see plenty of natural stone paving materials such as brick, slate or blue stone. Sandy soil can be handy for laying pavers as it's easy to make level. Narrow spaces that are hard to garden in can become small paved areas with a few choice plants, creating small micro garden spaces. A small patio area can be edged with container gardens, benches can be added for observing seasonal views, and cottage gardens with pollinators are seen frequently, perfect for the Cape's nature-loving community and its diverse ecosphere.

Brickwalkway in narrow alley next to cottage with weathered grey shingles, with shade plants
This brick walkway has subtle colors that echo the weathered wood clapboards of this house; the shade plants lend low maintenance beauty to a tight space. peribasel / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Water Features

Since Cape Cod is surrounded by water, which attract many visitors and residents, and because space is at a premium, swimming pools are not commonly seen. But the tendency to be creative in designing garden spaces means many unusual water features can be seen, utilizing statuary and found art objects.

A small water feature with rocks and Barbie dolls posed on them and a large flamingo.
This delightful water feature reflects two emblems of Provincetown gay culture: Barbie dolls and flamingos. Oh, P-town, never change. Claude Desjardins / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Hydrangeas

Cape Cod is associated with hydrangeas, especially blue ones. While many gardeners in the Northeast find macrophylla hydrangeas challenging to grow successfully, they flourish on the Cape due to its suitable hardiness zone (they need minimum of 6) and alkaline soil (because of ocean salt) which makes the flowers bright blue. Also, small gardening spaces mean these shrubs are often planted next to houses or fences which gives them extra protection in winter and ensures the buds are less likely to freeze in a harsh winter.

The classic blue hydrangeas are usually 'Nikko Blue,' a hardy classic, but some lace cap varieties are also blue. Of course, blue hydrangeas feature a range of beautiful color from pale to bright blue that then shifts to shades of purple and mauve. Soil additives can affect the color and encourage deeper blues or pinks. The 'Bloomstruck' hydrangeas provide a stunning range of color, fading to a deep rich burgundy. Paniculata varieties like Limelight or Pee Gee are even hardier (to Zone 3!), as are oakleaf hydrangeas, so these are often seen on the Cape in spots where there's not as much protection from the cold.

Huge blue blooming hydrangea shrubs
These mature blue blooming hydrangeas are a signature look for a classic Cape Cod garden. Jen Bowles / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
hydrangea blooming in shades of pink, blue and purple
A sumptuous explosion of color: blues, pinks and purples at the same time! Claudia Daggett / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0
pastel blue and purple hydrangeas in front of weathered shingle house
Provincetown's narrow streets don't always leave room for large front garden beds; these gorgeous pastel-toned hydrangeas spill over onto the sidewalk Norbert Chi / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Other Plants to Include

Beach home gardeners with a bit of space may want to grow clumps of beach grasses; they're suitable for very sandy soils and will provide good wind barriers. Because most of the sunlight on Cape Cod will be morning sun, plants needing large amounts of bright sunlight will not flourish as well as those needing partial sun or shade. This is a plus because the morning sun in late and summer will never get too harsh for tender blooming plants such as peonies or roses. In fact roses tend to do very well on Cape Cod, and many properties feature climbing roses to create an inviting cottage garden look, and to make maximum use of space. Big robust rugosa roses are often seen closer to the beach, and are called "beach roses" by the locals. Clematis vines are another way to create vertical color, and their need for sun on the flowers but shade on their roots makes them a good choice for narrow Cape Cod spaces.

Hot pink climbing roses growing on side of weathered shed
This charming shed in Brewster, MA on Cape Cod has a gorgeous tumble of climbing roses, a great use of vertical space Don Thomas / Flickr / CC by SA-2.0

Making the Most of Small Spaces

Cape Cod is a narrow peninsula of land. Its towns are small; the houses are small, the streets are narrow, and many properties are tiny because space is at a premium, especially in towns attracting many summer visitors like Provincetown. Garden design must make the most of small or narrow spaces. Filling in with ground covers, or planting a cottage garden with an abundance of plants, can help create satisfying garden spaces without needing too much room. Many gardeners also enjoy using window boxes (found on many Cape Cod houses) and containers. Provincetown is the home of a famous artists' colony, and many artists live there year round, so many gardens reflect this artistic energy and creative use of space.

Using found or salvaged materials is also a good way to utilize a small space: old pieces of iron fencing or driftwood can be fashioned into great trellis supports for roses, clematis or beans. This aesthetic is very much part of the thrifty New Englander look one sees in the Northeast, where reusing and recycling garden materials is common. Though some parts of the Cape are seen as somewhat exclusive these days, the simple, creative gardens echo the region's humble beginnings.

Narrow backyard edged by cottage garden and containers of flowers behind Cape Cod house
This bright and sunny narrow yard in Provincetown uses cottage garden style plantings and pollinators for maximum impact. The wildlife are welcome. Sly Ly / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Window box and hanging flowers in corner and deep red and white Cape Cod house
This small space in Provincetown is chock full of flowers, with tall perennials, a charming window box and a hanging planter. Ama Rose 61 / Flickr / CC BY 2.0 
crowded cottage garden in front of a house with pine trees
This cottage garden in Provincetown uses nearly all available space; obviously a gardening enthusiast lives here. 4NitSirk / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0