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, muted colors on building exteriors create a look that most people recognize immediately. Cape Cod also has a distinctive look to its garden designs. Learn about the classic look of Cape Cod gardens and how to achieve that look in your own garden.
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 at a safe distance from high tide lines. Locating structures in this manner maintains the natural beauty of the Cape Cod shoreline.
The basic design of a Cape Cod style house ( 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.
Home exteriors are usually wooden shingle or clapboard, and over time, weather turns the wood a soft grey color, a classic look very much associated with Cape Cod. The only hint of color is usually on shutters and doors in a limited palette of paint colors. Even today, 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 Cod style house mean that landscaping is usually simple and minimal. 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.
Cape Cod Paving Styles
Cape Cod landscaping typically uses natural materials, so you'll see plenty of stone paving materials such as brick, slate, or bluestone. 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.
Cape Cod is surrounded by water, which attracts many summer vacationers as well as permanent residents. Because space is at a premium on most home properties, swimming pools are not a common amenity. But the tendency to be creative in small garden spaces results in many gardens including water features with statues and other decorative elements
Cape Cod is associated with hydrangeas; they are everywhere. While many gardeners in the northeast US find hydrangea macrophylla (the mophead hydrangea) challenging to grow successfully, they flourish on the Cape due to its suitable climate. Gardening in small spaces means that 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 be damaged by a harsh winter or unexpected spring freeze.
The 'Nikko Blue' hydrangea is a hardy blue classic, and some lacecap varieties are also blue. Blue hydrangeas feature a range of beautiful colors from pale to bright blue that might change to shades of purple.
Soil pH can affect bigleaf hydrangea bloom color. The BloomStruck series of big leaf hydrangeas provide a stunning range of colors. Panicle hydrangeas (hydrangea paniculata) varieties like 'Limelight' are quite cold hardy (to USDA Cold Hardiness Zone 3), as are oakleaf hydrangeas, so they are often seen on the Cape in locations where there's not as much protection from the cold.
Other Plants to Include
In small home gardens near the ocean, you'll usually see clumps of beach grasses growing. They're suitable for very sandy soils and block strong winds.
Roses tend to grow 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. Bigger robust rugosa roses are often seen growing closer to the beach and are known as beach roses by the locals.
Clematis vines are another way to create vertical color and interest, and their need for sun on their foliage but shade on their roots makes them a good choice for narrow Cape Cod spaces.
Making the Most of Small Spaces
Cape Cod is a somewhat narrow peninsula of land. Its towns are small; the older homes tend to be small, the streets can be narrow, and many properties are tiny because space is at a premium, especially in towns attracting many summer visitors like Provincetown.
Garden designs on the Cape 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.
Many Cape Cod gardeners also design window boxes and container gardens filled with an array of colorful annual and perennial plants where space is at a premium. Provincetown is home to a famous artists' colony, and the gardens of many year-round artists reflect their artistic energy and creative use of space.
Using reclaimed or salvaged materials is also an environmentally-aware way to decorate 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 gardener, 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.