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 in shutters or doors. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.