Seaside Garden Tour
Hydrangeas Galore and More
Imagine seaside gardens where huge blue flowers echo the colors of ocean and sky. On Cape Cod, these mophead hydrangeas are everywhere. It is not surprising that blue Hydrangea macrophylla shrubs are the Cape’s signature plant. In midsummer, Cape gardens are overflowing with them, often accompanied by bright pink shrub roses, yellow and coral daylilies, and crisp white daisies.
Helen McVeigh’s property, which she calls “My Dream,” has all of these plants and many more. McVeigh opens her flower-filled gardens to the public once a year in July, during the Cape Cod Hydrangea Festival. This year, the festival runs from July 8 through 17 and includes more than 75 open gardens from Falmouth to Provincetown, Massachusetts. All sizes and types of private landscapes are open to the public for $5 per person at each garden. Visitors to these properties will find design ideas, new plant suggestions, and inspired color combinations that might be used in their own landscapes.
McVeigh’s garden features a series of highly ornamented outdoor rooms. Blue glass fishing floats hang from a maple tree, stone fountains and orbs are tucked throughout perennial beds, and everywhere are fancy birdhouses built by McVeigh’s partner, Bobby Hallstein.
When McVeigh and Hallstein first got together, he was building birdhouses that were reproductions of historical Cape buildings. “I showed him some Victorian-style birdhouses I’d seen at a flower show, and he said, ‘I could do something like that,’” McVeigh says. He built them and she painted them white.
Many of Hallstein’s houses sit along a white picket fence that surrounds McVeigh’s “Bodacious Cutting Garden.” This area is packed with brightly colored zinnias, pink roses, and an assortment of dahlias. The white petals of Shasta daisies in this flower bed echo the bright white fences, birdhouses, buildings, and plant support finials. In the front yard, white lawn chairs sit near a row of blue Endless Summer hydrangeas. The extensive use of white unifies all of McVeigh’s gardens.
Classic coastal color combinations such as blue, yellow, and white fill her landscape. The border that stretches along McVeigh’s Victorian-style greenhouse is planted with blue salvia, yellow marigolds, and white alyssum. These annuals are traditional seaside garden plants, honoring the sky, sun, and white crests of breaking waves.
McVeigh includes touches of whimsy in these outdoor rooms as well. In the backyard, an island bed planted with a collection of hostas and dwarf conifers contains a tiny, almost hidden village of stone fairy houses. From most vantage points you cannot see this elfin environment; it is only when you walk around the bed that the miniature town is revealed.
Barbara Spillane, whose perennial gardens overlook a cranberry bog in Marstons Mills, makes good use of assorted foliage textures and colors and shows how leaf color can provide as much beauty as flowers. In the front yard a lacecap hydrangea with coarse, round, green leaves contrasts with a nearby weeping blue atlas cedar and a finely textured, gold threadleaf false cypress.
A mix of perennials, shrubs, and native plants carpets the steep slope behind Spillane’s Cape Cod shingled house, making a smooth visual transition to the surrounding woodland. Low junipers cover the ground under a group of indigenous sweet fern shrubs, and the bed is punctuated with exclamation points of tall blazing star flowers.
While some gardeners prepare for a garden tour by putting in extra annuals, adding overflowing containers of flowers, or creating special vignettes, others use a tour as motivation for long-desired cleanup, mulching, or pruning. A few, however, take a more relaxed, “come as we are” approach.
Sheila Garry, a professional gardener on Cape Cod, belongs to the last group. Instead of making a garden you can see all at once, she divides her yard into small spaces so you have to peek around corners to discover what is there. Garry also uses ornamentation to give the gardens a subtle sense of place. A seashell planted with succulents sits on the edge of a retaining wall, a school of ceramic fish swim on the shingles by the front door, and a garden is edged with a collection of ocean-smoothed stones.
Most of the Garrys’ half-acre property is gardened so there is very little turf. “My husband always comments that he doesn’t have a lawn,” Garry says. “He just has a lot of things that he mows around.”
Whereas most homeowners cultivate grass between their house and the street, Garry has a shrub border for privacy, a small water garden, and an assortment of perennials. The lot is small and informally planted, with a bench where she and her husband can sit and watch wildlife approach the yellow yarrow, orange butterfly weed, and golden black-eyed Susans.
“The front yard is the part of our property that has the most sun so it made sense to put the flower garden there,” Garry explains. “This is the area I walk through every time I go from my house to my car, and I like to experience my plants up close and personal. I get that daily involvement with this placement.”
As a professional, Garry knows that many of her clients want to have large plants installed, but as a gardener she has seen that sometimes the more diminutive plants do better. “I don’t like plants that are too fussy,” she says, “but I’m willing to try anything that works. I’m also willing to start small. I think that’s part of my success is that I don’t start out with big plants. And frankly, I enjoy watching the plants take root, grow, and develop over time.”
Additionally, Garry appreciates sharing her love of plants and gardening. “I love talking about gardening because it’s my passion. I love all aspects and seasons of it.”
Garry’s passion and creativity shines in her gardens. Last summer, she spray-painted Allium seed heads in brilliant colors and inserted their dried stems into hostas. “That was fun,” Garry says. “People thought the hostas had these colorful, unusual flowers. They asked me where they could buy such a plant!”
Whether it is using painted seedpods to add color to a shade bed or displaying vintage lighthouses for porch décor, the Cape Cod Hydrangea Festival is like a Pinterest page come to life. This tour is also the place to discover new hydrangea varieties such as BloomStruck, a repeat-blooming blue macrophylla with purplish stems, and Bobo, a dwarf paniculata with large white flowers.
So make a weekend of it, and enjoy this crash course in garden design and inspiration. Walk through living art forms where the plants, architecture, embellishments, and surroundings work together to create an awareness of the region and a sense of place. Thanks to festivals, open garden days, and the gardeners who share their landscapes, wandering down these garden paths enrich all who visit.
Click here for a select listing of 2016 Seaside Garden Tours.