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10 Garden Ideas to Steal from Provincetown on Cape Cod

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10 Garden Ideas to Steal from Provincetown on Cape Cod

August 20, 2020

A sandy, windswept spit of land might seem an unlikely place for a garden mecca. But at the very tip of Cape Cod is Provincetown, Massachusetts (or “P-town” as it’s affectionately known). In this tiny, outermost town, which for years served as a muse for artists such as Edward Hopper and Eugene O’Neill, residents defy sandy soil and postage-stamp-sized lots to create their own, more ephemeral, masterpieces.

As a lifelong Cape Codder, I leapt at the chance recently to spend a day touring some of Provincetown’s loveliest gardens with the designer who created them, my friend Tim Callis. Along the way, Tim shared a few tips about what makes these tiny gardens so expressive.

Photography by Justine Hand for Gardenista.

Graceful Hedges

In this West End garden, a cascading hedge of quince provides some privacy, but also artfully frames a neighboring home.
Above: In this West End garden, a cascading hedge of quince provides some privacy, but also artfully frames a neighboring home.

In Provincetown antique homes and cottages were built close, huddled together against the wind and waves, making hedges a must. But severe, horizontal lines are so unfriendly. Better to employ a graceful arch or fall of foliage, especially when your neighbor’s house is so pretty.

In this home for one of his East End clients, Tim created a permeable barrier between the studio and the main house and yard, by shaping a privet into a graceful curve and arch. The undulating hedge not only forms a dynamic backdrop for a vibrant bunch of native Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed Susans) and white Veronicastrum Alba, it also creates a sense of flow between the two structures.
Above: In this home for one of his East End clients, Tim created a permeable barrier between the studio and the main house and yard, by shaping a privet into a graceful curve and arch. The undulating hedge not only forms a dynamic backdrop for a vibrant bunch of native Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed Susans) and white Veronicastrum Alba, it also creates a sense of flow between the two structures.

Rounded Gates

At the home of Marty Davis and Alix Ritchie, an arched gate leads to a vegetable garden patch, its shape an echo of the peaked roof of the cottage beyond.
Above: At the home of Marty Davis and Alix Ritchie, an arched gate leads to a vegetable garden patch, its shape an echo of the peaked roof of the cottage beyond.

Provincetown is best enjoyed on foot or by bike. (Only the greenest of tourist would attempt to traverse those narrow, crowded streets by car!) Strolling the lanes and alleys, one gets a tantalizing glimpse over the many picket fences—which are pretty much de rigueur for Cape Cod—into the garden splendor beyond. Though traditional square gates are abundant, we also spotted a number of rounded gates, which have a less formal effect.

A rounded gate in this East End home complements the archways and curved path.
Above: A rounded gate in this East End home complements the archways and curved path.

Supersized Planters

On the rooftop deck of Ian Bruce and Craig Smith, Tim used an oversized Pennoyer Newman pot to create a dramatic planting, combining &#8\2\16;Viridian&#8\2\17; yew with more lush leaves and flowers. The assemblage complements both the vertical and horizontal lines of the architecture, while at the same time softens the austere lines of the house.
Above: On the rooftop deck of Ian Bruce and Craig Smith, Tim used an oversized Pennoyer Newman pot to create a dramatic planting, combining ‘Viridian’ yew with more lush leaves and flowers. The assemblage complements both the vertical and horizontal lines of the architecture, while at the same time softens the austere lines of the house.

Like many quaint Cape Cod towns, P-town could be in danger of coming across as a bit too precious. The opposite of cute, gigantic planters celebrate the village’s bolder side.

In this cool, shady courtyard of a West End home, Tim added some dramatic fire with layers of large coleus plants coupled with sweet potato vine.
Above: In this cool, shady courtyard of a West End home, Tim added some dramatic fire with layers of large coleus plants coupled with sweet potato vine.

Grasses As Privacy Screen

In the tiny front yards of P-town, Cape Cod&#8\2\17;s traditional privet hedges can feel like a wall, blocking light and breeze and making one feel hemmed in. In the West End residence of Ian Bruce and Craig Smith, Tim created a softer, more welcoming and dynamic screen with grasses—Calamagrostis &#8\2\16;Karl Foerster&#8\2\17; —which sway in the ocean breezes.
Above: In the tiny front yards of P-town, Cape Cod’s traditional privet hedges can feel like a wall, blocking light and breeze and making one feel hemmed in. In the West End residence of Ian Bruce and Craig Smith, Tim created a softer, more welcoming and dynamic screen with grasses—Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ —which sway in the ocean breezes.

Enfilade of Arches

In this East End home of a local poet, a wisteria archway leading off the street is echoed in the privet hedge toward the back of the yard.
Above: In this East End home of a local poet, a wisteria archway leading off the street is echoed in the privet hedge toward the back of the yard.
From the main gate, a curved path leads to a second archway to the back of the property.
Above: From the main gate, a curved path leads to a second archway to the back of the property.
The hedging between the two arches frames a more sheltered outdoor &#8\2\20;room,&#8\2\2\1; surrounded by a lush flower garden.
Above: The hedging between the two arches frames a more sheltered outdoor “room,” surrounded by a lush flower garden.

Hot & Cold Color Mixes

A detail of the oversized planter above shows how Tim mixed acid green sweet potato vines, and Plectranthus argentatus &#8\2\16;Silver Shield&#8\2\17; with pale pink verbena to create a vibrant, yet soothing summer palette.
Above: A detail of the oversized planter above shows how Tim mixed acid green sweet potato vines, and Plectranthus argentatus ‘Silver Shield’ with pale pink verbena to create a vibrant, yet soothing summer palette.
Grandma&#8\2\17;s favorite hues, updated! Purple petunias (&#8\2\16;Sky Blue&#8\2\17;) and coral verbena look fresh against hot and cool greens.
Above: Grandma’s favorite hues, updated! Purple petunias (‘Sky Blue’) and coral verbena look fresh against hot and cool greens.

Grapevine Shade

Grapes grow wild in the Cape&#8\2\17;s scrubby woodlands, so using their cultivar cousins to create shade is not as adventitious as you might think. Here grapevines are employed in a wilder manner to shade this sunny facade, belonging to Marty Davis and Alix Ritchie.
Above: Grapes grow wild in the Cape’s scrubby woodlands, so using their cultivar cousins to create shade is not as adventitious as you might think. Here grapevines are employed in a wilder manner to shade this sunny facade, belonging to Marty Davis and Alix Ritchie.
For a more classical approach, this East End home with a columned pergola of grapevines creates welcome shade and privacy.
Above: For a more classical approach, this East End home with a columned pergola of grapevines creates welcome shade and privacy.

Long, Lanky Yellows

Few would dare to work with the acid yellow of Patrinia, but against this chocolate door it really works. In this clamshell driveway, where this perennial self-seeds to wild effect, Tim paired Patrinia with fennel and oregano.
Above: Few would dare to work with the acid yellow of Patrinia, but against this chocolate door it really works. In this clamshell driveway, where this perennial self-seeds to wild effect, Tim paired Patrinia with fennel and oregano.
A minimal wisp of fennel provides a striking, whimsical complement to this restrained facade.
Above: A minimal wisp of fennel provides a striking, whimsical complement to this restrained facade.
&#8\2\16;Autumn Minaret&#8\2\17; is a late blooming daylily that grows to 68 inches tall.
Above: ‘Autumn Minaret’ is a late blooming daylily that grows to 68 inches tall.

Ivy Door Frame

On our way to one of Tim&#8\2\17;s gardens, we passed an ivy-framed doorway that has a cooling effect on a sun-bleach facade of a classical house.
Above: On our way to one of Tim’s gardens, we passed an ivy-framed doorway that has a cooling effect on a sun-bleach facade of a classical house.

Cascading Steps

Crowning the front steps of Ian Bruce and Craig Smith&#8\2\17;s house, exuberant Gomphrena provides a bit of Seussian whimsy. Below, Swan River Daisy and Torenia ground the arrangement as they cascade down the steps.
Above: Crowning the front steps of Ian Bruce and Craig Smith’s house, exuberant Gomphrena provides a bit of Seussian whimsy. Below, Swan River Daisy and Torenia ground the arrangement as they cascade down the steps.

In some P-town properties, the front step is all the outdoor real estate you have. Tim makes the most of them for his clients with a combination of planters and ground covers that create a more integrated look.

Stonecrop and Sempervivum enhance the rock-garden effect of the stone stairs of this West End home.
Above: Stonecrop and Sempervivum enhance the rock-garden effect of the stone stairs of this West End home.

For more of our favorite Cape Cod gardens, see Landscape Architect Visit: A Very American Garden on Cape Cod and Secret Garden: At Home with Marnie on Cape Cod.

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