Hydrangea Heaven

A three-acre garden in Sesuit Neck showcases six varieties of the quintessential Cape Cod flower.

By Debra Lawless • Photography by Betty Wiley

For one East Dennis couple, nothing says “Cape Cod” better than hydrangeas. The pair have planted more than 250 hydrangeas in their colorful, three-acre garden. “I wanted to go out in our yard and pick a bouquet,” the homeowner says. “And it kept expanding.”

Hydrangeas, which are native to Asia, have been gaining popularity throughout the country in recent years because their gorgeous, long-lasting blooms are suitable for cutting and drying. Hydrangeas are also closely associated with Cape Cod. Author Joan Harrison, founding president of the Cape Cod Hydrangea Society, calls hydrangeas “the quintessential flower for the Cape Cod garden.”

Hydrangeas are, of course, perfect for displaying in a bouquet or as a single bloom, which is one of the reasons this homeowner loves them. Today, a deep purple mophead hydrangea blossom adorns a wicker table on her farmer’s porch.

The owners, whose winter home is in West Hartford, Conn., bought this Sesuit Neck property in the fall of 2007. They have known the town well for 40 years because the owner’s in-laws live nearby.

Sesuit Neck is a neighborhood blissfully not on the way to anywhere, and an ideal spot to showcase hydrangeas. Separated from the rest of East Dennis by Sesuit Harbor and Sesuit Creek, nestled between Cape Cod Bay and marshes springing from the creek, it forms its own little community by the water. In the 19th century, Asa Shiverick’s Shipyard was home to a schooner-building business on the harbor. The shipyard is long gone, and the harbor now boasts a marina, a yacht club and a café, and is frequented by recreational boaters.

The owners’ charming Cape-style house is set well off the road at the end of a clamshell drive. Sweet window boxes of petunias and bacopa add to the feeling of the cottage garden. Here, too, is a juniper topiary surrounded by lavender.

Two years after buying the house, the couple bought the lot next door, bringing the property up to three acres. “That was all woods,” the owner says, pointing to the western half of the property. “We selected which trees to keep.”

“We must have had 200 trees taken out,” her husband adds. “It was an absolute mess.” The result of their labors is a gemlike private park with a rolling lawn, old pines that cast deep shadows on the grass, hydrangeas in six varieties, roses, rose of Sharon, lavender and perennials. Today, the two lots are seamlessly united by the owner’s garden design.

Yellow is a predominant color of early spring, and the garden wakes up when the daffodils bloom. They are soon joined here by lilacs, blue salvia, allium, yellow day lilies, hostas, catmint, peonies, irises, dogwoods and Munstead English lavender.

“I put lavender wherever I can,” the owner says. “I love it so.”

By July, the hydrangeas are in full swing, giving this garden tremendous curb appeal. Running along the street is a long, low wall made of irregular stones. Layers of bright hydrangeas in blue and white banked behind the wall are so stunning that tour buses stop here and encourage their passengers to photograph the hydrangeas.

“They’re all very friendly. It’s flattering,” the homeowner says about the tourists. “When the hydrangeas are in full bloom, they just want to take pictures.”

Some of the oakleaf hydrangeas tower over the wall and, with pine trees behind them, create a living privacy barrier. The stonewall continues up the driveway, with hydrangeas and red roses creating a beautiful contrast to the stone.

The couple has two married daughters and three grandchildren. With their extended family nearby, gatherings here can grow to upwards of 16 people on a summer day. And like a well-designed house with living spaces for different uses, the gardens offer spaces for various activities. While the grandkids might play tag on the lawn, the middle generation might relax by the pool. The older generations might enjoy refreshments on the side patio as the evening draws in.

“We use it mainly for family,” the owner says. “We’re the place for family gatherings.”

The owner refers to one area as “the circle,” a lovely shaded patio set in the grass. Here, seated in Adirondack chairs, she and her husband sometimes sip glasses of wine as the afternoon shadows lengthen on the lawn. Today on the wicker table between the chairs is a vase of Annabelle hydrangeas. White tubs of pink New Guinea impatiens flank the blue stone entrance to the circle.

On the far side of the house, the pool is surrounded by a double flank of ornamental grasses and hydrangeas, with the hydrangeas planted behind the ornamental grasses. Hydrangea macrophylla, the beautiful blue mophead hydrangeas so characteristic of Cape Cod, generally bloom by the Fourth of July, before the grasses have reached their full height. By the time the grasses are fully grown, the hydrangeas have passed their peak, and the eye is drawn to the grasses undulating in the wind.

Near the pool was a basketball court, shielded from the top of the driveway by arbor vitae. The owners are repurposing the hard concrete pad of the basketball court to serve as the foundation of their new outdoor kitchen. The focal point is a large stone hearth. A dining room table to seat 14, marble countertops, a grill, and an overhead structure to keep off the rain complete the room. “We want to extend our living space, we want to tie it in with the pool,” the owner says. “Most of the time we’re outside anyway.”

In the fall, the leaves of the oakleaf hydrangeas, one of only two species of hydrangea native to the U.S., will turn a leathery mahogany red. By now, the ornamental grasses, too, have tasseled. The sedum autumn joy has turned from the color of broccoli to a rusty red. The final show in this garden will be at Christmas, when the owner strings lights on the towering fir tree near the house.

And then, when the garden goes dormant, it will be time to dream of next summer’s hydrangeas.

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