There is an element of artistry to landscape design that goes far beyond botanical knowledge and technical expertise. Distinctive artistic vision is what makes a designer’s work special—especially in the crowded landscape field on Cape Cod.
When you meet her, you know right away that Maria Hickey is not your typical landscape designer. She looks more like an interior decorator, or maybe the owner of an eclectic art gallery with perfect make-up, a mane of long blond hair, and sculpted nails. When clients first see her on a project—up to her elbows in dirt, a bandana tied around her hair—they often don’t recognize her.
This is a woman who runs her own business providing full-service design, construction, and maintenance services to more than 50 high-end customers on Cape Cod with the precision of a corporate executive. Her cell phone rings often with questions from her staff in the field. The workers send along photos of each project to be sure that Maria’s famous vision is coming to life with accuracy and efficiency—but most of all, with beauty.
Since childhood summers spent with a big family in the seaside haven of Menahaunt, Hickey has been a sponge for Cape Cod’s natural world. “One of my earliest memories is of the scent of rose petals from my grandfather’s Cape garden,” says Hickey, whose childhood surroundings also featured the family’s perennial and vegetable gardens. One of her aunts was a famous author and botanist, Ann Buckley. “When I was a little girl, I would follow her on garden walks. She gave me a notebook to write down all the botanical names of the plants.”
Hickey—whose specialty is exquisite English cottage gardens such as the one she designed for the entrance to Heritage Museums and Gardens in Sandwich—came to landscape design by way of an unusual route. She took some design courses in college, but economic circumstances led her to a successful career in financial services, followed by marriage and motherhood.
It was when she was pregnant with her first son that she realized landscape design was her true calling. “At 28 weeks, I had a pulmonary embolism,” says Hickey. “I had to spend three months in intensive care, lying on my back. I had a lot of time to think.” For several years she was a stay-at-home mom of two young sons, directing her considerable creative and entrepreneurial energies into her children, the natural Cape Cod world around her, and into the Falmouth Garden Club.
“I started to create all these gardens and stone walls at the same house I still live in on Blacksmith Shop Road,” says Hickey. “Friends would say, ‘Can you come and do that at my house?’ So I would do their gardens and then I got heavily involved in the local garden club to fuel my passion.” Soon she was the club’s director of horticulture and then president, winning awards for her ideas, planting the seeds for her own company.
After a divorce, Hickey decided in 2005 to start her own company. “Soon I had people calling me from Penzance Point to Hyannisport, asking me to come and take care of their gardens. I did a lot of design work and it just snowballed,” she says. She studied under Robin Templar-Williams—a world-renowned British architect and lead judge of the Royal Horticultural Society—an experience that laid the groundwork for her widely recognized specialty in English cottage garden design.
In less than 10 years, Hickey’s company, Maria Hickey & Associates, has grown into a highly regarded full-service landscape design and maintenance company. In the summer months, the company employs a staff of 12, keeping a part-time staff of six busy throughout most of the year. Her projects have spanned a complete array of design and construction projects, including vegetable and kitchen herb gardens.
In January of 2013, her company won a Best of Houzz award for Landscape Design out of 124 million professional images submitted.
Hickey’s vision is expansive, encompassing entire properties with foundation plantings, patios, and stone walls, down to beautiful planters. Like an artist, she fills each canvas with signature colors, textures, and shapes given special distinction by creative whimsical touches that make each design unique for the individual client.
Since many of her customers own homes on the water, Hickey has become expert designing gardens that can endure—and provide all season color—despite harsh seaside conditions. “I am all about bringing in a lot of bloom, but 60 percent of our clients have tough seaside conditions, a lot of wind, exposure, and salt spray,” she says. “What we do is to design layers of plantings, starting with protective masses or structures, which are evergreens, and then we layer in the shrubs and flowers.”
Hickey explains that she often chooses blue-needled evergreens as the first “layer” of a garden. “Most people don’t know this, but the blue evergreens are twice as hardy,” she says, noting that one of her company’s specialties is working with local conservation commissions to plant native species in environmentally sensitive areas. She is a strong advocate of organic practices, believing in the importance of healthy soil enriched with lots of locally harvested soil amendments.
Such practices are a necessity for the health and strength of English cottage gardens featuring masses of flowers, such as stately Oriental lilies, cool blue spires of Agastache, bright masses of dahlias and colorful annuals that have become Maria Hickey’s signature. She laughs when she notes that the only problem with the Heritage garden is that people constantly pick all the beautiful flowers.
As she fields calls from her workers on a cold winter day, it is obvious that such artistry—combined with a desire to make the world around her more beautiful—is what really drives Maria Hickey. “I love to take either a clean slate or an existing garden and take it from drab to fab for the customer, adding in lots of color, fragrance, and beauty, to make it look like it’s timeless,” she says. “Regardless of a customer’s budget, we can work miracles. Every one of our projects is garden tour ready.”