Cape Cod’s gorgeous gardens
The Osterville Garden Club digs deep in five private and public locations for the 2018 Cape Cod Hydrangea Festival
The fourth annual Cape Cod Hydrangea Festival showcases the Cape’s most iconic flower for 10 days, July 6 through 15, when private gardens and public spaces throw open garden gates and welcome the general public to savor this quintessential summer bloomer.
From Bourne to Provincetown, nearly 100 pocket-sized backyard gardens, seaside landscapes, parks, public conservatories and more feature the versatile beauty of this acclaimed plant, now available in over 75 different varieties. The Hydrangea Festival offers a full tableau of hydrangeas, from elfin dwarfs like the vibrant blue ‘Tiny Tuff Stuff,’ to 6-foot trees such as the stately ‘Tardiva,’ covered with big, white, ice cream cone blossoms.
Behind the scenes of the Hydrangea Festival are hundreds of volunteers, including nonprofit and chamber of commerce professionals, homeowners, nursery pros, and too many Cape Cod garden club members to count.
The Osterville Garden Club is offering a full lineup of both private and public spaces for this year’s festival on Thursday, July 12 and Friday, July 13, including five properties emblematic of the event’s mission to highlight diverse Cape attractions. All festival garden locations are open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., rain or shine, and visitors pay a $5 entry fee at each garden.
Osterville Garden Club Hydrangea Festival co-chairs, Peggy Ginther and Sally Orcutt, chose a variety of gardens to attract both visitors and year-round Cape Codders. The gardens selected include two public and three private gardens in the Barnstable area.
“The two public gardens are treasures that need to be shared with the extended Cape Cod community,” says Orcutt. “Visitors will be amazed to see the dedication of the many people who have contributed to two special sites: the garden at Cobb Astro Park at Barnstable High School, and the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary in Cummaquid.”
Ginther enthusiastically extols the expertise of the club’s members that are hosting unique events in their private gardens, stating, “Centerville’s Linda Courteau has spent years propagating perennials and shrubs, including hydrangeas. Carolyn Lane’s Osterville oceanfront property showcases the effort of a horticultural expert, who starts many annuals and vegetables from seedlings. Susan Dewey’s beautiful and historic Centerville property features well-established shrub and perennial gardens and a hoop house, where she grows organic vegetables and flowers year-round.”
Hydrangeas thrive in coastal habitats, and Carolyn Lane’s stunning property, located on Osterville’s scenic West Bay, is a big attraction, with well-established and perfectly maintained border gardens overflowing with hydrangeas, roses and perennials. Longtime club member Lane—who says her favorite hydrangea is the diminutive, white ‘Little Lime’—has been lovingly tending her gardens for more than 50 years.
Lane, a true “hands in the dirt” gardener, starts many of her plants for her flower gardens from seed, relying on knowledge she gained as a young girl growing up on her family’s farm in Natick. “I just love starting plants from tiny seeds, taking care of each seedling in my greenhouse, planting it and watching it grow outside,” says Lane, who also shares her wealth of knowledge with budding garden club members in annual catalog research and seed-starting workshops.
A former teacher, Lane says that even before seeds are started inside for spring planting, gardeners of all stripes should learn the importance of giving tiny seedlings the best nurturing environment possible by “building” premier soil, especially in Cape Cod’s sandy (and sometimes clay-ridden) environment.
“I can’t say enough how important good soil is, especially on the Cape,” says Lane, who believes in the “sheet composting” method—the practice of layering spent garden material and kitchen scraps through the winter months, resulting in perfectly composted matter in the spring—rather than the more labor-intensive technique where compost is turned in a large mixer. Lane laughs when she describes her attempt to use such a machine, admitting that her former husband, Andy, “actually got a hernia” trying to crank garden waste into black gold. “Now I just let Mother Nature do the work,” Lane says.
In every corner of this oceanfront property, in one of Osterville’s most celebrated neighborhoods, there are horticultural beauties, including soaring flowering and hardwood trees, lilacs, deutzia, azaleas, rhododendron, roses, and yes, hydrangeas—climbing, shrub, dwarf and more.
The Cape Cod Hydrangea Festival has received worldwide attention due to several workshops and lectures being offered by the festival’s originator, the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. World-class gardening pros, like local guru and Heritage Hydrangea Curator Mal Condon and international horticultural expert Dr. Michael Dirr, will offer their valuable knowledge at Heritage Museums & Gardens’ lectures.
Several nonprofit and community organizations are hosting tours, such as the Osterville Garden Club installation at the Cobb Astro Park at Barnstable High School, a learning and growing space nestled in the school’s interior. Complementing the garden’s statuary celebrating Western civilization are several plantings, including the club’s installation of a terraced garden of shrubs and perennials, featuring nepeta (catmint), Shasta daisies, Asiatic lilies, and colorful annual plantings.
“These gardens are maintained by the club’s Civic Beautification Committee,” says committee chair Marlene Weir, noting that the garden club strives to make permanent horticultural improvements for public benefit with projects that create awareness of landscape design and gardening practices. “We hope that our work inspires the public to transform their own properties and that they will support public efforts to preserve nature.”
On the bay side of the Cape, the Osterville Garden Club lovingly maintains a Butterfly Mosaic Trail at the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Long Pasture location, which offers acres of wonders, including spectacular views of Cape Cod Bay, sandy beaches, wild flower meadows, woodland trails, farm animals, and an inventive children’s play area made of climbing tree stumps, tree limb bridges and balance beams. This Cape treasure should be on every visitor’s bucket list.
The garden club designed and installed the butterfly garden alongside the sanctuary’s antique farmhouse, where a wide variety of perennials and roses attract bees, birds and butterflies. Low-maintenance plantings are tended to monthly, during the growing season, by the club’s horticultural committee.
This garden was partially the brainchild of Osterville’s Irene Antkowiak, a dedicated volunteer who also works for Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. “A former garden club conservation chair, Linda Oberly, approached Wellfleet Bay and asked what our club could do in the Barnstable area,” Antkowiak recalls. “Wellfleet’s Bob Prescott suggested Long Pasture, which wasn’t even open to the public yet. After we designed it, we just started rototilling, getting rid of weeds, and putting down a lot of Sandwich’s Watt’s Turkey Farm manure. Many of the plants came from club members’ gardens.”
“Since serving as horticulture chair, I’ve found it is great to see these ladies in their jeans and gardening gloves and tackle this garden once a month in the growing season,” says Susan Dewey. “No task is too large—stubborn clumps of iris are dug up and divided, struggling anemones are lovingly transplanted, roses are pruned and shaped despite nasty thorns. These are real gardeners who contribute time and plants for the Cape’s greater good.”
Dewey’s gardens on Old Stage Road, surrounding a historic sea captain’s home in the charming oceanside village of Centerville, are also on the Hydrangea Festival tour. Perennial borders and well-established landscape plantings of specimen trees and shrubs include a sunny bed of lilies, salvia, heuchera, grasses, lady’s mantle, Shasta daisies and phlox, as well as a fish pond garden and a shade garden featuring numerous varieties of hosta and epimedium.
Hydrangeas are sprinkled around the property, including the much-loved macrophylla, or mophead, varieties such as ‘Nikko Blue’ and ‘Blue Billow’; delicate lacecaps; dwarf ‘Little Limes’; and tree varieties, including the paniculata ‘Tardiva.’
“Hydrangeas have endured in these gardens for almost 100 years, ever since my husband’s great grandmother first put a spade into the property’s soil in the early 1920s,” says Dewey. “Every year we do as much maintenance as we can; we cut back the largest dead canes, and try to keep all the different varieties blooming. During tough winters, like the one we endured in 2018, with drastic climatic swings, three nor’easters and more, hydrangeas can really suffer. But it takes a lot to kill a hydrangea. If gardeners take care to pick the right plant for the right place and water well, especially during planting, success should follow.”
Cape nursery professionals, like the ones at Country Garden in Hyannis (which is also a participating sponsor of the 2018 Hydrangea Festival) and Mahoney’s in Falmouth, are very skilled in hydrangea care and maintenance. Country Garden has recently constructed a shade pavilion protecting dozens of hydrangeas, many of which prefer to be out of the hot sun.
A second element of Dewey’s garden tour is her completely organic hoop house, where vegetables and flowers are grown year-round to nourish family members, garden club friends and local farmers’ market customers. “We grow winter-hardy vegetables such as spinach, kale, Swiss chard, arugula and other greens with solar power, and the invaluable help of our son Dan, who owns Dewey Gardens, an organic land care company,” Dewey says. “Hydrangea Festival visitors can come to our garden and learn how to grow winter and summer vegetables, including tomatoes, artichokes, leeks, cucumbers, beets and beans, as well as flowers, such as dahlias and zinnias.”
Hands-on gardening tips and in-depth propagation knowledge are showcased in the Osterville Garden Club’s final attraction—a charming, whimsical cottage landscape surrounding Linda Courteau’s home on Centerville’s Tomahawk Drive.
In every corner are horticultural specimens, including hundreds of shade- and sun-loving perennials and annuals, four-season shrubbery, mature trees with interesting bark, and a serene shade garden of winding paths with a comfortable bench for hot summer days. Sunny corners feature pots of fabulous dahlias, a passion of Courteau’s husband, who labored all spring in the couple’s greenhouse to provide festival visitors with some colorful showstoppers.
“We have a garden that reflects two personalities. My husband prefers to propagate dahlias, liking the challenges they present. He also likes to design flower pots, which he spreads throughout the yard,” says Courteau. “I like to propagate all plants. We used to have lots of annuals and perennials, but we have been working on converting our garden to one that senior citizens can maintain.”
Courteau says she and her husband have introduced cottage-size (4 to 5 feet tall) hydrangeas, rhododendron, azaleas and other shrubs to replace many perennials. “One of our favorite hydrangeas is the ‘Sumida No Hanabi’ variety, which translates into ‘fireworks over the Sumida river,’” she notes. “This is a lacecap variety, a beautiful light blue to white, and a late September bloomer because it takes longer to develop the flowers.”
This handful of Cape Cod gardens is a picture-perfect reflection of the splendors awaiting 2018 Cape Cod Hydrangea Festival visitors. As one Osterville Garden Club participant says, “Is there a Cape Cod garden anywhere that doesn’t contain these gorgeous specimens?” Hydrangeas just seem to love coastal New England’s sea breezes, sandy soil and moderate temperatures. There is a happy hydrangea out there for every gardener!
Susan Alden is a freelance writer, and avid gardener, who lives in Centerville.