When Judi Meyer expressed interest in a tiny house in East Sandwich, her son told her she was crazy. “We were driving by, and I saw the ‘For Sale’ sign,” Meyer recalls. “I said, ‘Let’s pull in here!’ and so we stopped.” Despite her son’s lack of enthusiasm, there was something about this small, older cottage and its bare landscape that called to her.
Originally built in 1948, the cottage was dubbed “The Doll House” by the builder – and with good reason. The house Meyer stumbled upon just off Route 6A has only 314 square feet of living space. “When I first saw it,” Meyer remembers, “I said to my son, ‘This is exactly what I want.’”
Although Meyer had previously lived in Sandwich for 30 years, owning two large houses there in that time, she had moved to Florida in 2003 and wasn’t intending to purchase another Cape property. But life has a way of altering our plans, and in Meyer’s case, an illness was what brought her back to the Northeast.
Shortly after moving to Florida, Meyer learned her breast cancer had returned. “After the diagnosis, I knew I would come to Massachusetts General Hospital for my treatments,” she says. “The treatments would last for over a year, so I realized I was in for the long haul. I also found out that I’d need more surgery, so I felt that I needed something to keep myself busy while staying close to Mass General.”
After finalizing the sale of the property in the spring of 2004, there was a great deal to keep Meyer occupied in East Sandwich, working both inside the house and on the property surrounding it. At that time the landscaping was what many people call “Cape Cod natural.” Bare areas of sandy soil contained a sparse patchwork of mosses and scruffy grasses. These were mixed with leaves and needles from the native oak and pine trees that ringed the just under one-acre parcel. “The former owners told me that nothing would grow there,” Meyer recalls. Yet it was precisely this bare canvas that called to her. “I thought it was perfect,” she says. “I told everyone that I was buying this place so that I could work on the gardens.”
In the years since she purchased “The Doll House,” Meyer has been cultivating and renovating, with the help of Ron Browning, her partner and companion of 12 years. Inside, the tiny house needed updating. “I raised the ceiling in the living room and kitchen,” Meyer reveals. “We had to take out the linoleum and refinish the pine flooring. We added another exit door, since there was initially only one front door that went out of the house.”
Although improvements were made, Meyer maintained the summer-cottage look that suits the small, shingled home so well. “I have kept the house eclectic,” she says, “and a bit funky with a Cape Cod feeling.”
As a counter-balance to the tiny cottage, the vast yard represented transformational opportunities to Meyer. She began working on the gardens one area at a time. “I started in the front where the wishing well is,” she remembers. “I put in a small fish pond there, and each spring I’d pick a new area to work on.” Moving from section to section, she has planted shrubs, vines, and many perennials over the years.
The gardens are quite shady, which is something that Meyer and Browning appreciate. The yard is cooler in the heat of the summer, and the plants do better during periods of drought. The palette of shrubs and perennials that thrive in the shade is smaller than what would grow in brighter areas, but Meyer has found a number of plants that thrive with less sun.
“I grow hosta, ferns, and foxglove,” Meyer says, “and I have many hydrangeas through the yard that have beautiful pale blue flowers.” A vine that does especially well in her shady landscape is the Hydrangea petiolaris. “I love my climbing hydrangeas,” she says. “They are covered with hundreds and hundreds of big white beautiful flowers every year.”
A small area of lawn thrives in the front yard, which is sunnier, while in the rear of the property crushed clamshells and pine needles provide regionally appropriate paths and flooring around outdoor furniture and the shed. This outbuilding was once used for tools but has since been converted into a guest space and wine bar. Although there is no bathroom in the shed, there’s an outdoor shower off of the cottage, which Meyer says is enjoyed every day.
Indeed, every part of this yard has features that invite outdoor living and appreciation of the gardens. There is a covered porch along the rear of the house, wooden lawn chairs, and a picnic table in the back. A hot tub and small deck are positioned to one side while in the center of the backyard a living area welcomes rest and reflection with comfortable chairs and tables.
Meyer and Browning pay constant attention to the creation and maintenance of their home and landscape. “Ron and I work on the house and gardens every day, and he does much of the heavy lifting,” Meyer says.
Every year the couple readdresses each of the beds and separate living areas, keeping the weeds at bay and adding new plantings. In addition to the established beds, the garden is punctuated by a plethora of containers that showcase an assortment of colorful annuals.
Meyer says that she frequently will spend about five hours a day in the garden, and it’s clearly a labor of love. “I have some professional landscapers to help once a week for lawn care and spring and fall cleanup,” she says, “but Ron and I do the rest.”
Meyer and Browning might put great effort into this small property, but they also spend hours relaxing and enjoying what they’ve created. In addition to appreciating the gardens from the wine bar and hot tub, they can often be found in their outdoor living room, which they illuminate in the evenings with candles. “I’ve enjoyed burning candles my whole life,” Meyer explains. “Ron and I both love candles, and we light them every night no matter where we are. We’ve been lighting candles every evening since the beginning of our time together on Cape Cod.”
The romantic atmosphere created by the glowing gardens often draws in neighbors walking by. Meyer says that there are many people who make it a point to stroll by in the evenings because the spot is so charming.
So the garden that was started as a distraction from her cancer treatments has become a landscape where life is constantly being celebrated. “I’d say that this garden was crucial to my healing,” Meyer remarks. “It gave me something to look forward to when I got up every day. To be out there in the dirt was a big part of my recovery. Now, it’s just a peaceful, beautiful place to be.”
A resident of Sandwich, C.L. Fornari is an author, a radio host and self-described “joyously, out-of-control plant person.”