Stuck in a gardening rut? Try this trick!

Cape Cod Home  /  Spring 2019 /

Writer: Julie Craven Wagner / Photographer: Teagan Anne 

Stuck in a gardening rut? Try this trick!


Cape Cod Home  /  Spring 2019 /

Writer: Julie Craven Wagner / Photographer: Teagan Anne 

Endless Capabilities

Whether you are working with an endless expanse, or a small patch of possibility, a border garden can be the path that sets you free

In the 18th century, just as the American colonists were envisioning a new republic here in the states, across the ocean in their former homeland of Great Britain, a young and talented landscape gardener named Lancelot “Capability” Brown was embarking upon what would become a much-beloved style of gardening. Brown achieved the nickname “Capability” since he was often heard telling his clients that their gardens had great capabilities. His revolutionary vision balked at the formality previously prevalent in the English landscape and encouraged a less formal and restricted application of plant material. His style incorporated breaks in trees and shrubs to capture and frame a specific view, all the while achieving a more casual and flexible environment. Thus was born the concept of the border garden.

Most gardeners, whether they consider themselves to be novice or accomplished, have considered the capabilities that exist in their own landscapes. The luxury of space is perfect for the English style of the carefree, controlled chaos that defines a border garden, but a small, compact corner that is nestled at the stoop of a back door is also an ideal spot to indulge an inclination for a harmonious mass-planting of perennials. Wherever you decide to make the commitment, a border garden will delight, distract and distinctly define your passion for flowers.

Maria Hickey, owner of Maria Hickey & Associates in Falmouth, has been designing beautiful landscapes for decades, and says border gardens are one of her favorite elements to incorporate into her clients’ spaces. Each decision she makes in a space is marked by the thoughtful intention of a seasoned gardener and the passion of someone who truly enjoys transforming an outdoor space. A garden in North Falmouth is one shining example of her skills as both designer and gardener, with an outdoor space being revamped into an oasis for an ocean-loving homeowner.

“My motto is do it once, and do it right,” says Hickey. “If you have to hire someone to take care of your space, or when you sit down to relax all you can think about is the things that need to be fixed or taken care of, it defeats the purpose of a garden. So most of what we do is low-maintenance, because the whole goal is for people to enjoy their space.” While Hickey’s designs may be low-maintenance, they maintain a level of elegance and charm that in every way enhances the ease and comfort of the gardens she creates. This ability, and, more importantly, willingness, to harness the potential of a garden space certainly rivals that of “Capability” Brown. 

Hickey’s foremost inclination is to work with rather than against nature, enhancing instead of manipulating its original beauty in a way that complements the space she is working with. Her gardens often incorporate elegant curves and natural plantings. At this North Falmouth home, conservation efforts were at the forefront of the design. “Sometimes people are intimidated by conservation laws and the use of mitigation plants, but I work in curves and incorporate a lot of native perennials. It makes it more fluid,” explains Hickey, who worked with native perennials and low-growing shrubs to add natural pops of color to a sprawling landscape and a framework for a spectacular ocean view.

“A garden should make you feel you’ve entered privileged space—a place not just set apart but reverberant—and it seems to me that, to achieve this, the gardener must put some kind of twist on the existing landscape, turn its prose into something nearer poetry.”

Michael Pollan, “Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education”

Hickey explains how she carefully chose native plants to complement not only each other but also the home. “This project required approval by the town’s conservation board, often a daunting undertaking for most homeowners, but I believe we were successful because we were thoughtful in our plan,” she says. “We offered a combination of native plants, shrubs and perennials to provide an aesthetically pleasing as well as functional wildlife habitat. The ‘understory,’ or native shrubs, provide habitat restoration for nesting songbirds.”

The property boasts a breathtaking view of the sunset over Buzzards Bay, and the colors of each night’s stunning display are only enhanced across the sparkling reflection of the ocean. Those colors are also prevalent in Hickey’s design, which curves—much like the crest of the waves beyond—along a pathway to the beach. At the bluff’s edge, Hickey added sand and beach grass for a seamless, natural look, that also serve to mitigate the offset required for the construction of the home. “We also incorporated these large rocks into the landscaping for watching the sunset over the water,” she says. “The sunsets here are just absolutely spectacular. 

At the base of the house, hydrangeas provide a pretty border around the elevated home. From the deck, the view of the border garden, and the handful of natural trees dotting the lawn, stretches out to the beach, where the gorgeous colors continue into the crashing waves of Buzzards Bay—waves that even during violent nor’easters have failed to uproot this garden from its precarious position. “It’s just so Cape Cod,” says Hickey of the project. The bordered pathway culminates in two beach chairs, side-by-side, looking out at the ocean—the perfect spot for an afternoon tan with a tantalizing novel or an evening spent under the stars. “Everything about this space invites you to sit, relax and enjoy yourself,” she says.

A complete transformation of your existing landscape is not necessary to achieve the subtle, Old World English charm of a border. Hickey says that utilizing existing shrubs, trees or structure as a backdrop to the border makes it feel naturally established. “It’s all about making it feel like something that’s been here forever,” she explains, and here on Cape Cod, maintaining the natural, historic charm of a landscape isn’t hard to do. 

Thomas Edison once said, “If we did all the things we are capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.” It’s something that “Capability” Brown ambitiously understood, and it’s something that Hickey has grasped as well through imaginative design and undeterred passion, implementing it every day across her beloved home of Cape Cod and showing exactly what this region is capable of.

Maria’s recommendations for border gardens

-Have a plan! 

-Add 50% compost and 50% loam to each hole to provide essential nutrients for continuous, long-term delivery of critical nutrition for strong roots, foliage and blooms

-Use low-maintenance, drought-resistant pollinator plants

-Add mulch to suppress weeds and hold moisture

-Combine horizontal and vertical flower shapes for visual interest (ex: Agastache and Echinecea)

-Repeat patterns to create a flowing border

To create a functioning wildlife habitat to attract nesting native songbirds, bees and butterflies, consider planting:


• Agastache

• Monarda

• Echinecea

• Sedum

• Liatris

• Achillea

• Phlox Paniculata

• Geranium

• Leucanthemum


• Lobularia

• Supertunia

Julie Craven Wagner

Julie Craven Wagner began her experience with Cape Cod Life in 2010 when she joined the sales team after 10 years of working with local businesses on the Cape and Islands with WMVY. In addition to sales, she is the Associate Publisher/Editor of Cape Cod LIFE, Cape Cod HOME, and Cape Cod ART. Growing up on the Outer Cape has given her a unique perspective of life on Cape Cod, from tip to bridge, and that is reflected in her appreciation and presentation of stories found within the pages of our publications. Julie lives in North Falmouth with her husband, Eric, and their yellow lab, Enzo. When she finds free time, she enjoys her Cape Cod life sailing on Buzzards Bay, spending time on the beach in Wellfleet, or exploring Martha’s Vineyard.