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Three Centuries of Flowering

From the 1600s until today, this ancient Orleans ‘hundred-acre wood’ has flourished in hands that cherish the land with patience and love.

Traveling down the long, winding drive shaded with towering Norway spruce trees to Nancy and Elliot Johnson’s Orleans home, you feel as though you are journeying back in time. Passing through rambling walls crafted with old pasture stones, you reach a large rock as the driveway rises up to a stately home surrounded by bountiful Hydrangea and sturdy, established evergreens. Hand-carved initials of centuries of homeowners and the dates of their lives decorate the rock, a testament to the love generations of Cape Codders have felt for this ancient and very scenic place. 

“JS 1660” are the oldest initials, the imprint of Jonathan Sparrow, who in the 1600s received a land grant here of 100 acres from the King of England. For 200 years, Sparrow and his descendents tilled and toiled in these wind-swept meadows rolling down to Mill Pond, Robert’s Cove, and the ocean beyond breaking on Nauset Beach. In the 1800s, Captain Benjamin Sparrow (1839-1906) built the spacious colonial perched like a clipper ship on a hill shaded by huge elms. Sparrow distinguished himself as a superintendent in Orleans’ famed U.S. Lifesaving Service.

In 1942, Nancy Johnson’s grandfather, Edward Y. Neill, bought the old house and surrounding acres after searching for a Cape Cod retreat from the hot summer days in Winchester. Honoring the Cape and Islands’ long tradition of naming seaside getaways with poetic, whimsical names, he and his wife, Carrie Louise, christened their summer sanctuary “Dunlukin.” “My grandparents knew they were ‘done looking’ once they saw this beautiful place,” Johnson explains.

Johnson shares an album of old black and white snap shots capturing the Dunlukin she knew in the late 1940s and 1950s as a young girl spending summer vacations with her grandparents. There are shots of the 34 spruces along the driveway, of wide-open fields lined by Cape Cod’s ubiquitous scrub oaks and white pines. A white picket archway with roses frames Johnson’s grandfather as he stands like a sentinel in the entrance to this wild, untamed place of long grass waving in salt-whipped winds. 

Johnson explains that both her grandparents loved to garden, brightening summer tables with her grandfather’s fresh vegetables and her grandmother’s cherished cutting flowers, Dahlias, Zinnias, and snapdragons that grew in four large beds encircling a fish pond. Her grandmother died when she was five, but she had years of cherished outdoor moments with her grandfather, a successful Boston wool broker. “My grandpa’s vegetable garden was a good size,” says Johnson. “He grew all kinds of vegetables. He always complained that the minute the summer corn was ready, the raccoons would eat it!”

Today, this spectacular seaside landscape is an undulating tapestry to the sea of stunning perennial gardens that surround and open out beside a picket archway still festooned with decades-old roses just as it was in Johnson’s grandfather’s day. There are a series of garden rooms from a shady oasis with Hosta, Hydrangea, ferns, daylilies, Hellebore, Sedum and bleeding heart to several sunny beds filled with shrubs and perennials from A to Z, a rainbow of flowers and foliages alive with bees and hummingbirds.

Brewster’s Sarah Macort of Sarah Macort Landscape Gardening is Johnson’s constant gardener, who for eight years has come for six hours every summer week to love and nurture Dunlukin’s landscape. As she walks through the four main perennial beds that spread out before the house, it is obvious that this is a labor of love she shares with Johnson.

Macort says the relentless salt wind blowing in off the water with variable ocean temperatures can make gardening in this location challenging. “We have lost plants in the past because they just weren’t right for this landscape,” Johnson notes.

“The wind can just howl here,” agrees the tanned, lean Macort, who spreads her arms wide encompassing several gardens and borders full of perennials, acres of carefully mowed lawn, and deep woods that fill with spring and summer wildflowers like Phlox, purple asters, Queen Anne’s lace, goldenrod, blueberry bushes, and grapes growing wild and free. “There are also a lot of old-fashioned daffodils that have been there each spring since I can remember,” says Johnson.

“It’s hard to garden sometimes with such a big space,” Macort says, admitting that despite such challenges, she is often tempted to put in yet another bed. She is often lured by new perennials like a petite, delicate pink “Drumstick” Allium she points to, or her favorite Hydrangea paniculata, the white flowered, red-stemmed “Quick Fire,” a hardy variety that delivers with intricately beautiful, “lacecap” flowers as well as low maintenance needs and a long-lasting bloom time. 

Elliot Johnson laughs when he describes the fruitful partnership between Macort and his wife that frequently consists of weekly consults in the gardens. “Whenever I see them out there with their hands on their hips, talking away, I know that my budget is in trouble,” says Johnson, who met his future wife at the tender age of 15. His wife says that her husband’s contribution to this landscape sometimes called “Cape Cod’s most beautiful garden property” by admiring friends is constant care of the enormous lawn that stretches from all around the house and gardens to the Mill Pond beach. “He just loves mowing,” she says with a smile. “Sometimes I feel like he is a cowboy out there on the range, riding his horse.”



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