Three Centuries of Flowering
Cape Cod Garden / GARDEN Annual 2021 / History, Home, Garden & Design
Writer: Susan Dewey / Photographer: Mike Crane
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.”
Macort is obviously proud of the massed beauty of the perennial borders bursting on a recent summer morning with vivid red Crocosmia, stands of deep blue Campanula, mounds of bright yellow “Moonbeam” Coreopsis, starbursts of daylilies and yarrow, all enlivened by more unusual choices like the spiky, blue, Eryngium “Sea Holly” and dancing, butterfly-like Gaura in subtle hues of pink and white.
The beds are planted for multi-season pleasure filled with elegant bearded Irises, tall, pale pink Alliums, and drifts of peonies in the spring, some of which have been in the beds since Johnson’s grandfather’s time like the showy “Festiva Maxima” variety. When she is asked what her favorite flowers are, Johnson shakes her head. “That’s like asking which is your favorite child,” says this mother of two children and several grandchildren, who come frequently to this beloved family home. “Even though my color palette really is mostly blues and pinks, I do love brighter hued flowers like the Black-Eyed Susan ‘Autumn Colors’, and then there are certain things that my father loved, like the yellow daylilies when they bloom. Another favorite of mine is the purple and white-edged Lisianthus, which are blooming in an old bathtub beside the garage right now. They are so pretty and long lasting in a bouquet. And I just love the Gaura—and the balloon flowers. It’s so hard to choose a favorite!”
Macort notes that patience—and reliance on good old-fashioned compost applied on a regular basis with occasional applications of a well-balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer—are the most important attributes needed for the creation of beautiful, all-season gardens. “Homeowners see gardens in magazines and say, ‘I want that now!’” she says. “Gardening is hard—and it just takes patience and time. You have to know your soil, what the winds are like, and pick plants that work, or you’ll be all stressed out—you will wait all winter for flowers and then they won’t work!”
Macort notes that homeowners often fall victim to marketing promotions that promise impossible results, especially in Cape Cod’s challenging coastal environment. “I am thinking of the ‘Knockout’ roses,” she says referring to a very popular type of shrub rose often found in local gardens that she planted in the Johnson’s gardens several years ago. “When they came out, the nursery marketers said no insect will eat these roses. Well, everything gets eaten here in these gardens! You have to pick the right plant for the right place and if it doesn’t work either throw it out, or move it to another spot in the garden!”
A little tough love goes a long way towards gardening success, especially when it comes to watering, Macort notes. She doesn’t believe in the necessity for “drip irrigation,” where buried hoses wind through beds delivering water on a timer. “The holes are often in the wrong places with drip irrigation, far from the plants,” she says, noting that plants need to learn how to survive without straining the Cape’s precious water supplies. “I just don’t believe in babying plants—after a year they need to stand on their own,” she says, pointing to festoons of old pink and white roses on the arbor fence, some of which were planted by Johnson’s grandfather.
“I worked really hard to get the roses to look like that,” Macort says “People are often afraid to cut things down. I cut them down really hard. And those roses don’t have any irrigation.” A strong believer in healthy compost, she is not a fan of the mulching often seen to excess on Cape Cod gardens. “Mulch is not going to give plants nutrients,” she says. “In these gardens, mulch often just blows away, so it is not worth putting down.”
Several decorative garden touches add whimsy and fun to the perennial borders such as a colorful birdbath from Dennis’s Scargo Pottery, a clutch of twisty, swirly metal fans, and tiny solar-powered lanterns that Nancy Johnson says glow at night like fireflies. Like the archway which was installed in 2002 after a particularly nasty Cape blizzard ruined the original 1940s structure, plants and architectural features are often recycled, such as a large amount of the stones from the original fish pond, which was rebuilt and made wider so it could be seen from a large sun porch on the side of the house.
“Christopher Smith, our stonemason, also rebuilt the beautiful stonewalls along the driveway with the stones from the existing wall that had sunk into the ground over time and from stones he found in the fields and the woods,” says Johnson.
Nature sometimes makes decisions for the Johnson’s horticultural paradise such as when Hurricane Bob tore over Cape Cod in 1991, downing 30 of the towering Norway spruces that once lined Dunlukin’s driveway. The spruce were replaced with some pear trees that wind up from an entrance garden of Hydrangea macrophyla “Nikko Blue,” yellow daylilies, and Hosta to the house.
Macort notes that while the ever-present, vivid blue “Nikko” Hydrangea macrophyla have their place in Cape gardens, she prefers the paniculata varieties. “The ‘Quick Fires’ really are my favorite,” she says. “I just think they are the best Hydrangea going. With the ‘Nikkos,’ the big ‘mopheads,’ you have to do so much work cutting out dead wood, pruning them—they require so much maintenance. I also love the ‘Bloomstruck’ and ‘Limelight’ Hydrangea paniculata.”
Noting that perennials can thrive in mixed borders where their often smaller forms and fragile stems can get lost in masses of colors and shape, Johnson applauds Macort’s choice of adding flowering shrubs for structure and visual variety in the gardens. “One thing I really like is that Sarah chooses more than just flowers for the garden,” says Johnson. “She picks unusual shrubs, mixes in plants with great foliage, not just flowers. See how she has put that beautiful flowering Anemone next to the foliage of the Artemesia—and then that next to the Gaura? It just makes the whole garden so much more interesting.”
Johnson laughs when Macort looks out over the blooming, buzzing, dancing bright bounty at the heart of this precious legacy, this long-ago “hundred-acre wood.” “Of course, if I could—if I had my druthers, I would endlessly add more garden rooms here and there,” says Macort.
Johnson smiles and says she knows how very fortunate she and her husband are to live in this historic, horticultural wonderland where even the untouched woods yield such treasures as daffodils that bloom without care for decades and soaring hardwood trees with huge trunks hundreds of years old. “I have always loved this place ever since I was a little girl,” she says. “But I could never have kept it this beautiful without Sarah’s help.”
Susan Dewey is a former associate publisher and editor of Cape Cod Life Publications and the current associate editor of Cape Cod Garden. She lives in Centerville where she spends many magical Cape Cod moments with her family on the beach and in the garden.