A garden by the sea in Chatham offers panoramic views and breathtaking scenery.By Debra Lawless • Photography by Betty Wiley
On a summer afternoon, the sky is a deep blue with a few white clouds over Oyster River. A sailboat drifts by, heading toward the waters of Stage Harbor. Across the river, on the barrier beach, the Stage Harbor Lighthouse shimmers in the heat.
This is the setting for a gorgeous garden overlooking one of Chatham’s most stunning spots.
“If you can get undulating coastline, you’ve hit the lottery,” says David Hawk, president of Hawk Design, a landscape architecture and land planning firm in Sagamore who designed the landscape at this home. “The view is always the biggest reason people choose a certain property. This one is quite breathtaking.”
This Shingle Style house and its garden are at the end of an unassuming, narrow road—one where a visitor is likely to get lost. Behind the house is a salt pond that creates open vistas wherever you turn. John DaSilva of Chatham’s Polhemus Savery DaSilva Architects Builders, who served as the principal designer of the house in 2006, refers to this property as “the house at the bend in the Oyster River.” In talking about the view, he mentions, too, “the enormous sky,” and the “drama and power” of the sky and water. Because there are no tall trees, the view is panoramic, and this, combined with the natural jaw-dropping beauty of the place, presents a major challenge for the garden designer.
“Our goal was to do justice to a beautiful piece of land,” says Hawk. “You don’t want to take away from the view.”
From the beach below the house, you have no idea that the garden is just above you, basking in the sunshine. A buffer of natural plantings on the low bluff separates the beach from the garden above.
“That was by design,” Hawk says. “We wanted separation and some privacy. But we didn’t want to block the views.”
As the house sprang to life, so did the garden. The garden connects the indoors with the outdoors, the house with the water. Hawk designed everything “from the doorknobs out,” and began with a basically clean slate.
The homeowners wanted a perennial garden, and Hawk placed that on the west side of the house, where it would be enjoyed through a bedroom window in a private area, using an old privet hedge as a backdrop. For this garden, Hawk chose hardy perennials, saying they “created the feeling you were walking through an English garden.”
On a summer day, Olivia Beane and Megan Moreland, gardeners with D. Schumacher Landscaping, which manages the property from its Chatham office, are deadheading and trimming cosmos, purple salvia and pockets of low Russian sage in a bed circling a flagpole.
In the clear golden light of summer, the prevailing colors are green, pink, yellow and white. There are drifts of purplish lacecap hydrangeas and bluish-purple Rozanne geraniums. Early in the season, there are stunning blue and pink lupines, and late in the summer, Joe-Pye weed attracts butterflies. In the autumn, the rusty reds of sedums and ornamental grasses will prevail as the days grow shorter and the sun less intense.
“Each separate bed really has its own personality,” Beane says. “We need hardy perennials that won’t bend, so it is tougher.”
Every year, the owner chooses a different color theme for her annuals. Last year’s colors were blue, white and pink. You can see these colors cascading from the large urns set by the house and the terraces.
There are beds of pink Fairy roses and white Knock Out roses. A little earlier in the season, there are dark blue Siberian irises, and later, yellow Stella de Oro daylilies. Spirea and Russian sage are planted together to “pop the landscape out,” Beane says.
Looking at the garden as a whole, you notice that almost everything curves. Stone steppers in the lawn offer distinct paths to follow. Steps also lead down to a dock on the river.
“Without the lawn, you wouldn’t get the pop of the colors and even the foliage—the different greens,” Beane observes.
In addition to the perennial garden, the owners wanted intimate spaces—for the spa and the firepit—and open terraces for meals and entertaining. To create these, Hawk took advantage of the land’s natural slope and placed the various gathering places on different levels. Glass doors open from the house to a terrace under a pergola. Here, a dining table and chairs overlook the perennial garden, and yes, the view. A patio is built lower, in the grass, of irregular stone that reinforces the undulating theme.
“To make it intimate, we circled it with plants,” Hawk says.
It is easy to imagine spending a lazy summer afternoon watching the sailboats gliding by on the river. It is equally easy to imagine a gathering of people in colorful summer clothing enjoying cocktails on the terrace. After dark, the gardens are illuminated with subtle lighting.
“Family life usually dictates that there are times for quiet contemplation and also important gatherings,” Hawk says. While Hawk could have combined the spaces for these diverse activities into one, he didn’t. Nothing is over-scaled, there is no grand terrace. “We tried to create an outdoor room situation.”
It is not uncommon to experiment with plants, to see if they thrive in a certain environment. The coastal buffer bed was replanted after the rest of the gardens. It was originally a single row of grasses, and “the grasses that were there were pretty high,” Moreland recalls. The tall grasses were replaced with lower grasses.
The west end of the yard keeps a natural, Cape Cod look with Queen Anne’s lace and a mix of indigenous wildflowers as it tapers down to beach grasses.
Any garden near the water will take a beating during storms. No matter what the designer may plan, salt spray and bracing winds from the water will always add their own wildcards to the garden.
“Mother Nature does sculpt this site to her liking,” Hawk says.