Gardens by the Sea

The diverse work of horticulturist Joyce Williams is displayed in these two waterfront retreats.

By Debra Lawless | Photography by Betty Wiley

Judy Cornwell likes to escape. On a bench behind an old shucking shed, Cornwell can’t be seen even from her Champlain Road cottage, not far away on a bluff above glistening Stage Harbor.

“Usually nobody knows I’m here with my coffee and a book,” she says, the sea breeze wafting through lavender plants, pulling the fragrance around her like an encroaching fog.

Judy is married to Bernard Cornwell, the internationally renowned author of many works of historical fiction. “For people with public lives, it’s a nice thing to offer them,” says Chatham ornamental horticulturist Joyce K. Williams, who designed the Cornwells’ private retreat.

Judy, followed by her King Charles Cavalier Spaniel Whiskey, leads me through her garden, pointing out a black cannon, aimed at Harding’s Beach, and a red pump. A brick memorializes a long-departed dog, Kippy. An open, right-angled seating area in an enclosed gazebo known as “the opera box” is where Judy likes to sit when her husband is watching football; it stays delightfully warm until Thanksgiving.

Bernard and Judy Cornwell are long-time Chatham residents. They bought this 10,890-square foot waterfront cottage in 2004. Judy Cornwell first saw the garden that would later become her own on a house and garden tour.

“I walked through and I thought it was the most magical place,” she recalls. “It wasn’t manicured. It was whimsical. That’s the way I wanted it to stay.”
The couple travels extensively on book tours, particularly in Bernard’s native United Kingdom. Since they own another house near downtown, during the summer Cornwell’s daughter and grandchildren live in the cottage. In the evening Bernard and Judy join them to dine in the garden.

As befits the family of a writer of historical fiction, this neighborhood has a pedigree. In 1606, 250 years after the setting of Bernard Cornwell’s latest novel, 1356, the French navigator Samuel de Champlain, whose ship needed repairs, landed within yards of here. That site is marked now with a commemorative stone.

After updating the cottage, the Cornwells brought Williams in to redo the garden. Judy told Williams to retain the whimsy and use “as many of the silly artifacts as you can.”

The couple had a few other requests. Bernard Cornwell said he didn’t like hostas. Both wanted lots of color, and a vegetable garden. Williams, who in the fall of 2010 won a merit award from the Association of Professional Landscape Designers for a garden she designed in Brewster, went to work.
When creating a garden overlooking a stunning water view, Williams imagines a picture in a frame, with the plants low, so as not to obstruct the view. The entire lot is about a quarter of an acre, and aside from the house, you travel among an extraordinary number of places: the garage, deck, gazebo, vegetable garden, beach stairs, shower. The paths lead you where you need to go, and “what was left over were the garden spaces,” Williams says.

A couple of miles north, around the Cape’s elbow, another sun-kissed seaside garden graces a historical house known as the Grey Ghost.
The homeowners bought this imposing 1887 shingle style house when the oldest of their three children turned 21 and the family began to contemplate a “multi-generational house.” The Shore Road property is set 90 feet above sea level and commands an impressive view along the coast from the Chatham Fish Pier and out past Tern Island to North Beach. From the third floor—which is reputedly the haunt of the ghost—the family can admire the church steeples on Main Street as well as the gardens down below.

“It’s our favorite place to be,” says the homeowner, whose main residence is in Wellesley. “There’s something about it that’s magical for our family.”
The homeowner and her husband are known for restoring old houses, and this one was ripe for renewal. Once the house project was well underway, they turned their attention to a garden built on the southern side of the property. Bounded on three sides by a fence and on one by the house, it created a “bowling alley effect,” says Williams, who was called in to design the gardens here, too.
There was a rock garden, a koi pond fed with water coursing down the rocks, and a swimming pool with an old and splintered wooden deck. Color provided by the plantings was intermittent, Williams recalls, and the koi were high-maintenance. Also, the area underneath the first floor porch, next to the pool, had a “dark, cave-like feeling.”

The homeowner envisioned something different—lighter, more colorful, more welcoming. “We wanted to create as much greenscape as we could,” the homeowner recalls.

First, up came the swimming pool deck. Because the grass now extends to the edge of the pool, the pool was filled with a saltwater mix that is friendlier to grass than chlorine. Away went the 24 koi to a new home. The area under the porch was painted the same clean light gray of the house to create a family gathering area in the shade.

“It provides a place to hunker down and sit by the pool,” the homeowner says, adding that it’s also a wonderfully sheltered spot when high winds are coming off the water.

To break up the monotony of the fence, Williams added five colorful garden beds. “From the family room, inside, you have a lovely view out across the pool,” Williams says. “It almost gives you that effect of zero horizon.”

Although Williams used many of the same plants as in the Cornwell garden—iris, alyssum, lavender, salvia, yarrow, Russian sage, ornamental grasses, sedum Autumn Joy, golden rod—the overall effect is very different. The garden at Grey Ghost has what Branson dubs a “refined elegance” in contrast to the Cornwells’ garden’s whimsy. Both gardens are “representative of the owners,” she adds.

But both gardens feature color from the spring’s bright jewel tones to the autumn’s rust-tinged hues. Up against the side of the house visible from the kitchen, Williams planted a new variety of hydrangea known for their beautiful colors: vanilla and strawberry.

The family plays bocce, badminton, and waterball on the expansive lawn by the steps down to the beach. “There’s nothing nicer than hydrangeas around the deck,” the homeowner says. When you’re most likely to be on the deck—the Fourth of July, for example—the hydrangeas are in bloom. Now the magical space is practical for the family as well.


Seaside gardening challenges
Anyone planting a windy spot in the salt air has a particular challenge. Williams met that challenge partly with hardy hydrangeas and ornamental grasses susurrating in the often fierce wind. On a breezy day the grasses sway, giving the garden movement. Another challenge comes from the sandiness of the soil, says Jeanne Branson, owner of Pine Tree Nursery & Landscaping in South Chatham. Branson’s crew is in charge of new plantings as well as the three-season maintenance of the garden. Because the garden is so near the water, Branson uses organic fertilizers.

Shading the deck has proven to be a challenge. A pergola built over the deck cried out for a vine. “The goal is for it to crawl up the pergola and across and fill in that area,” Branson says. But the winter winds, as well as a stray hurricane or two, have made it hard. Horticulturists say that vines “sleep, creep and leap,” Williams says. The trumpet vine planted here did something else. It “choked, broke and croaked, says
Bernard Cornwell.—DL