Gardens by the Sea

A Cape Cod landscape designer meets the challenge of an oceanfront location head-on.

By Janice Randall Rohlf | Photography by Katherine Jackson
Landscape design & Installation: Sweet Earth Landscapes

New plantings mingle with transplanted ones to achieve a more mature look than is normally possible in such a short time.

When Christine Mann first took a look at a property in Truro named Grey Dunes, she zeroed in on two things: its endless daisies and its great potential. Fortunately for Mann, the owner of Sweet Earth Landscapes, both the plenitude of blooms (even if they were mostly all the same) and the hint of a bright future for this spot were attributes she could work with. “I love totally transforming a property,” she says with a soft-spoken but firm assurance that leaves no doubt that she means what she says.

It was this quiet confidence, along with a local garden center’s strong recommendation, that convinced the homeowner to hire Mann for the job. His was the first project she undertook this spring, and in five weeks’ time the landscape went from neglected to thriving. “I knew the gardens needed love and attention,” says the homeowner, according to whom the house was kept up but not the yard. Returning to Cape Cod after 30 years in Los Angeles and used to its balmy climate, he admits to “taking for granted” things like year-round color in landscapes. Even so, it was love at first sight. “The house found me,” he says, explaining that he spied it on the cover of a local real estate magazine and was intrigued. In addition to the main house, there are guest quarters above the garage and a boathouse, all on three acres, plus 200 feet of private beach.

Stenstrom Stoneworks designed and installed the new walkway.

The homeowner’s desires were relatively modest. “He wanted to walk out the door and see beautiful flowers, and he also wanted to be able to use them in arrangements,” says Mann, who is joined by her four adult children in coordinating the many facets of Sweet Earth. A former business that she owned, Classic Landscaping and Garden Design, counted properties in New Seabury and the Ridge Club among its larger accounts, and completed 21 garden installations, tiny to large, in a single year.

This Truro garden would be more intimate, designed to complement the timeless feeling of the house whose classic weathered look belies its 15-year-old age.

Divided among three “islands,” new plantings mingle with transplanted ones to achieve a more mature look than is normally possible in such a short time. Where there was once a loosely defined grass swath leading uphill to the house, a crisp-edged path interrupted by three stone steps curves enchantingly among shrubs and flowers. Elsewhere, a rotted wooden walkway was replaced with natural cleft bluestone and cobblestone edging. Mann’s son Jack, of Stenstrom Stoneworks, who designed and installed the new walkway, wanted it to look as if it had been there a while.

Pink astilbe and blue hydrangea pair well together.

Previously existing hydrangeas were the jumping-off point of Sweet Earth’s design scheme. “My goal was to start with the fluid blue waves of the hydrangeas and pop in other plantings of interest,” explains Mann, who also kept some sedum and butterfly bushes. Partial to perennials that are long-blooming, she added salvia and catmint—which flower again after shearing—and astilbe, allium and roses. When using plants that flower only once per season, she takes into consideration what they look like after their bloom times, and she likes to mix vertical plants with mounding varieties. Dahlias and Russian sage are two of her picks for late-season color. “Normally, many of these plants wouldn’t be placed so near the ocean,” points out Mann, but a lot [of the yard] is protected by the house. It mostly gets sun and late-afternoon shade.”

An artist who does hand-drawings of her installations, Mann has a particular appreciation for the beautiful leaf color of perennials like spurge, coral bells and mountain hydrangea. These varieties figure in the Truro gardens, along with one of the landscape designer’s favorites, diabolo ninebark, which she says has a dark maroon leaf that offsets the colors of the other blooms.

Like Mann, the homeowner has an artistic streak, which is expressed in part by creating floral arrangements, and he says he is looking forward to a time when he no longer has to buy cut flowers. “It’s always been my dream to have a garden where I wouldn’t know where to look first,” he says. “Christine has achieved this.”

Mann includes roses of all varieties in landscapes as often as she can.

Mountain hydrangea has a high sun tolerance and leaves that turn from maroon to green.



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