Tour the Classic, Charming Gardens of Nantucket

Beloved for its beaches, lighthouses and local bay scallops, Nantucket Island off the coast of Massachusetts is also home to gorgeous gardens.

June 16, 2020

Photo By: Jamie Holmes

Photo By: Jamie Holmes

Photo By: Jamie Holmes

Photo By: Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism/

Photo By: Jamie Holmes

Photo By: Jean Cawley

Photo By: William DeSousa-Mauk

Photo By: William DeSousa-Mauk

Photo By: Michael Galvin

Photo By: William DeSousa-Mauk

Picture-Perfect Hydrangeas

Thirty miles off the Massachusetts coast, Nantucket is known for its lighthouses, sand dunes and deep sea fishing. As summer unfolds, the island's gardens take center stage, stealing the spotlight with romantic blossoms. One of Nantucket’s famous bloomers —hydrangeas — glow with rich hues, thanks to the mild maritime climate. A cool, temperate summer coupled with enveloping fogs coaxes these shrubs to open larger-than-life blooms that look this good in mid-July. Acidic soil gives rise to the stunning blue shades.

Front Yard Garden

Nantucket residents are passionate about their gardens, cultivating every square inch possible to deliver season-long color. Many gardens feature formal hedges to corral the rambunctious flower power of mophead hydrangeas. Locals coddle hydrangeas by giving them a spot that pairs morning sun with afternoon shade. Island soils tend to yield blue flowers, but Nantucket gardeners also rely on a few tricks to shift medium blue blooms to brilliant blue or blue-pink tones. In spring after watering soil well, they apply aluminum sulfate, elemental sulfur or iron sulfate.

Rose-Covered Cottage

On Nantucket, high-flying roses perform like trapeze artists, defying gravity as they clamber up walls and scamper across rooftops. Strong ocean winds limit tree growth, so climbing roses provide needed vertical interest in gardens. A cedar trellis supports the roses. Stainless steel screws attach vertical trellis pieces to house and roof, with horizontals placed on top to provide air flow between rose canes and wooden surfaces. Trellises can easily be removed — with roses attached — to permit home repairs. The climbing roses responsible for Nantucket’s rose-covered cottages include 'Dorothy Perkins' (miniature double pink blooms), 'American Pillar' (single deep pink) and 'New Dawn' (large double light pink).

Storybook Charm

Cottage gardens reign supreme on Nantucket, the perfect complement to historic homes where whalers once dwelled. The fishing cottages nestle close together in town, leaving limited space for lush gardens. Climbing roses and window boxes take advantage of vertical surfaces and lift color to eye level. For durability, cedar is the wood of choice for window boxes, supported by wooden brackets (bolted into studs) and built with an open bottom. Plastic window box liners drop into the box and provide a cozy growing environment. This window box overflows with violas in purple shades, which pair perfectly with a purple cranesbill geranium beneath.

Pocket Garden

Late June and the first of July are when roses typically achieve peak bloom, although flowers linger into mid-July. Even the tiniest fence gardens like this one burst with bold hues, combining roses with clematis, cosmos and Asiatic lilies. Locals refer to fence plantings as border gardens.

Cozy Courtyard

This pretty Nantucket courtyard features a comfy bench, billowy purple catmint (Nepeta) and purple smoke bush (Cotinus).

The Chanticleer

The Chanticleer restaurant (shown here) is located in Siasconset (‘Sconset to locals), which is the place to visit if you want to spend a day strolling and savoring rose-covered fishing cottages. The entry arch to The Chanticleer features another island classic: Nantucket privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium 'Nantucket'), the go-to plant for hedges of all sizes, from knee-high to 7-foot privacy enclosures.

Seasonal Plantings Sparkle

Container gardens throughout Nantucket's Downtown Historic District adorn the cedar-shake and brick buildings with cheerful color that changes through the seasons. Spring starts with daffodils, honoring the island's annual Daffodil Festival, held the last weekend of April. Pansies come next, followed by summer annuals, autumn mums and Christmas evergreens. The unpainted cedar shingles are classic Nantucket architecture, aging to graceful shades of silver and gray.

Window Boxes Welcome

Built in 1837, Main Street in Nantucket has a quaint ambience with cobblestones and window box-festooned shops, businesses and restaurants. On the shady side of the historic street, these window boxes feature annual plantings of pink- and lavender-toned impatiens skirted with blue lobelia.

Native Plants Deliver Color

The Old South Wharf on Nantucket features planting beds that reflect the island's conservation ethos, featuring hardy native plants that stand up to salt spray and prevailing winds. Prairie natives gold coreopsis and wild indigo (Baptisia) fill this small garden with steady season-long color, along with Timothy grass (Phleum pratense), a Eurasian grass that was mistaken as a native back in 1711 when a farmer found it growing along the Piscataqua River in New Hampshire. The rose of choice for wharf area plantings? Rugged rugosa roses, which stand up to salt spray.

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