A Small Cottage Garden in Newburyport Extends a Warm Welcome
Karen Houston takes down the velvet rope and designs a garden meant for living
Some gardens dazzle with expensive landscaping, rare plants, or sheer size. Others impress by being the opposite: charming, unpretentious, intimate. They satisfy the eye and the soul. Karen Houston’s small, snug garden is one of those.
A passionate, self-taught gardener, Houston designed the space to grow the plants she had always wanted and be a serene retreat for her and husband Allan. She created a garden where they can linger, sip a glass of iced tea, and watch bees visit the flowers. “It’s our own private paradise,” she says.
The house and garden sit on a corner lot on a quiet street near the Merrimack River in Newburyport, Massachusetts. When the couple moved into the house in 2009, the not-quite-quarter acre was a horticultural blank slate. They salvaged a few mature trees and shrubs, but other than a lovely ‘Jane’ magnolia, a wedding gift to the previous owners, there was nothing remarkable about the property.
This gave Houston the freedom to create the garden she desired. Drawing on her years of experience, she designed a cottage garden that complements the 1917 shingled house and features plants she had longed to grow. “I have made sure that everything in the garden is something that I love,” she says.
The color scheme is purple and blue, with pink, white, and touches of yellow foliage. The beds that line the fence are filled with Salvia, Nepeta, and chartreuse ‘Angelina’ stonecrop. A ‘William Baffin’ rose scrambles over the arbor, chosen for its disease resistance and bright pink flowers that are visible from the street.
Color is not the sole criteria. “I owned a flower shop before our children were born, and I was all about the flowers,” Houston says. “It took time to transition from focusing on them to realizing that leaf structure, color, and size is so important in creating a pretty garden.”
Ornaments—urns, small statues, and a birdbath—are strategically placed throughout. Houston fills the urns with succulents or begonias and tops them with wire orbs for height and a bit of whimsy. Tall metal obelisks move wherever plants need support or if there is an empty space in a border. She uses natural and aged materials to add definition and rhythm to the garden’s overall look without drawing attention away from the plants.
After nine years and with every inch of ground planted, Houston still is not finished. She continually reevaluates the space from different perspectives to gauge the effect, even standing in the street and peering in at the garden.
“I planned the garden by standing in all different areas of the yard and along the street looking at the area from a distance,” Houston says. “I wanted people walking by to only see bits of it at a time. I wanted large swaths of color in parts of the garden but not all at once. Your eye needs to have some rest.”
She is fearless about moving plants as they outgrow their space and no longer look good with their neighbors. She does not hesitate to limb up trees to bring in more light or get rid of plants that are not thriving.
Houston’s garden does not sit behind velvet ropes. From pots of fragrant herbs on the back steps to a brick patio designed for dining, the garden is meant to be lived in.
Religious applications of compost keep plants lush and colors vibrant. Houston is a regular at the town’s composting center where she fills buckets—she easily makes 20 trips throughout the growing season. In spring, she uses an organic fertilizer to boost bloom and another specifically for the hollies and hydrangeas.
Houston’s garden does not sit behind velvet ropes. From pots of fragrant herbs on the back steps to a brick patio designed for dining, the garden is meant to be lived in. Her grandchildren romp in a grassy area, and family gatherings include impromptu ball games. “I don’t get too upset if plants get injured during play,” she says. “It will all grow back!”
Karen Houston thought long and hard about the elements she wanted in her garden. These are her must-haves:
- Color: Houston favors purples and blues, along with whites, pinks, and some yellow foliage for contrast. She partners chartreuse Sedum ‘Angelina’ with the deep purple spikes of Salvia ‘Mainacht’ (May Night) and a mound of light blue Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’.
- Fragrance: Scent is as necessary to Houston as color, so she added a Korean spice viburnum (V. carlesii) by the back door and ‘Miss Kim’ lilacs under the bedroom and breakfast nook windows.
- Texture: Gardens do not live by blossoms alone, so Houston added plants, such as Allium, Heuchera, and boxwood, that have interesting foliage, shapes, or textures.
- Heart: The garden is filled with plants that have special meaning for Houston, including peonies and irises that have traveled with her from house to house, gifts of sweet William and pinks from friends, and flowers that remind her of her parents, such as portulaca and pansies.