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  • Writer's pictureHeather Thomas

Get to Know Cape Cottage Garden

I recently sat down with Jane Murphy, President of the Garden Club of Princeton, who asked me ten questions about Cape Cottage Garden.


1) Jane: When did you begin the garden?

House with screened porch
In 2017, the back foundation beds were bare

Heather: I started Cape Cottage Garden in 2016, beginning with our East garden which runs along the side of the house. I began the back garden in 2017 after we installed a screened porch. It took a while for things to come together but by 2020, I can remember really feeling a sense of progress.

2) Jane: What got you interested in gardening in the first place?

Heather: My family is overrun with gardeners and horticulturalists! My father used to own a plant center in Florida where I grew up and was a landscape architect for a while. My mother has a masters degree in botany and started her career as a plant pathologist who diagnosed plant diseases. My aunt on my mother's side owns a tropical plant farm with a focus on orchids. My paternal grandmother was an extremely accomplished gardener as well. Being around all these plant people meant that I became horticulturally literate at a young age. When you grow up having gotten to play hide and seek in your aunt's huge professional greenhouses, got home from school and walked into a house filled with yellow National Geographic magazines on the bookshelves and watched countless episodes of the PBS show, Nature in the evenings with your family growing up, you can't help but grow into someone who appreciates nature.
Woman with shovel digging
2016: Heather begins the garden
When my husband and I finally put our urban lives behind us and moved to bucolic Princeton, my interest in gardening finally intersected with the opportunity to do something about it, and I began Cape Cottage Garden. Creating a beautiful garden just felt possible because I'd seen so many people in my family do it.

3) Jane: You have a lot of tulips in your garden. Can you tell us more about how that came about?

Heather: I grew up in some pretty tropical places - Jamaica and Florida. Even though I've lived in a northern climate now for over 30 years, winter is still a tough season for me. The period in late winter when the cold finally loses its grip, and signs of spring appear is pure magic. I celebrate every unfurling bud and every new tendril rising up from the ground.

Tulips are the essence of spring so what better way to celebrate my favorite season than to plant them? On a more practical level, the house we bought was fully fenced from deer so that meant I was able to transition from daffodils to tulips at that point and never looked back.
April 2016 - The First Set of Tulips at Cape Cottage Garden
The first set of tulips I planted at this property were a small 16-pack which I planted in the fall of 2015. They don't look like much in the picture, but believe me, when they bloomed in April of 2016, I was entranced from the minute they budded to the moment they faded.

4) Jane: How do you prevent your bulbs from being destroyed by pests?

Heather: We are absolutely surrounded by deer but luckily, our fencing keeps them at bay (for the most part)! To tell you a secret, our fencing isn't as high as it technically should be to keep our deer out. Our fencing is actually only about 6.5 feet high as its highest. I believe you need to be at least at 7.5 to 8.5 feet to keep them out. But don't tell the deer that! They could jump it but they generally don't (with a few nerve-wracking exceptions which I can tell you about another time).

As for squirrels, my strategies are threefold: I plant deep, plant late and leave no trace.

-I plant deep: I plant at least 8 inches deep which tends to be a bit deeper than the squirrels around here tend to dig.

-I plant late. I usually start planting in November and might run into December. By that time, the squirrels around here have done most of their foraging.
-I leave no trace: Several years ago, I read something that changed my thinking about squirrels. I learned that they are drawn to dig in dirt that is disturbed. Why is that? Well, they see that disturbed soil and think that another squirrel may have just left a nut there. I have found that if I smooth back the dirt after planting (and add mulch on top if I'm feeling really proficient), that this reduces the chance that my bulbs will be dug up. For example, out of the 2,400 I planted in the fall of 2022, only maybe 5 were disturbed by squirrels.

5) Jane: Do you have help planting the bulbs - and maintaining your garden overall?

Heather: Nope, I do it all myself. My drill-powered bulb auger really helps when it comes to bulb planting. As for the garden more generally, aside from having our excellent lawn people help me with edging, mulching and the occasional hedge trim, I do all the garden design, plant maintenance and garden care at Cape Cottage Garden myself.

6) Jane: What happens after the bulbs finish blooming?

Heather: I just deadhead the blooms and leave them in place for the foliage to ripen naturally. That's it. No digging them out, no worrying about them. I just think of them as annuals that may or may not come back.

One side note: if we have a wet summer, I've found that only 20% to 30% of them return the next year. But after the drought in New Jersey in 2022, I discovered that 80% of them came back. They finally got the dry conditions they like - which was the silver lining of the drought for me.

In most places in my garden, I've interplanted the tulips next to other plants that spread out when the tulips are finished and hide the dying foliage. Tulip leaves ripen much faster than daffodil leaves do, by the way. You don't have to live with them for long. If you plant the right sort of plants around them, you barely notice the dying leaves.

7) Jane: You obviously enjoy spring. What other times of year do you enjoy most in your garden?

Heather: Late spring when the clematis blooms along with the roses is a pretty breathtaking time around here as shown in the picture below. I am also warming up to enjoying the garden more in fall. I used to not care for mums, hay bales and pumpkins, but after making an effort to embrace the season last fall, I've have come around to liking them more recently.
Late spring at Cape Cottage Garden

8) Jane: What other gardens inspire you?

Heather at Monet's Garden in Spring

Heather: My all-time favorite garden is Monet's garden in Giverny, France. I've gotten to visit in twice so far - once at peak spring in April and once at peak summer in June. It's utterly painterly, utterly beautiful and I think it's a slice of heaven.

I also really love what British designer Jinny Blom has done in the garden at Temple Guiting, an estate in the Cotswolds of England. I haven't personally visited the garden but did drive achingly close to the town and estate a few years ago, so got a feel for the setting. It's on my list to visit some day.

As for spring gardens, I adore the work that Dutch garden designer Jacqueline van der Kloet did, along with homeowners, Loek and Anne-Marie Gubbels at Brookergarden in the Netherlands. That garden is right up my alley. Being part of the Garden Club of Princeton means that I get to visit all sorts of gardens with my fellow members. As you know, Jane, we're about to an visit an urban garden in New York city called Little Island next week with the club. I'm looking forward to seeing it. Being in a garden club filled with people who have as much dirt under their nails from gardening as I do means that I don't have to search to hard to find inspiration. It's so easy to trade notes and learn from everyone.

9) Jane: What do you enjoy most about gardening?

Heather: Getting to see other people enjoy the garden. When I opened the garden to friends and family for the first time in 2022, I was really surprised how many people enjoyed their time in the garden. One visitor who I ran into downtown months after her visit told me that she looked at the pictures she took every single day! This was months later. Even though opening the garden takes a lot of preparation, I feel like I have a civic duty to share it. If you are in a position to help spark joy for others, I feel it's something you should do.

10) Jane: What's next for Cape Cottage Garden?

Heather: This summer, the editor and chief photographer of my favorite gardening magazine, Garden Gate magazine are flying out from Iowa to photograph the garden. I've been a subscriber of that magazine for more than 10 years now, so it's exciting to think that my garden might appear on those pages. I also have to pull together a garden plan to fill in a shady bed in our south garden. Know of any plants that do well in dry shade? -Cape Cottage Garden is open to the public on April 29, 2023 from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm via the Garden Conservancy's "Open Days" program. For details, click here.
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Absolutely love your garden, Heather!! Very inspiring and magical. You've done an amazing job and I really enjoyed learning about the 4 C's that you apply to your garden design. Great interview w/Garden Gate Magazine - it's one of my favorite magazines too!

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