Text by Tovah Martin
The 300-year-old cottage that Robin and Dan Sears bought boasted many quaint characteristics, but a garden was not on its “lovable list” at the time of purchase. “Overgrown yews pretty much summed it up,” recalls Robin. The home’s brown exterior was also not the scene’s shining feature. All of that changed dramatically in 2001 when Robin—an artist and avid gardener—adopted the ¾-acre property on the North Shore of Boston,Massachusetts, whipped out her favorite exterior paint (Benjamin Moore’s “Yellow Lotus”), and put her planting spade into action.
As far as she could tell, a garden was never in residence, and the clean slate was actually somewhat liberating—she was not constricted by previous flowery episodes. Being community-oriented, Robin wanted to produce a spectacle that would thrill the whole neighborhood. So, rather than following the typical American tradition of tucking her garden discreetly around back, she went for a more overt approach. At first, flowers ruled the front arena, but with a revamp, Robin took a maverick turn and combined kitchen ingredients into the front yard. Although the garden strikes as a traditional quadrant layout (with much more profusion installed), a closer inspection reveals that beets, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, broccoli, and many other edibles are part of the brew. Maybe the veggies are a little more crowded—and therefore less productive—than farmers’ generously spaced versions, but the harvests are nonetheless scrumptious.
Color is Robin’s hallmark, and she applies it liberally. In sync with the yellow house, she works primarily in a palette of pinks and yellows. “But I tuck in an occasional bright orange because a spark just works in such a big blast of color,” she says. “There’s not a whole lot of restraint here.” Her secret for harmony? She uses “clear, clean colors.” If a flower turns dingy at any time in its lifespan, she banishes it to a less prominent location. “Dirty colors don’t earn a happy spot.”
Because Robin wants flowers producing prolifically and over an extended period, her garden relies on annuals with verve. When the spring bulbs finish and after the early crops of arugula, lettuce, and radishes are eaten, she co-opts their spots for dahlias (everything from the immense dinner plate types like ‘Kelvin Floodlight’ and ‘Otto’s Thrill’ to her new infatuation, pompom types, and singles grown for the bees’ benefit), zinnias, four-o’clocks, marguerites, cosmos, and similar reliable annual performers with pizzazz. “I’m into quantity—I want to pump out as much color as possible.” Perennials certainly make cameo appearances—especially herbs, daylilies, bee balm, phlox, and salvias. Plus, surprise volunteers, such as the hollyhocks that tuck themselves between the stonework, are also welcome. “But I rule,” Robin says. In other words, she decides who stays. Shrubs with history, including lilacs and climbing roses, are also part of the progression.
A white picket fence forms a tidy hem for the whole package—like a ribbon around a gift. And Robin brilliantly stages a series of various small animal statues on the fence posts to add yet another whimsical touch to the prevailing magic. Meanwhile, Robin spends so much spare time in the garden that she is able to enjoy one of the main perks that her garden inspires. Every child who strolls down the street identifies each statue out loud. “There’s squirrel, fox, skunk, turtle, pig . . .” the kids say as they walk along. Eavesdropping on the sparked wonder gives Robin as much thrill as the riotous flowers and veggies that dwell in her domain. She plants more than blossoms; she also sows memories for a whole lot of little neighbors.