From a cutting garden in Southampton to a fruitful plot in Bridgehampton to a romantic patch on Shelter Island, the Hamptons offers a wealth of garden styles, as wild—or as manicured—as the designer's imagination.
Amanda Ross in her secluded garden in Southampton, designed by Edwina von Gal. “Nobody would ever imagine that around the bend from this narrow road there would be such an oasis,” Ross says.
It's so unexpected!” says fashion editor Amanda Ross about her secluded garden in Southampton. “Nobody would ever imagine that around the bend from this narrow road there would be such an oasis.”
The Hamptons is no more than a narrow spit of land jutting into the Atlantic, yet behind its tall privets lie some of the most stunning gardens in the country. If California is where the American garden tradition diverged from that of Europe, the Hamptons is where the hearty outdoor lifestyle of the English aristocracy became the ultimate American dream, with a vast lawn at its center. Today, old and new fortunes, a sandy loam soil, and a healthy spirit of competition combine to produce the area’s magnificent gardens, as wild and unchecked or as meticulously maintained as the owner’s imagination.
In the 17th century, local farmers and fishermen planted simple square gardens in front of their cottages. But whaling wealth and the first railroad from New York City to Sag Harbor transformed the area in the mid-19th century from farmland to summer resort. Throughout the Gilded Age, gardens expanded from humble plots to often ostentatious displays. Unlike Newport and Long Island’s North Shore, the Hamptons (Southampton in particular, a social annex of New York for the city’s beau monde) favored naturalistic gardens—with large lawns peppered with flower beds, pergolas, and topiary hedges—over Italianate walled gardens.
Frank carrying her favorite flower, peonies. “I didn’t want that insanely perfect garden,” she says, “but even an unmanicured garden takes a lot of work! It’s like getting a haircut without looking like you just got it cut.”
This golden age of English-influenced gardens came to an end with the imposition of personal income tax, the Depression, and the Great Hurricane of 1938. After World War II, many large oceanfront estates were sub-divided, parceled, and sold, and eventually the East End fell out of favor. But in the 1970s, a new wave of second-home construction began in the Hamptons, when many financial, design, and fashion industry leaders started to build summer residences here, although at a more modest scale. Hamptonites stopped looking just to England or Italy for inspiration, letting their global travels inform their eclectic styles. In recent decades, East End gardens have grown in proportion to burgeoning wealth, but this time with an eye toward respecting and protecting the local environment.
Amanda Ross’s husband, Zack Bacon, found his perfect beach abode in 2012. For Ross, it was love at first sight—not just with Bacon, but also with his romantic Southampton garden, created by Edwina von Gal, an East Hampton landscape designer who for years has been championing naturalistic landscapes and the planting of native species. Near the entrance, von Gal used cinnamon ferns, which shine bright against dark-green topiary shrubs.
By the side of the house is an orchard and a cutting-flower garden with apple trees and peonies. The spaces are designed to be intimate but also to blend in with the surrounding native shrubs. As local gardens move away from exotic plants that require constant fertilizing and pesticides, Long Island nurs- eries are carrying a wider selection of native shrubs and perennials. For fruits and vegetables, environmentally conscious gardeners usually favor heirloom cultivars that are well adapted to local climates and naturally pest-resistant. You can have your native grasses and eat your peaches, too. After all, what makes the Hamptons such a rich environment is that it’s not too tightly bound by convention.
Martha Baker surrounded by a patch of lythrum in her garden on Shelter Island. “The combination of flowering plants, water, and sailboats as the backdrop is magical,” she says. “Foggy days are beyond magical!”
When creating her garden, Martha Baker, a landscape designer based in Dering Harbor, Shelter Island, used its views of the Peconic River as the focal point, but not overtly. An arbor covered in clematis, which opens onto a narrow path leading to the bay, gives visitors a sense of mystery and discovery. At the end of the path, she installed thatched umbrellas, an outdoor fire pit, and lounges. “The combination of flowering plants, water, and sailboats as the backdrop to the garden is magical,” says Baker. “Foggy days are beyond magical!”
Marigay McKee in her newly planted formal parterre garden, surrounded by boxwood and conical topiary trees.
To complement her stately old Shelter Island manor, Baker cultivated a romantic garden with meandering red brick paths that connect her green rooms. Her rose, lavender, sedum, and pampas grass beds extend almost to the water’s edge. It’s a settler’s garden, but reimagined and magnified.
Much of what we see in the Hamptons today represents the amplification and simplification of existing concepts. After British fashion entrepreneur Marigay McKee moved to the East End, she quickly planted both British and American flags on her sweeping Southampton lawn: Her garden’s influences are decidedly British, but its scale is American. “The driveway has 20 crab apple trees flanked by 12-foot hedges on either side, and it’s surrounded by 20 acres of fields,” McKee says, “so the views are spectacular from every angle.”
Pink peony roses in McKee's garden on an old brick archway at the house’s side entrance.
The original garden was planted 30 years ago, so landscape designer Joe Tyree used the existing trees to give the new garden magnificence. When McKee started working with Tyree, she sent him 225 photos to convey her vision, especially of the Cotswolds, a rural area of south central England that’s famous for its topiary. “The common theme throughout is our love of topiary,” McKee says. “We planted 500 round buxus balls around the courtyard, the south purple garden, and the white pond garden. They are the soul of our formal gardens, which are surrounded by lindens and maples.”
McKee and her shih tzu Coco in the topiary pond garden.
“Sculptural” was a new element that author Jamee Gregory added to her decades-in-the-making garden in Southampton. Taken with the work of landscape designer Craig Socia when visiting interior designer Jamie Drake’s house while writing her book New York Parties, Gregory allowed Socia to reimagine her own landscape, which she admits had become a little over-run with plants to which she was emotionally attached.
“He cut back a lot of my perennials, he made the beds half as big as they were, he made the whole property look twice as wide, and he put in this massive planting of beautiful annuals so there would be color all year,” says Gregory. “It’s quite extraordinary how he transformed [the garden], and I was just thrilled with the things he interjected into it. It’s the palette that I always have—pink, white, and blue—and many of the plants are the same plants that I’ve used, but he masked them in different ways and changed some of the patterns.”
McKee's entrance driveway lined with crab apple trees.
The biggest transformation, however, was at the entrance to the house, where Socia added a double hedge, osmanthus plants, and close to 60 deer-repellent boxwood balls. “The front of the house is the antithesis of the back—the back is my wonderful English garden, but in the front I got this wonderful new creation that’s absolutely fascinating in the way that light and shadow play on these balls,” says Gregory. “I love the contrast because it’s unexpected and more dramatic.”
Diana Frank, a photographer from Michigan who now divides her time between New York City and Bridgehampton, designed her garden in defiance of Hamptons formality. She started 10 years ago, transforming what was essentially a flag lot with clippings that she brought from her family home in Michigan. She introduced peonies as seedlings, and now they’re her favorite part of the garden because they have naturalized and spread. “I didn’t want that insanely perfect and organized garden,” says Frank, “but even an unmanicured garden takes a lot of work! It’s like getting a haircut without looking like you just got it cut.”
New York Parties: Private Views author Jamee Gregory worked with landscape designer Craig James Socia to add a sculptural element to her entryway, planting nearly 60 (deer-repellent) boxwood balls.
Slowly and with the help of her friend Christine Harmon, a landscape designer, Frank planted a garden that is greatly influenced by her photography, with layers of textures and colors and even fragrances that are “meant to stimulate all senses,” she explains. “All around the garden, I created nooks where you can sit with a glass of rosé, meditate, or just sit quietly with a book.”
This year she is experimenting with a wide variety of lettuces in her vegetable garden, in addition to heirloom tomatoes, eggplants, and the arugula that she lets get tall and bloom. “I’m a country girl who married a city boy,” Frank says. “We welcome friends and make a freshly picked salad that is still warm from the sun. It’s a very happy place.”
Photography by Costas Picadas