The Secret Gardener

Sunken garden, circa 1910, with a reflecting pool, Italianate pergola, and crape myrtle-lined allées
Victoria Fensterer is seen in her element. Durell Godfrey

Victoria Fensterer has been reimagining East Hampton gardens for a long time. She came to attention here when she brought the grounds at the infamous estate known as Grey Gardens back to their former glory, and she has been focusing on secret gardens, from Amagansett to Quogue, ever since. 

“She designs her gardens as if she were an Impressionist painter,” remarked Richard Barons, the director of the East Hampton Historical Society. Although the gardens she designs are  integral to their landscape, she relies on spontaneity to allow gardens to have sculptural, natural, and even wild spaces.

One of Ms. Fensterer’s favorite recent projects was part of what was a sunken and walled Italian garden built by Frank Wiborg in 1910 on the East Hampton ocean bluffs.

Where there had been a fountain, Ms. Fensterer created an old-fashioned, rectangular reflecting pool with generously wide travertine marble coping to enhance the effect of a sunken garden. Part of the original walls were still there, as were two pergolas, and Ms. Fensterer added a third. 

By breaking through the wall behind one of the pergolas, Ms. Fensterer was able to unite the garden with the rest of the property. She redesigned and enlarged  the pergola so that it straddles the wall, extending from both sides, using cast-cement columns and large beams to fabricate an Italianate neo-Classical structure. Four of the original columns were intact, and she obtained four more that match. She planted two allées of eight 30-foot-high cryptomeria and highbush blueberries, white crape myrtle trees, and white Tardiva hydrangeas at one end of the allées, as well as white wisteria on top of the enlarged pergola. Hinoki cypress and fastigiate English yews frame it.

Ms. Fensterer expanded the brick terraces of the existing pergolas outward toward the opposite ends of the pool and re-laid the brick walkways in a herringbone pattern, using whatever original bricks were still good and connecting the walkways to each other. Arborvitae are planted at intervals along the pathways, giving them a columnar Italian feel. 

As a more rustic, playful counterpoint to the slightly formal feeling of the garden, the third pergola has an attached bench, with natural cedar and laurel branches, and with climbing Autumn Sunset roses and lavender clematis davidii. In the lawn between the pool and the new pergola she planted two gnarly old crabapple trees that frame the area. The original garden cottage complete with fireplace is intact.

One of Ms. Fensterer’s aims is to take nature into the garden.  It is almost as if within a delineated area she works to produce a microclimate with its own habitats and niches. “I really feel like I’m creating a symphony with these gorgeous notes,” she said. 

A romantic pergola was enlarged and a swimming pool and new plantings and walkways put in beyond it. Robert Eckholm
The pool is where the pond and fountain had been. Robert Eckholm
A photo from the Library of Congress shows the original garden house.
Another photo from the Library of Congress shows the circular pool and rose-covered wall in Frank B. Wiborg’s ca. 1910 sunken garden.
Workmen removing a section of the wall to connect the garden to the rest of the property Robert Eckholm