The Place of Personality in the Garden

Grasses and indigenous trees grace the natural landscape at the Perlbinder place in Sagaponack. Durell Godfrey

The Springs artist Margaret Kerr made an enclosed garden at her home and studio overlooking Accabonac Harbor using only plants and elements found in medieval cloistered gardens. Surrounding the house and scattered about the property are the brick carpets for which she is renowned. .

The late Jim Jeffrey, raised in Louisiana, brought a southern sensibility to his garden in East Hampton Village. A plantsman with an inquiring mind, Jim pushed the limits of hardiness with his camellias, grew hybrid delphiniums from seed, tried his hand at hybridizing clematis and clivia, and widely shared plants and knowledge. A lover of tradition, Jim championed our area’s famed shipwreck rose, Rosa celsiana, which reached our shores in 1842 when a French packet went aground off Mecox.

Both are gardens with singular personalities that express personal visions. Both, too, meet a recent call by Robin Lane Fox, the garden columnist for more than 40 years for The Financial Times and a classics don at Oxford University, to put the “ing” into garden. What he means is that we ought to participate more in the process of making and keeping our gardens. Sure, sinking your hands in the soil is what immediately comes to mind. But so too are the more theoretical and philosophical questions: What is your vision of paradise and how can you realize it or adapt it to your own half-acre or 20 acres? What is your borrowed landscape and how can your patch of land live in harmony with it?

Mr. Fox is rebelling against a trend in Britain to call in designers or landscape architects to order up a “garden” the way in olden times those to the manor recently acquired would order up books by the yard. This has happened in spades on the East End where cookie-cutter landscapes and gardens have become stage sets for celebrity-ridden benefits and summer parties. You may not be able to make a garden totally on your own, but seeking out a designer sensitive to the place and to your dreams may be the way to go.

Two landscapes on the South Fork that I have found particularly appealing can fool you into thinking nature is so perfect that man never touched it. One is at the Perlbinder house in Sagaponack that Norman Jaffe built in 1969. The second is Margo and Bob Alexander’s house, nestled into the rear of the dunes on Gardiner’s Bay, which was featured in The Star last July. Chris LaGuardia, based in Water Mill, designed the Perlbinder property and Thomas Balsley of New York has worked with the Alexanders since the house was in the planning stage 20-plus years ago.

Gardening is about process, is continually evolving, and never finished. A plant goes into the ground and sometimes thrives. It may do so well it needs to be moved before you know it. Often it dies: disease, deer, rabbits, voles, the enemies are endless.

Over the years, your needs and requirements change. The trees have matured and you have a shady site. The children are grown and out of the house; the swings and sandbox and the basketball hoop can be removed. You are suddenly left with new space. Your taste also may have changed: The traditional rose garden is no longer appealing or you may be inspired by something new by a magazine article or visit to another garden. A hideous house gets built next door and you want to hide it.

Fashion and style are as dominant in gardening as they are in clothing, architecture, and interior decoration. The trend, especially appropriate on the East End, is for prairie-style, naturalistic plantings. If your house is surrounded by open land, this could be perfect. But you should not feel compelled to have a naturalistic garden just because it is popular and stylish.

Fields are the borrowed view from the garden of friends in Bridgehampton. Because one partner is passionate about tulips and the other is oriented toward the formal use of space, they created a brick courtyard with planting squares edged in boxwood. Rose-covered fences and gates separate the space from the parking area and the rear garden. The tulips, which fill the planting areas and containers in spring, are replaced by herbs in the summer. It works, it’s dazzling and there is not a grass or prairie plant in sight!

Another current style in gardening is the use of native plants only, with the idea that they are more sustainable, a word with an amorphous definition. The plant police would have you believe that since native is good exotic must be bad, that they are invasive and destroy the habitat. Shall I be kind and say these are gross oversimplifications and exaggerations?

Yes, I know. I help tend the Mimi Meehan Native Plant Garden behind Clinton Academy on Main Street in the village, and I love it. A project of the Garden Club of East Hampton, the intent is to show in a public space that native plants can be used in colorful and beautiful home gardens. In my dreams, I punch it up with a few clumps of crimson and orange crocosmias and red hot pokers, both from South Africa.

Good plantsmanship can intermingle native plants with those from other countries in a way that suits the ecosystem as well as the design. Brilliant examples are the gardens on the High Line and in Battery Park in Lower Manhattan, designed by Piet Oudolf.

Let us not forget that gardens are the result of man manipulating nature to achieve aesthetic ends. One of the best things about your own garden is that you are the only person who has to love it and think it’s beautiful.


Margaret Kerr, an artist who appreciates the warmth and subtle colors of brick, used it in intricate patterns around a small pool and its water lilies in her Springs garden.Susan Wood