Creating Fields, Carving South Fork Landscapes

Michael Derrig
Michael Derrig Morgan McGivern

    When he was only 10, Michael Derrig’s mother bought him a circular saw.           “I built my first brick patio when I was 11,” the landscape architect and founder of Landscape Details in Sag Harbor said with obvious pride.
    When he was 14, his widowed mother would hoist a ladder onto her car and drive him to his weekend house-painting jobs. “I was always very entrepreneurial. I gave a fair price and got the job done. I got a lot of work that way.”
    These days, Mr. Derrig still gets a lot of work. Landscape Details, which he established in 2000, has been responsible for many private gardens on the South Fork, most notably a 50-acre estate on Noyac Path, which will be on two house tours this summer -– to benefit the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons and Guild Hall.
    The Noyac property was all trees when Mr. Derrig started. “We cut the grade, created the fields, set the plants and trees — all of it from the woods,” he said. “We were walking around with hand sketches of what should go where.” His eyes brighten as he describes the flower gardens, masonry, lighting, and specimen trees.
    Mr. Derrig is one of a few registered landscape architects on the East End, although the appellation is sometimes used by those without degrees, he said. Becoming one was no easy feat, he said. He grew up in New Jersey, and his study in the landscape architecture department at Rutgers University culminated with a three-day test on everything from grading and drainage to design, which he described as grueling.
    Landscape architects often go into civic or corporate work, and Mr. Derrig did. He put in time at college campuses, ballparks, and zoos. But a visit to the South Fork astonished him and changed his direction.
    “When I saw the amount of trees. . . .” He trailed off, his face filled with the memory common to those in his line of work when they first see the many species that grace many of the area’s estate neighborhoods.
At the time, Mr. Derrig and his wife, Dwyer, were living in a “14-by-20-foot studio with a six-foot drafting table,” he said.  When a job offer came along, he and his wife packed up their 3-month-old daughter and moved. “People thought I was nuts,” he said with a laugh. “It’s like I was giving up this great career path to be a gardener. But I’m a landscape architect who actually landscapes. That’s what I tell people.”
    After working with Renner Landscaping, which was based in Sag Harbor, for a few years, Mr. Derrig went out on his own. “I didn’t have much,” he said. “A pickup truck and a couple of mowers.” But he saw an opportunity to provide maintenance as well as design and installation.
     “I really like to keep working with a client, to act on their vision, to add to it, and improve it,” he said.  He has been working on the Noyac Path property for 10 years now.
    “It’s amazing how intelligent my clients are,” he said. “They’re thoughtful, and they learn about landscaping very quickly. I guess I never really expected that. You learn to appreciate the good ones,” he said.
     Mr. Derrig also builds houses. “It’s a passion,” he said. He hopes that the builders he works with when designing landscapes don’t think he is competing with them. “I just love building stuff,” he said.
    Mr. Derrig says there are few regions like this, where people love and care for their outdoor spaces as much as indoor ones.
    “I came out for the love of trees, and I stayed when I saw how much people on the East End put into their landscaping, and the level of architecture and design. It’s pretty exciting.”