When droves of New Yorkers fled to their second homes six months ago, all it took was one look at their gardens to realize it wasn’t summertime in the Hamptons.
Not even close.
There were no hydrangeas in full bloom, or roses blossoming, or lush green lawns. The beautiful landscapes they had taken for granted from Memorial Day to Labor Day were not a reality in the harsher winter months, they quickly learned, at least not without a little imagination.
“By and large, it’s always been the seasonal community and seasonal mindset, in terms of landscapes,” explained horticulturist Alex Feleppa, sales manager at Whitmore’s Tree Farm in East Hampton. “Historically, it’s funny, things like magnolias that bloom March and April, we have gorgeous selections but never sold them because people weren’t out here yet.”
The longer the COVID-19 pandemic ticks on, the more vacation homes are turning into primary residences — and the requests for show-stopping gardens through all four seasons are following suit, according to Jackson Dodds, owner of Jackson Dodds & Company in Southampton.
“It’s certainly been a great opportunity for landscapers, guys like me, arborists,” he said. “I think this year, the homeowner sees the full effect of what goes into their garden, and it’s not just for a few weekends, or for a big party. It’s the patience that people have had in watching their gardens go through each blooming cycle and it has given them a greater appreciation for it — just really slowed everyone down.”
At the same time, those who expect instant gratification when crafting a year-round landscape are in for a rude awakening. The process takes time, care and creativity, which cannot be rushed. It is both a science and an art.
The first consideration is bloom sequence, which charts when certain plants, trees and shrubs will flower and pop during the growing season, Feleppa said. While the aforementioned hydrangea are often thought to be the start of the summer, classic springtime combinations — such as peonies and azaleas, as well as star magnolia, rhododendrons and witch hazel — can create points of interest long before then.
For examples and endless inspiration, he always encourages amateur and veteran gardeners alike to visit Madoo in Sagaponack, Bridge Gardens in Bridgehampton, and LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton, where he previously worked and led the “First Blooms of the Season” tour.
“I’d end the tour walking through the witch hazel collection,” he said. “That’s in full bloom in March, so you’ve got oranges and reds and yellows exploding down the golden path, and it was the perfect way to end the tour because people are like, ‘I had no idea.’ You get that shot of color and you get that interesting medicinal smell of witch hazel to enliven another scent.”
Another option for springtime color is planting perennials in pots, which have a better chance of overwintering when moved indoors during the fall and winter, according to Valinda Valcich, co-owner of Mickey’s LawnScapes in Montauk.
“Then, in the summertime, we transplant what was in the pots to the landscape, to give you that visual interest,” she said. “In the glory of summer, it’s about annuals and maintenance.”
Transitioning into fall, bronzing ornamental grasses grab the spotlight before the landscape settles into a calm, tranquil winter scene. “Not many people have really experienced the winter out here and how quiet it becomes, and I think there will be creativity driven by that,” Dodds said.
“We can project what it’s like in December, and that’s all holidays and festive, but deep into January and February, it’s pretty quiet out here and there’s only so much you can do with the landscape,” he continued. “Unless we get snow, which we haven’t had for the last two years, it’s pretty stark and there are some unique evergreens that can be planted in the fall for that winter interest.”
In the winter landscape, bloom sequence tends to matter less than structure and shape — for instance, is the tree upright and narrow, wide and weeping, or somewhere in between? — texture, often as it pertains to leaf size, and even color.
“People forget that green’s a color in the landscape,” Feleppa said. “Everybody thinks that flowers are the only color. It’s like, no, not really. Evergreens can provide great variety of color.”
The Scots pine, with its orange-hued bark and blue needles, provides great interest in a wintertime garden, as do the structures and branching of Japanese maple and apple and pear trees when they lose their leaves.
“If the sky’s the limit, you can talk about beech trees and weeping beech trees,” Feleppa said. “Each one of those takes on its own identity. A big, gorgeous weeping beech tree, there’s nothing like it.”
Homeowners who know they will be sticking around past Labor Day will have to wait until then to prepare their lawns and gardens for the fall and winter, Dodds said. It is simply too hot right now to plant anything new. Earlier in the season, though, both his and fellow landscaping companies saw a huge uptick in screening materials from anxious transplants who needed their privacy.
“Typically, the landscape fills in and gives you that screening,” Dodds said. “They just weren’t patient. When they first came out, everyone’s lives were turned upside down, so they were looking for instant screening, and they weren’t ready to wait for the landscape just to fill in naturally.”
As for the garden itself, it does not always need to be flowering in order to be beautiful, Dodds emphasized, pointing to the unique structure of specimen trees and unexpected blooming cycles during the fall and winter.
Patience is key, he said, and in the meantime, don’t be afraid to bring the outdoors in.
“I’ve seen a lot more people in their gardens this year, which is great,” he said. “I’ve regularly said, instead of just cutting and throwing out the flowers — which is common, because they’re usually not flowering the next time people come out — cut them and bring them inside the house, and enjoy them inside the house. The hydrangeas, they’re phenomenal this year, with the mild winter that we had, one of the best years that I’ve seen. And not to enjoy that in the house would be a shame.”
For those spending more socially distanced hours in the backyard, consider installing a water feature or a fire pit, even an exercise circuit that incorporates both structural and plant materials, explained Mike Sperber, owner and president of Nature’s Guardian, Inc. in Southampton.
“The other possibility is to create microclimates,” he said. “You actually enclose an area so you have a warmer environment. If it’s on the south side of the house and it’s full sun and it’s well sheltered, in February on a 40-degree day, it’ll get 60 to 65 degrees in there, and you could sit there and read a book.”
An even more hands-on approach is planting a vegetable garden, which Elizabeth Linker of Hedges & Gardens in East Hampton has notably seen on the rise. One of her clients even planted one on the ocean, which was sadly destroyed by a recent storm, she said.
“I felt so bad, I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “For a lot of people, it’s about feeling a sense of security, and there’s also something about nature that brings you back to the basics. Just being outside in nature is a freeing experience and I’m so glad that so many of my clients are realizing: get off your phones, unplug and just reconnect.
“Listen to a tree. Listen to a rustling tree. Lay down under a tree and look up, and that will give you so much calmness and spirituality. That is the greatest healing power,” she continued. “I’ve been doing this my whole life and I still will lay under a tree and just look up at the leaves and go, ‘wow.’ And even the plants that I’ve planted, it makes me so excited to see them thrive.”